Isao Takahata: Endless Memories
Part VI: My Neighbors The Yamadas

by Dawn H.,

Part VI: My Neighbors The Yamadas

Five years after the release of Pom Poko, Isao Takahata released a new film with the Ghibli name that looks nothing like any other Studio Ghibli production before it, or after it: My Neighbors The Yamadas. While the movie appears wildly different from Takahata's previous works on the surface, if you dig a little deeper, it has more in common with them than you might assume.

For starters, much like Only Yesterday, My Neighbors The Yamadas is Takahata's adaptation of a slice of life comedy manga of the same name focusing on the daily life and misadventures of the entire Yamada family. Similarly to the original manga, youngest daughter Nonoko starts the film by introducing her family to the audience: her salaryman father Takashi, her housewife mother Matsuko, her older junior high school-aged brother Noboru, her sarcastic but loving grandmother Shige, and the permanently grumpy family dog Pochi. But rather than the film focusing on one single narrative, again Takahata takes a turn from the standard Ghibli playbook and instead gives us many vignettes of the characters throughout--highlighting the many highs, lows, mistakes, and little triumphs of family life.

While this seems like an odd choice for a movie adaption, the film holds together by Isao Takahata highlighting incredibly relatable situations the family members get themselves into. Even though the Yamadas are a pretty standard Japanese family, when you get down to the basics, you'll always see the similarities we all share. Who out there hasn't overslept and forgotten something important? Or argued with a family member over who gets to watch the TV? But what makes these special isn't just how recognizable the situations are: infused in each little story, Takahata draws out the empathy of the characters by using traditional Japanese imagery and poetry. One that always stood out to me, from later in the film, was Takashi trying to bravely stand up to some bikers menacing the neighborhood. It ends not so successfully; and as he sits on a park swing, contemplating the event and cradling a construction helmet he'd been wearing to seem more intimidating, we hear a haiku by Basho: “How cruel, a grasshopper trapped under a samurai's helmet.” It's through these moments, we feel we get to know what the Yamadas are truly feeling. And though things like these haiku are very Japanese in nature, the feelings they evoke are truly universal.

While the vignettes of My Neighbors The Yamadas are rarely connected by story, they start feeling connected by the themes we see brought up throughout the film. The clearest being that the people we call our family aren't always perfect, but we love them just the same. And while the movie might not have a look that appeals to everyone, hallmarks of Takahata's previous works are still very much present in it. Similarly to Only Yesterday, many scenes are animated with soft colors and backgrounds kept to minimal. But where Only Yesterday did this to convey a dreamy sense of memories, The Yamadas does this so you can mentally fill in the blanks with your own personal idea of what home looks like. “The setting is the space in which we live that is familiar to all of us,” Takahata states during production. “For this reason, we have drawn only the bare necessities, so as to leave space as an implicit presence.”

But when Takahata choose to go all-out with a scene, it didn't disappoint. After years of Hayao Miyazaki rejecting the idea of animating more with computers, Takahata took that first pioneering step, making My Neighbors The Yamadas the first Studio Ghibli film to be painted entirely through digital technology. Through this technique of digital watercolor-style painting, even years later the movie can still dazzle audiences with its use of color design. A scene near the end of the movie in particular, where every character joins in a heartfelt version of “Que Sera Sera” is an expression of pure joy. With Japanese lyrics written by Takahata himself, the screen is suddenly overloaded with scene after scene of beautiful color and movement as the Yamadas & their friends sing a song of how even though they don't know what the future holds, as long as they have each other, they'll make it through somehow.

I like to think of My Neighbors The Yamadas as the bridge between Only Yesterday and his final film, The Tale of Princess Kaguya. We even get to see a scene with Nonoko as the little baby princess found in the bamboo, after a scene where her older brother is portrayed as Momotaro—the “Peach Boy” another very popular Japanese folktale. Maybe including that scene in the film was what inspired Takahata to go on to make The Tale of Princess Kaguya years later, using a similar but more refined animation style that he had started using with The Yamadas. While My Neighbors The Yamadas had all the spirit and heart fans know and love from not just Studio Ghibli, but Takahata himself; it didn't do well at the box office in Japan, despite praise from most critics. To me, I see My Neighbors The Yamadas as yet another work Isao Takahata tried to infuse with the best of himself while trying things outside of his comfort zone. It may not always hit the bullseye, but his heart and spirit still shine through absolutely.


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