Anime Review: My Neighbors the Yamadas

Director: Isao TakahataYamada family portrait, kind of

based on comic strip by Hisaishi Ishii

Japanese release: 1999

U.S. release: 2005

I am torn in attempting to review this film. I have no complaints about the actual execution and stylistic choices of the animators and Japanese voice actors, which is predictably excellent coming from a pro like Takahata; but thinking about its choice of subject matter – the family – and its predictable treatment of that institution disappoints me.

My Neighbors the Yamadas is about a typical middle-class Japanese family living in the suburbs: there’s the overworked father, the somewhat lazy stay-at-home mother, the slacker son, the cutesy innocent daughter, and the wise-cracking, cantankerous grandmother. Oh, and a dog. Lacking any pretension of having a central plot, the director chose to instead put a lot of short stories together around the theme of “family.” While this makes sense when one considers that this film is based on a newspaper comic strip (thus its very minimalist complexion), it also prevents any maturation of the characters. Or, as one of the side characters remarks about the grandmother as she draws a line in the sand to separate her trash pick-up from his, “She’s still the same 60 years later” (in this case, 60 minutes later).

Despite this Is this Your marriage?movie’s seemingly low production values, it’s more like a cross between the Simpsons and a BBC comedy than a Saturday morning cartoon. The characters throw accurate punchlines – aimed at the middle-aged.

While children and teenagers will get some of the visual gags and riffs on the roles of adults, many of the metaphors and philosophical moments go over their heads. And in today’s media-drenched, instant entertainment environment, most kids would rather surf YouTube or MySpace than watch this. The more poignant moments of this anime are directed at working adults with children, especially men, as they mostly involve the father, Takashi. One of the most touchingly honest moments in the film is when we see Takashi in his business suit sitting in a swing at night looking down at a construction helmet, realizing that he doesn’t live up to his fantasy of being a hero to his children.

I know that i set myself up for disappointment when i expect a movie to go beyond the confines of its general target audience. However, any film that claims to talk about the challenges of marriage and that never questions the goals of people who get married or why marriage is so hyped as a social institution is bound to get jabs from me.

In My Neighbors the Yamadas, marriage is just assumed as something that all men and women do. The film begins and ends with monologues about marriage. Following a short sequence from the POV of the daughter, an old woman provides narration over a series of creative animation sequences warning the newly-weds Takashi and Matsuko of vague challenges to their bond. Near the end, we find Takashi standing before a mike giving a wedding-day speech about what is emotionally necessary for a long-term marriage (“acceptance”). There are no questions whatsoever about why people marry, about the gender roles within marriage, or about the genders of the people who get hitched.

Taking marriage and family as its main themes, this movie casts a huge net – one that is bound to leave more than a few fish behind.

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