Photos - My Neighbors the Yamadas

I am very often a champion of the underdogs, so much that I almost reflexively defend any I see. Perhaps my mind is just skewered a little left of the dial, or perhaps it's still my youthful rebellion that forces me to find and discover art that lies off the beaten path. Whatever the reason, I'm a great champion of Isao Takahata's last feature film, 1999's My Neighbors the Yamadas.

I don't know if this movie has a following, or if it becomes overlooked by the flashier Miyazaki films. It's very interesting that Yamadas directly followed the blockbuster Mononoke Hime; they're almost complete opposites, as though Miyazaki and Takahata encamped themselves firmly as successors to Akira Kurosawa and Yasujiro Ozu. And no doubt that shocking difference had an effect on the Japanese box office.

But I believe this is a great movie, and it has proven itself to be a visionary one as well. This was the first film created entirely on computers, as Ghibli painstakingly moved away from animation cels for good. The watercolor look was a revelation, and truly unlike any other anime. Interesting, then, that this more painterly approach, this storybook design, continued to grow and flourish for many years on Ghibli's short films, including the works intended for the Ghibli Museum. With Ponyo, that unique "hand-painted" style returned to feature film with breathtaking results.

The narrative structure of My Neighbors the Yamadas may be another sticking point for some, but I found it to be a revelation. Far too many movies are shackled to a conventional three-act script, when many movies - comedies especially - would be better served by a shorter structure. This is really an anthology, like the stacks of Calvin and Hobbes or Peanuts books sitting on your shelf. Various themes are approached and assembled, and Takahata changes the tempo every once in a while to hold your interest. And the two spectacular full-color sequences that bookend the film have a wondrous, careful lyricism. These are the most musical of Takahata scenes.

The final lesson at the end - "Don't Overdue It" - is not only ironic, because it comes during the lavish musical song number, it's also Takahata's quiet rebuttal against Miyazaki's frenetic epic. Mononoke's tagline was desperate,! Live, dammit, live! You've never given up on anything in your life before, don't give up on me now!!

Hm.....don't overdue it. And with a wink and a nod, Isao Takahata retires from filmmaking, ceding the director's chair exclusively to Hayao Miyazaki, who then ushered in his grand epic period (Mononoke, Spirited Away, Howl) and spectacular worldwide success for Ghibli. There's an interesting story about what went down during the long production of Yamadas. Sooner or later, someone will have to tell it.

Until then...more fantastic screenshots from My Neighbors the Yamadas.


Justin said...

Amazing film. Love the subtle comedy. One of those films that's got a few out loud laughs but mostly just keeps you smiling throughout.
Also think the narrative structure is really fresh. Helped make the simplified visuals succeed in a feature length.

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