Here is a terrific movie poster for My Neighbors the Yamadas. It's design is bold and colorful, but also a bit abstract. This suggests a certain difficulty in selling the movie to the general public. It's remarkable to think that Isao Takahata continued to push the boundaries of anime well into his 60's. It's all the more remarkable that he chose to follow Miyazaki's epic blockbuster, Princess Mononoke, with the comic strip humor and zen graphic design of Yamadas.
Don't you get the feeling that Takahata was trying to rebel against Ghibli's new status in the movie world? The studio had been known for quiet, almost low-key personal films. Then Mononoke exploded in Japan, and it's success suggested a new tension for where they should go. Should Ghibli stay true to its roots, centered around personal storytelling, wrapped in Italian Neorealism and the French New Wave? Or Should Ghibli create expensive, lavish epics, indulging Miyazaki's creative excesses every step of the way?
I've given this much thought, and I think there may be some truth to this theory. It's remarkable to me how completely different My Neighbors the Yamadas is from Mononoke, seemingly deliberately so. The movie's visual style, with spare splashes of watercolor accenting the frame's negative space, is nothing short of miraculous. But if you wanted to see another enormous spectacle after Mononoke...well, you would have been disappointed.
The movie went over budget and over schedule. The official reason is the studio's shift from paints and traditional cels to computers. But no doubt creative tensions were present, as you would expect when two legendary filmmakers share the same roof. Whatever happened during the this time remains a mystery. Yamadas was finally completed and released in the summer of 1999, where it faced two blockbuster movie events - Star Wars Episode 1: The Phantom Menace, and the first Pokemon movie. Takahata didn't stand a chance. Yamadas tanked at the Japanese box office and was the studio's greatest financial failure.
When the dust had finally settled, Isao Takahata had stepped down from directing. He created one short segment, only one minute long, for the 2003 anthology film Winter Days, but that remains his only work in a decade. What happened? Did Takahata go into semi-retirement, as he himself has said, or was there more? Was he pushed? What tensions exist between him and his lifelong friend, Hayao Miyazaki?
Perhaps I'm thinking too hard about this topic. It may be just as Takahata has said, that he wanted to step down and focus on other things. He has been instrumental in bringing foreign animation to Japan under Ghibli's banner, helping to expand the company brand as well as expose Japan to great films from around the world. He has written and lectured on Japan's rich history of scroll painting, something he points to as a direct ancestor to anime and manga. And he has made public appearances and given lectures throughout the world. And Takahata has been in the planning stages for his next feature film at Ghibli, an event that has been eagerly anticipated for many years.
It's so easy for us to take advantage of these great artists. But they're not young anymore. Most of the old Toei gang from the 1960's has either retired or died. Of that group, only Hayao Miyazaki, 68, is still making films. Isao Takahata is now 72 years old, and if he manages to complete his next film, he will be around 75. Sooner or later, the rest of us are going to have to make our peace with mortality, and be thankful for the many great works these artists have given us.
And if My Neighbors the Yamadas is indeed Takahata's final feature film, I wouldn't mind. It's a spectacular film, visionary and ahead of his time - the perfect companion piece to Horus, Prince of the Sun. And the movie's ending, the lavish and comically tweaking song-and-dance number, has a bittersweet Abbey Road quality to it. It's as close to a final curtain call as you're likely to see in the movies.
daniel thomas Categories: my neighbors the yamadas, posters, takahata