I originally saw My Neighbors the Yamadas in the theater in Japan. It immediately became one of my favorite Studio Ghibli films for a number of reasons: its story style was unique, it was funny, it offered insight into the Japanese culture and mythology, and the animation was gorgeous.
Many people I know dislike or are ambivalent about this film. Isao Takahata, the director, presents the story in a vignette style. There is no overarching plot. Each story depicts an aspect of Japanese family life, including a trip to the store, dealing with neighborhood nuisances, and giving a speech at a wedding. Even though I lived in Japan for only three years, I could see so many parallels to daily life there.
My Neighbors the Yamadas overflows with humor. Subtle humor, slapstick humor, humor only Japanese (or those who’ve lived there) will understand. I was at least chuckling through the entire film. Takahata is a master at comedic timing, and this film showcases that talent. One of my favorite moments was at the end of the film when Nono-chan’s teacher explains her motto in life. Truly priceless!
The references to Japanese mythology and culture were all over. The births of the Yamadas’ children drew on Momotarō and the tale of the bamboo cutter. The opening scene, depicting Shige (the grandmother), begins with a hanafuda card. Several of the scenes address traditional roles of husband and wife in a Japanese home, often with hilarious results.
One aspect I enjoyed the most was the brief haiku between many of the segments. Famous works by Santōka, Bashō, and Buson. Each was carefully chosen to fit well with the segments near it in My Neighbors the Yamadas.
One criticism I have heard of the film is the way it presents Japanese families: the characters are too stereotypical, the film places too much emphasis on the importance of a family, and it presents the characters in an unflattering light. I found these items to be strengths rather than drawbacks.
The characters really are exaggeratedly stereotypical, but this serves only to highlight important aspects of the individuals. Every person has flaws, but that helps to make life interesting. It also allows our family members to help us when we may fall short. Takahata really emphasizes the importance of the family in society, even (and perhaps especially) if the families are flawed. Love can flourish despite the challenges faced by everyone.
In My Neighbors the Yamadas, Takahata wanted everything to have a delicate watercolor feel, and he succeeded magnificently. I loved the look of the film, which would have been impossible even a few years prior to its release. Many of the scenes were painted in as part of the animation, which made me feel like I was watching an artist create something beautiful.
I love this film, and I very strongly recommend it to anyone interested in Japanese culture. It has so many interesting facets. The music by Akiko Yano is awesome, and the message of My Neighbors the Yamadas is wonderful. Watch it with your family.
Release Date: July 17, 1999 (Japan)
MPAA Rating: PG
Original Title: ホーホケキョとなりの山田くん (Hōhokekyo Tonari no Yamada-kun)
Language: Japanese, English (subtitles)
Alcohol/Drugs: 1 (smoking, brief social drinking, underage drinking)
Language: 1 (brief mild, deity)
Nudity: 1 (baby boy)
Sexuality: 1 (Noboru trying to buy gravure idol book)
Violence: 1 (slapstick violence, threatening talk)