Since its birth in 1986, Japanese animation house Studio Ghibli’s become synonymous with grand childhood fantasies and intricate, painstakingly-wrought visuals.
The 1999 film, My Neighbours The Yamadas, marks a considerable change of style for the studio. The lush aesthetic of Laputa: Castle In The Sky or Princess Mononoke is replaced with a simplistic, sparse style that resembles a rough sketch come to life, while the surreal storytelling of master animator Hayao Miyazaki is put aside in favour of a series of gentle, loosely connected vignettes of ordinary family life.
Based on a four-panel manga strip by artist Hisaichi Ishii, the film introduces us to mother and father Takashi and Matsuko Yamada, their 13-year-old son, Noboru, 5-year-old daughter Nonoko, grandmother Shige, and their pet dog, Pochi.
Poetic and gently amusing, the Yamadas’ daily lives are illustrated by brief episodes, each introduced by traditional Japanese verse. Family squabbles, forgotten briefcases and minor illness are common, and the tone throughout is a little like Charles M Schultz’s Peanuts comic strips.
Anyone expecting the soaring beauty of a typical Studio Ghibli production will probably be a little bemused by the mundanity of the Yamadas’ existence, but there’s a soothing calm to their daily struggles, a haiku-like sense of tranquillity.
There are times, too, when the film embarks on its own modest flights of fancy that provide a distant echo of the studio’s more bombastic work. Takashi and Matsuko’s wedding and early life together is engagingly illustrated and full of movement, with visual references to Japanese artist Hokusai.
It’s a film about the universality of the family unit, and also the uniqueness of Japanese culture. Fighting over what to watch on television, or the daily power struggles between parent and child are all recognisable domestic scenes in any country, but there are also lovely insights into the minutiae of life in Japan.
The episode Ginger Morning, for example, sees the family enjoying miso soup with added ginger for breakfast, a culinary choice that sparks a series of minor mishaps – according to Japanese tradition, ginger makes you forgetful. In another vignette, Takashi attempts to teach his son proper table manners, explaining that “Instead of pouring rice over the broth, you should pour the broth over the rice”.
Again, they’re tiny, apparently trivial little moments that make up a charming snapshot of a way of life that’s at once identifiable and unique.
My Neighbours The Yamadas doesn’t have the broad appeal of many other Ghibli films, and it’s entirely different from director Isao Takahata’s earlier work for the studio, such as Pom Poko or the unforgettable Grave Of The Fireflies, but then again, that’s at least partially what makes it so refreshing.
Aesthetically, it’s hugely different from, say, My Neighbour Totoro or Kiki’s Delivery Service, but its attention to detail and sensitivity is pure Ghibli, and devotees of the studio’s work are sure to fall for its subtle charm.
My Neighbors The Yamadas’ sparse visual style makes it a less obvious choice for a Blu-ray purchase than some of Studio Ghibli’s better known films, but the format at really shows off the feature’s subtle watercolour hues and organic line work in a way that couldn’t be achieved in standard definition.
The main feature aside, there’s a storyboard gallery, a collection of trailers, and two documentaries. The first, Behind The Microphone, introduces the US voice cast (which includes Jim Belushi and Molly Shannon), while the second and most interesting documentary, Secrets Of My Neighbours The Yamadas, shows the film’s adaptation from the printed page to the screen.
My Neighbours The Yamadas will be released on Blu-ray on 9 May and can be pre-ordered from the Den Of Geek Store.