My Neighbors the Yamadas

What is anime, anyway? Is it an artistic style or a particular type of plotline? Although we fans tend to say it's any animation made primarily in Japan with Japanese authors and crews, I'm not sure we really have the full picture of the industry. Plenty of shows don't fit the Americanized ideal of anime and thus never reach the US, including classics like Doraemon. Sometimes, they are considered too local, containing many jokes only the Japanese would really appreciate; others look "cartoonish" and wouldn't attract audiences used to the vaguely realistic style typical of anime. Thankfully for those of us in the US, we're now able to see one movie that fits both of these qualifications and is still being released here -- My Neighbors The Yamadas -- as part of the Studio Ghibli/Walt Disney deal.

My Neighbors The Yamadas is an unconventional movie. It's essentially a bunch of vignettes inspired by a long-running comic strip by Ishii Hisaichi, and it feels more like a Peanuts special than something based on a manga. It's done with simplistic art styles painted in watercolor -- a technique that I think might be harder than it looks -- that jump out at you like the funny pages. The stories concern the Yamada family: father and salaryman Takashi, motherly Matsuko, their two children Noboru and Nonoko, and Grandma. Their family is just like everybody else's, really. There are no amazing adventures or stunning tragedies, just slices of life. Of course, real life can be funny and poignant, and My Neighbors The Yamadas is an inside look at what a Japanese family is like...for the most part.

I'm going to come right out and say it: this is my least favorite Ghibli film. Does that mean it's bad? Absolutely not. It's a load of fun at times. But before I convince you of all the good things about this film, I have to tell you why it gets the rating it does. It's too bloomin' long. Because there is no overarching story, just essentially random bits and pieces over a 100-minute running time, it becomes a bit excessive. Had the film clocked in around 75 minutes, I would probably give it a better grade. In fact, if you watch the movie in two or three sittings, enjoying several vignettes and then returning later for more, you'll probably find it a wonderful experience. But the movie could essentially have been broken up into 10-minute bits and shown as short features on television, and it would probably play better that way. There's a reason why most animated family features are under 90 minutes, and director Isao Takahata would have been wise to follow their lead. Even if you really like the Yamadas, they overstay their welcome.

But if overlong, Yamadas has unique sequences well worth seeing. For example, a section where Takashi confronts some local biker punks in and effort to get them to quiet down goes into a sketchy realism completely different from the comic strip style. There are plenty of little bits like this where the animation really stands out. The watercolor design alone is quite a sight, even if you aren't thrilled about the "cartoon" setting. This show carries on the Studio Ghibli tradition very well in presenting an audience with something they've never seen before. It's also possibly the funniest thing in the Ghibli canon. Although Pom Poko has some hysterical bits, its final third gets quite serious. This is, as far as I can recall, Ghibli's first straight comedy, and I hope that Takahata attempts more films in the humorous vein. A few jokes don't work, particularly not if you're unfamiliar with Japanese customs, but most do.

Disney's dub is a bit of a revelation, being yet another recent title where the English language cast is every bit as enjoyable as the original Japanese voice actors. Although James Belushi has made a name for himself recently playing gruff but lovable dads, his characterization of Takashi is superb, remarkably low-key to fit the atmosphere. He also does a good job in certain scenes where the dub is made a tad bit more "Western-family friendly." In one sequence, Takashi comes home after what appears to have been a night out drinking with his co-workers (something that is almost a cultural ritual in many white-collar jobs in Japan.) Belushi pulls it off perfectly, playing Takashi in such a way that kids will take him at his word that he's tired after a long day of work and adults will understand the underlying subtext. Meanwhile, Molly Shannon does so well with the character of Matsuko that I had no clue who was voicing the part until the credits rolled. The kids' roles are also superbly handled. Work like this makes me think that anime dubbing is not only possible but also potentially preferable when done well. My kudos to the whole English dubbing crew.

Something I noticed was the English dub's softening of certain concepts for American audiences. They aren't major changes, but minor things to soften the impact of some sequences. Takashi tends to be harsher towards his family in the Japanese version. Whether the changes are good or bad is a matter of personal preference, but I think the dub handles these situations with aplomb. Aside from Pom Poko, another Ghibli film released in the US at the same time as The Yamadas, I've not seen a major studio work with an anime that has as many cultural subtleties and jokes. Although I'm afraid we probably won't see a US release of Only Yesterday because of the rampant cultural issues on display in that film, I'm glad that Disney really worked through those issues with The Yamadas. And if you consider yourself a purist, the sub is quite nice too. Either way, it's interesting to see that despite our differences, families around the world are very much alike.

So is this movie one to put on your shelf along with the other Ghibli classics like Nausicaa, Totoro, and Spirited Away? It depends. I rented this one from Netflix, and (unlike Pom Poko) I'm not certain this will be a purchase. I enjoyed it, and taken in bite-size portions, My Neighbors The Yamadas has a lot of laughs and sweetness. You'll see something of your own family in it. My wife enjoyed it, and she's not an anime fan. Taken as a full-length film, I think it's just a little too choppy and slow to be an A level title. But if you're a big fan of Studio Ghibli, Isao Takahata, or James Belushi, ignore me...My Neighbors The Yamadas may win you over anyway.

My Neighbors the Yamadas -- mild thematic elements, rated PG -- B+