I think the definition of a good movie is that you can’t stop thinking about it. You relate bits of it to your own life, puzzle over other bits and ponder over things you have noticed before but never really seen. Like the Kotatsu, that odd hybrid of heater, doona and table that I’ve noticed in so many Japanese movies. The table part was even used to kill someone in one movie. But until I watched My Neighbours the Yamadas, I never really noticed how much of a feature it is in a Japanese home – how the family huddles around it, falls asleep over it, eats their noodles and writes their shopping lists. It’s fascinating. I had to find out more:
But I digress. I recently bought a new bunch of Studio Ghibli movies and this one was among them. I knew little about it, except that it was directed by Isao Takahata and had a visual style unlike anything else from Ghibli. Well, that is true – it’s more like a comic book than an anime and tinted in very pale, clear, washi paper kind of colours. Occasionally it strays into more detailed art, reminding you of its true pedigree. But the lightness – nay, even the crudeness – of this style doesn’t jar. It adds to the feel of the film, a relaxed, amused and affectionate look at every day life for a slightly dysfunctional Japanese family.
It sounds like the Simpsons, but it could not be further from that. Because of their dysfuntionality, and the somewhat scary nature of their parenting, the Simpsons can’t seem too human – not too much like us. The Yamadas are also a comic, so they are exaggerated in form, but very much like us, very human. The way they huddle around that kotatsu, their arguments, their dreams – sometimes you want to ask ‘how did you get inside my head and steal that bit?’ – but of course, the truth is that we are not as unique as we think we are, and every dumb or funny thing we’ve done has been done by someone else.
The film is pieced together like series of vignettes, or comic strips, with haiku by Basho and Buson introducing each episode. There are laugh out loud moments, chuckle moments, ‘OMG I did that once!’ moments and very touching moments that come upon you suddenly, without maudlin sentiment or syrupy music, just the way life does. But Takahata is good at that. He also made the heartbreaking Grave of the Fireflies and Only Yesterday for Ghibli, the latter a movie which opened my eyes to the way my life had been shaped by others – it’s a movie every adult should see.
My Neighbours the Yamatas also contained a reference that points to his latest movie which I am anxious to see – The Tale of Princess Kaguya. In a fantasy sequence, Takashi Yamada (the dad) is shown slicing through a bamboo to reveal the perfect little princess Nonoko, their youngest child. Kaguya is also discovered by a bamboo cutter. Moments like that are just a bit of sweet decoration on the cake for fans of Takahata’s work. I’m happy to say My Neighbours the Yamatas is another delight from this director.
BTW, Yamada is a fairly common name that means ‘mountain rice paddy.’ But considering what comes up when you put it into Google Images, you’d think it meant ‘Japanese girls with really big boobs.’