04 February 2014

Baseball & Basho: On My Neighbors the Yamadas.

Isao Takahata's delightful My Neighbors the Yamadas is the most atypical film released by Studio Ghibli. Concerning the day-to-day lives of a three-generational Japanese family, with no real plot to speak of, its story is the most mundane of the company's pictures. It contains none of the fantasy elements that abound in co-owner Hayao Miyazaki's features. Even its source material is an odd choice for the studio, which on the occasion they choose to adapt, tends to take on Western works like Diana Wynne Jones's Howl's Moving Castle and Mary Norton's The Borrowers. Instead My Neighbors the Yamadas is based on a Japanese manga called Nono-chan by Hisaichi Ichii. This source material goes a long way in explaining the most obvious example of the film's uniqueness, its visual style, which abandons Ghibli's highly detailed anime look of lush backgrounds and detailed characters for a sparse, sketched quality.

Consigning the story to such a loose palette allows for flights of fancy that wouldn't be achievable in the normal Ghibli mode. These include reveries like riding a toboggan down a wedding cake and the appearance of a masked superhero, riding a scooter and firing pistols behind his back. At times the animation can be subtly complex. A late scene involving a motorcycle gang is drawn in a more realistic, yet still unfinished style, which is an inspired choice since it is the one scene that takes the family's story outside of itself, having the Yamadas' little world interrupted by the rest of reality.

To the Western viewer this style and the film's rhythms are reminiscent of comics beyond its source material, Charles Schultz's Peanuts in particular. The Yamadas even have a deadpan dog that seems to be smarter than everyone else. There is a quality to the comedy throughout that recalls the three-panel newspaper comics, which deliver a quick set-up-and-punchline delivery. Another classic American comic that comes to mind is Bill Watterson's immortal Calvin and Hobbes. This is most apparent in a scene that sees the father, Takashi, trying to get his television-transfixed family to get outside and experience the beautiful snowfall, which recalls nothing more than Calvin's dad on one of the family's ill-fated camping trips. Later on in the film, Takashi tries to interest his son Noburo in a game of catch. Noburo, who has previously shown an utter ineptitude for baseball, asks why and his dad says that catch is a form of bonding between fathers and sons. Noburo then suggests that if that is the ultimate goal, then there are plenty of other things the two can do. Cut to his father outside throwing a ball against a wall, alone. These moments cut deep.

One of the film's greatest achievements is this ability to sincerely capture the outlook and experience of each of the family's three generations. Takahata taps into the quiet revolutions that shape a child's existence, showing a frozen-faced Nonoko listening to her family discuss how she and Noboru might not exist if circumstances were different. Further up on the family tree, the aged matriarch, Shige, visits a friend in the hospital. Her friend gossips about the patient in the bed adjacent and is catty about most everything else. The two friends laugh and joke until Shige asks why exactly her friend is in the hospital, and her friend pauses before breaking into sobs. The answer remains unspoken but we see that the end is imminent and this casual visit was much more, a brief but bold respite from dire circumstances.

And yet, My Neighbors the Yamadas is far from melancholic. The film's repeated use of poetry (most often by Basho) to end its vignettes is more contemplative than emotional. In fact, the picture is the most consistently funny of all the Ghibli films. It's hard to believe that the same director helmed the devastating Grave of the Fireflies. The humor can be wry, broad, verbal, or visual depending on the scene, but it is never cheap. A great gag comes when mother Matsuko wants to watch a movie but her husband is in the middle of a baseball game. She steals the remote but Takashi blocks the device's signal by holding his newspaper up in front of the screen. Their fight for televisual supremacy is staged like a sword fight.

A common joke throughout the film is each family member's terrible forgetfulness. Umbrellas, lunches, briefcases, shoes, even children are left behind when one Yamada or another gets preoccupied. One of the film's longer sections occurs in the beginning when the family accidentally leaves little Nonoko asleep on a bench in a shopping center. The scene is very crucial to the rest of the picture as it clearly and convincingly lays out each family member's personality, both separately and in relation to the others. Both parents are distraught and distracted by their missing daughter so they chase after a car that left with Nonoko even though they don't know what direction it went in, or what it even looks like. Shige meanwhile chastises everyone for letting such a horrible thing happen, even though she was there and just as culpable as everyone else. Noburo says Nonoko will be fine, partly because he knows his sister better than anyone else and because he wants to get to a store before it closes. For her part, Nonoko sees the situation differently, thinking that her family got lost, not she, since she never left the bench.

And so this sweet little film stands on the shelf, sandwiched between epic tales like Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind and youthful flights of fancy like Ponyo. There the Yamadas sit, reading the newspaper and listening to the occasional Mahler. The parents watch their children stumble through a familiar rite of passage, while grandmother watches her grown children make the same mistakes she did. Then she forgets to get groceries again, so they all order sushi. This normal little family, leading funny lives just like you and me.

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