|My Neighbors The Yamadas|
|Written by Tara O'Shea|
|Tuesday, 16 August 2005|
If your only familiarity with Studio Ghibli are epic fantasy films such as “Howl's Moving Castle,” “Princess Mononoke” and “Spirited Away,” then you might be taken aback by Takahata Isao's “My Neighbors The Yamadas (Houhokekyo tonari no Yamada-kun).”
First of all, the film is drawn in a very cartoonish style found more commonly in France or the U.K. than in either America or Japan. Gone are the rich detailed background paintings and realistic character designs that almost all Americans – anime fanboys or just casual viewers –associate with Japanese animation. The characters and their homes exist on white, much like a child's drawing on newsprint or a newspaper comic strip. It so happens that “Yamadas” was adapted from Ishii Hisaichi's long-running newspaper strip. The ink-wash colors were done by computer and give the film a very distinctive look, which quickly grows on the viewer.
“Yamadas” is a series of vignettes, punctuated by haiku (narrated by David Ogden Stiers) about modern Japanese life seen through the eyes of a typical suburban Tokyo family. The father Takashi (Jim Belushi in the English language dub) is a slightly harried businessman. His wife Matsuko (SNL's Molly Shannon) is a housewife who seems to only have a talent for cooking noodle dishes. Their son Noboru (Spy Kids’ Daryl Sabara) is in the process of taking his exams as well as having a crush on a girl at school Nonoko (Liliana Mumy) is the baby of the family, who seems the sanest of the lot. Rounding out the cast is Shige (veteran voice actor Tres McNeille) as Takashi's mother, who lives with the family.
The adventures (which include losing Nonoko in a large shopping center, Shige taking on a neighborhood biker gang, Takashi and Matsuko battling for control of the TV remote) have a gentle sense of whimsy, which are appealing despite the differences between Western and Japanese life. The humour is more along the lines of newspaper strips such as “For Better or For Worse” or “Foxtrot” than “The Simpsons” and “Family Guy.” Surreal elements such as giant snails might occasionally throw the viewer at first, but all in all, this is an enjoyable family film.
The look of the film is flawless. The colour palette is mostly muted pastels that give the film a watercolor look. The transfer appears to be perfect, with no artefacting to be seen, as one would expect from a Disney release. The sound mix contains no real surprises, though at times the score seems to overpower the voice tracks slightly. If you are not distracted by subtitles, the original Japanese voice cast is far and away superior to the dubbed tracks, with much of the humor that’s been “lost in translation” restored once the actors are freed from obsessively trying to match the lip-flaps, allowing the English dialogue to be translated much more faithfully in the subtitles.
The disc is light on extras and, per usual, the lion's share of the extras consist of trailers for other Disney Studio Ghibli releases. There’s a "Behind the Microphone" feature, which concentrates on the celebrity stunt-casting with interviews with Belushi, Shannon and the kids, leaving McNeille as Grandma out of the picture (also per usual). The storyboards are a treat for the animation geeks out there, but rather than being presented along with the vocal tracks (as with “Spirited Away”), these instead come in slideshow format.
Lacking the epic quality of the recent Studio Ghibli releases, “My Neighbors the Yamadas” more than makes up for this with its distinctive visual style and heart-warming portrait of family.