Rated PG. This movie will catch you off-guard. Tonally, the movie is possibly one of the most innocent films I've watched all year. Because it is based on a Japanese comic strip, it feels very much like a series of Peanuts jokes about wacky characters within a family. But for about one minute of film, the movie implies that the son is trying to sneak porn past his parents. My kids weren't paying attention, nor was my wife. I just let the moment pass. Also, Dad smokes too much. PG.
DIRECTOR: Isao Takahata
It was my family movie pick and I just have all of the luck. This was a potential movie earlier during quarantine, but it lost out to Pom Poko, a movie about raccoons with giant genitalia. But with HBOMax hosting all of the Ghibli movies (Okay, a lot of the Ghibli movies) is one of the great joys of the service. Admittedly, we own a lot of them, so it almost seems like a moot point. But I've mainly seen the Miyazaki entries, so My Neighbors the Yamadas was a wholly new experience for me. And let me tell you, it was delightful.
I mean, I didn't know what was going on for the first few minutes. I had heard of the movie from the title and a single image, so that was the only understanding of what this movie was all about. Really, I know that Regal Cinemas have been doing Studio Ghibli screenings with the Fathom Events, so that's the bulk of my knowledge about the movie. My wife and I quickly picked up that this felt like a series of comic strips put into movie format and that made all the difference in the world. It's kind of funny, isn't it? I'm sure that My Neighbors the Yamadas depends on your schema and cultural background. I'm sure that if someone from a country free of the influence of Charles Schultz (it sounds so ominous when I write it that way!) would be completely overwhelmed by watching The Peanuts Movie. I guess the same could be said about trying to jump into the deep end of My Neighbors the Yamadas. There's a family dynamic that is clearly established before we started watching. The first fifteen minutes were absolutely bananas.
Because the movie kind of throws you into the deep end of the ocean, there is this very surreal vibe to the film at first. Honestly, the first few minutes --and this probably is a stretch --felt like the film Koyaaniqatsi. It became this emotional experience versus a conscious experience. Takahata focuses on this very specific art style that feels like a watercolor painting. I think he did the same thing with The Tale of the Princess Kaguya. But there is something remarkably serene about the whole thing. It's not like I didn't laugh. I suppose one could laugh at serenity. But the movie starts off by playing up the aesthetics of the piece as a whole. Coupled with the fact that many of these scenes really employ a phenomenal understanding of juxtaposition when it comes to the use of Japanese poetry, it feels like a very comfortable low stakes film.
It's odd to see a children's movie ultimately about nothing. There are no high stakes in Yamadas, just looking at family dynamics. Yet, there isn't anything disjointed about the film as a whole. It's not like we're just binging a whole bunch of minisodes of these characters. There's an emotional throughline of the film. We get to experience the quirks and joys of every character. Perhaps the movie does have a bit more of the sitcom characterization behind every character. The father is short-tempered, but well-meaning. The grandmother is bossy. The mother is frazzled. The son is a bit of a problem child. The daughter is adorable. But by clustering the stories into character clusters, we get these emotional connections to these characters. I wouldn't go as far as to say that they are alive or anything because they do seem fairly simplistic when it comes to the real family dynamics that exist, but they are real enough to bond with.
What ultimately is created is the understanding that there is joy in the mundane. Yeah, the characters bicker, but My Neighbors the Yamadas is really a celebration of domestic life. Despite the fact that the characters are annoyed by their situations constantly, there's something enviable about the quietness that the Yamadas experience. They are only subconsciously aware of their own joy and that's pretty fantastic. Sure, the father is constantly at work, but he finds value in nature and the skies. Mom is flustered, but she sure enjoys her cookies. This is a tale of blessing without saying the word blessing. It would be easy to argue that the problems that the Yamadas have are problems of privilege. But really, there's something so zen about the whole experience that it never really feels snobbish. These characters envy what they don't have, but it never really becomes a driving force for them. Instead, it is about the little things in life that they can't see, but we do.
My Neighbors the Yamadas is a pretty solid movie. There's something about Studio Ghibli that is more about the experience than it is about the content. If I tried telling you what this movie was about, I really couldn't. Instead, I simply consider it to be a balm. It is relaxation and comfort put into an hour-and-a-half film. It doesn't feel long. It doesn't feel short. Yes, it should be actively watched, but it doesn't hurt the brain to do so. I really liked it.
Film is great. It can challenge us. It can entertain us. It can puzzle us. It can awaken us.
Mr. H has watched an upsetting amount of movies. They bring him a level of joy that few things have achieved.