My Neighbours the Yamadas - Whilst Hayao Miyazaki is arguably one of the more famous international faces of anime he is not solely responsible for Studio Ghibli's output. Amongst some first-time younger directors (including Hayao's son, Goro, who is helming the upcoming Tales From Earthsea) stands Isao Takahata, the director of Grave of the Fireflies, which is among one of the best anime films of all time. Takahata's history working with Miyazaki stretches back decades, with Takahata producing Miyazaki's earlier features before they founded Studio Ghibli itself. Alongside Grave of Fireflies and My Neighbours the Yamadas, Takahata has directed both Pom Poko and Only Yesterday for the studio.
With no plot as such, My Neighbours the Yamadas is made up of a series of sketches which focus on the ordinary, suburban Yamada family and their daily toings and froings. Based on the manga strips of Hisaichi Ishii, the episodic structure fits the style of its source perfectly as we see glimpses of the characters' lives and how the family does or doesn't get on in each vignette.
Yamadas is immediately distinctive from other Ghibli features and most anime in general thanks to its unique visual style. Matching the sketch composition of the film, the art style itself looks like rough sketches brought to life. Takahata intended his film to have a watercolour effect throughout, so it is in fact 100% digitally created. It uses detailed animation and even some 3D modelling which is cleverly integrated with the hand-drawn style that is a little reminiscent of Peanuts or Raymond Brigg's cartoons.
All the characters are well observed and written and we get to see the point of view from mother and father Matsuko and Takashi, son and daughter Noboru and Nonoko and grandma Shige, over the course of the film's episodes. Whilst there are funny moments throughout the film, the book ending of each segment with a relevant haiku helps emphasise the tone of that episode. It manages to highlight that Yamadas is a story with humour rather than an out-and-out comedy, and is mostly concerned with holding up a mirror to family life.
Despite the Japanese origins there are a lot of similarities between the Yamadas and most families, and you're bound to find some behaviour that you recognise, especially if you fight over the TV remote!
With the benefit of a wholly digital source, the picture offered here is crisp and clean with little or no artefacting or compression. Whilst the original Japanese track features the spot-on acting of the original cast, the English dub holds its own and joins the set of quality Ghibli dubs that feature higher-profile actors, here featuring James Belushi as the father Takashi. Though it is sometimes odd having the recognisable American delivery in a Japanese urban setting it still works and is a vast improvement on the old days of dubbing that would throw any thoughts of acting out the window and rely on the stock gruff hero and shrieking villain.
Extras include the usual Ghibli reel and original trailers and TV spots for Yamadas, and whilst the storyboards are included here they are presented as a picture gallery rather than a multi-angle feature. It is strange that it doesn't stick to the options of the other Ghibli releases, as it would be a lot easier to watch the storyboards play with the soundtrack complementing them rather than having to manually cycle through the 600+ images.
My Neighbours the Yamadas does not have the immediacy of other Ghibli features, especially as it doesn't stick to the usual plot structure of most films in general, but it deserves to be seen by everyone who has enjoyed other Ghibli productions. Lots of wonderful images and full characters along with moments that will keep a smile on your face means you could do worse than spending time with the Yamadas yourself.