Twitter Plot Summary: The trials and tribulations of an ordinary Japanese family.
Five Point Summary:
1. Never talk to strangers. Unless they give you their name. And they’re your age.
2. Male bonding, family style.
3. Food related goings on.
4. Standing up to noisy, disruptive types.
5. A nice note to end on.
Once more I delve into the Studio Ghibli catalogue for a review, and My Neighbours The Yamadas managed to surprise me almost immediately. Gone is the usual high quality animation in favour of a more animated sketch appearance. Rest assured, the animation quality is just as high as their usual output, but choosing to animate Yamadas in this way grounds the story in reality – well, if you ignore the usual Japanese flourishes of changing animation style on occasion, the haiku’s and the fact half of the backgrounds haven’t been pencilled in and animated.
The film follows the titular Yamada family which is a typical family unit – father, mother, daughter, son, and grandmother. Further setting itself apart from the rest of the Studio Ghibli pantheon is that the story is a collection of vignettes about family life rather than a single cohesive story. Whilst there isn’t an ongoing narrative to get your teeth into, the vignettes help build up a picture of family life through various situations and circumstances, covering everything from school crushes to what everybody wants for dinner to depicting how and why families – and parents in particular – stay together despite finding certain aspects of our nearest and dearest irritating. The humour is spot on throughout, and the observations on family life are not limited solely to the Japanese – cultural differences aside, there’s a lot of truth to each vignette no matter where you’re from. Mr Yamada’s speech at a wedding is both amusing and touching as he struggles to provide a meaningful speech after his wife hands him a shopping list rather than his pre-prepared notes.
The animation is mostly set in a cutesy world, where everybody is a squat figure and bears no resemblance to reality. As if to indicate seriousness at certain points, the style changes to show the characters in a more realistic anime style, with normal sized bodies and appendages. This is particularly effective when the family confront a noisy gang of bikers outside their home – as soon as the tension decreases, the animation reverts to the regular squat, cutesy style. The limited amount of detail to the background scenery feels like a deliberate attempt to draw focus to the family dynamic rather than taking you away from it by providing a needlessly detailed location. There’s enough to define where we are, and the rest of it is left down to the character interactions. Thankfully they are all well defined, each having clear personalities and problems.
Whilst the vignette style does detract from our typical expectation of viewing an ongoing narrative, ultimately it becomes a story about how we interact with others and why we do it. By the final vignette we’ve learned a lot about this typical family even if they haven’t learned very much themselves. But then I guess that’s the point – families by their very nature never seem to learn, leading to the same old mistakes and the same old arguments. We’d all like to think our families are structured, organised and rarely argue, but the reality is that every family is, one way or another, like the Yamadas – and that’s perfectly normal.