My Neighbors the Yamadas Review

AKA: Hohokekyo Tonari no Yamada-Kun, Nono-chan
Genre: Comedy/Slice-of-Life
Year Released: 1999
Distributor: GKIDS
Origin: Japan
Running Time: 104 minutes
Rating/Recommended Audience: PG
Related Films/Series: Nono-chan
For Fans Of: Chibi Maruko-chan, Sazae-san, Ojamanga Yamada-kun, Ocean Waves, Azumanga Daioh
Notes:
-The English dub was used for this review and it reflects the GKIDS rerelease. The original licensors were Disney and even did the dub.
Fun Facts:
-My Neighbors the Yamadas is based on a yonkoma (4-panel) manga called Nono-chan by mangaka Hisaichi Ishii who also created Ojamanga Yamada-kun, Ganbare!! Tabuchi-kun!!, and Comical Mystery Tour. Ishii is also an Osamu Tezuka Cultural Prize winner when he was the inaugural award recipient of the Short Story Award which makes this review the 3rd one I’ve covered involving something from a creator who won that award (although his prize has nothing to do with this movie unlike the one other example) with In this Corner of the World and Hikaru no Go.

-This is the first Ghibli to be released on DVD in it’s initial video release.-Akiko Yano really put in that work in this movie as both the composer as well as an actress. Yano has a trio of the same name involving CBS orchestra member Will Lee and Chris Parker who was a sideman for Bonnie Raitt, Sinead O’Connor, and Cher among several other musicians. As a voice actress, she was in other Ghibli movies with Princess Mononoke, Spirited Away, and Ponyo.

-Hilarious in Hindsight: If you’re a Lilo and Stitch fan, you might appreciate this about the dub. Dr. Jumba Jookiba is the narrator (saying nothing about him being other Disney characters) and Merle is Nonoko in this movie. Yeah, it’s weird knowing that about the voice actors.

-The grandma Shige Yamada was portrayed by veteran voice actress Tress MacNeille. She has a huge portfolio of characters and she certainly used her “old woman” voice like she does as Agnes Skinner in The Simpsons or World’s Oldest Woman in Histeria. Outside of those examples, she is also the voice of Dot from Animaniacs (she even returned in the reboot!), Babs Bunny from Tiny Toon Adventures, Charlotte Pickles (Angelica’s mom) from Rugrats, and Obaba in Nausicaa among several other characters in small and big name productions. [Skims through her filmography] WAIT! She was also the voice of Shenzi in the Timon & Pumbaa cartoon?!? ARRRRRRRRRRRRGGH!

-Director Bonus/Mythology Bonus: During the abstract sequence of Nonoko being born, she is shown inside a bamboo shoot that Takeshi cuts to retrieve her. What famous Japanese fairy tale does this reference? The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter…the same story that Isao Takahata would adapt as The Tale of the Princess Kaguya which would be his final directorial work before his death. That scene in My Neighbors the Yamadas is such an unintentional full circle thing if you’ve seen both movies.

Isao Takahata may be an esteemed director in Japan, but he gets overlooked a LOT when it comes to Studio Ghibli, the very company he co-founded. No disrespect to Hayao Miyazaki obviously, but he does overshadow the person who influenced him in a mainstream standpoint. I feel like he doesn’t get his flowers at least in the Western Hemisphere in the anime fandom. There is even a harsh aspect when it comes to my blog because Takahata unfortunately died days after I posted a review of his masterpiece Grave of the Fireflies. It was sad hearing the news and I don’t hear people talking about his works during his tenure or even before Ghibli existed. In hindsight, this makes The Tale of the Princess Kaguya (my first Ghibli review, I might add) his animated swansong and don’t even get me started about the ending of that movie in regards to Takahata’s life from an abstract parallel standpoint. Unlike the other movies of his that I’ve covered on Iridium Eye, this one has a ton more levity than the other works I’ve featured and one can certainly argue this would be a polar opposite of Grave of the Fireflies given how bloody depressing that animated work is.

Let’s look into the quirky life of this dysfunctional, yet funny family.

My Neighbors the Yamadas involves multiple vignettes involving this family of the same name. The head of the house is Takashi Yamada who works as a section chief in civil service that likes baseball and can be a bit gruff. His wife is Matsuko who’s a stay-at-home mom who tends to fret at times and has a habit of cooking the same meal for days at a time. Their eldest child is Noboru who is in middle school, struggles with studying for exams, and thinks his parents are weird. His little sister is the seven-year-old Nonoko AKA Nono(-chan) who is very curious about everything, but also has a habit of taking her big brothers cookies from time to time. Their grandmother (also Matsuko’s mom) is Shige who is snarky, stubborn, but also wiser than her family gives credit for. They tend to get into wacky misadventures at home and in town. There is an abstract sense of reality mixed with fantasy through the seasons as this film offers insight on them living their lives. Whether it’s doing their best to bond as a family, fighting over the remote control, or dealing with ruffian bikers in town, life is never dull in the Yamada household.

This is one Ghibli movie that doesn’t get talked about as much like Miyazaki’s works or even other movies like The Secret World of Arrietty, From Up on Poppy Hill or even Takahata’s own Grave of the Fireflies, but after watching this movie for the first time, I will say My Neighbors the Yamadas needs to be in that conversation. Yes, talking about the animation quality about a Ghibli work is a chore because we all know it’s going to be stellar, but the animation style really stands out. The character designs are easily the most simplistic of any Ghibli work ever, but the animation quality is wonderful and more creative than people give credit for. This uses a watercolor animation style with very fluid movements during the surreal dream or parallel narrative scenes which is wonderful. I can definitely see this as a prototype of sorts for what he would do with Princess Kaguya despite not making it look like a living piece of Japanese art like in that final film and I would dare say the coloration and aesthetics influenced other animated works such as Ernest & Celestine and Eleanor’s Secret to name a few. This came out in 1999, yet the production has held up VERY well. There were creative images like the parents luging down a giant wedding cake, Takeshi becoming a superhero called the Midnight Rider, or the ending sequence with everyone singing “Que Sara Sara” are a sight to see. The music was very quirky with a mix of light symphonic works, xylophones, and major-key vocal works mixed in. The characters were all interesting to watch and the comedy ranged from subdued to in-your-face funny stuff like Takashi and Matsuko fighting over the TV by using newspaper to block the remote, believing that ginger makes people forget everything, or Noboru making a mess of his own stuff in his room as he feels lovestruck. I don’t want to spoil everything about the random vignettes or character development, but I did like the surprisingly realistic family dynamics. Even though they have issues with each other (some legit and some very trivial), the Yamada’s appreciation is still intact despite their idiosyncrasies. Noboru even makes a poignant joke about how if his parents were “normal” they wouldn’t be together that long before the family chases him around. It is such a sigh of relief seeing an animated comedy with a dysfunctional family that still legitimately loves each other at the end of the day instead of trivializing abuse or neglect. Oh, hi, Family Guy. I’M LOOKING AT YOU! This is such a huge plus with the comedy being legitimately funny, people being called out for their mistakes/wrongdoings, while also having heartwarming moments at different intervals.

It’s not always a beautiful day in the neighborhood when it comes to My Neighbors the Yamadas if one pardons the Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood reference. I’ll start with the dub. The voice acting was good and I was shocked to see that many major names associated with it (Jim Belushi, Molly Shannon, and David Ogden Stiers among others), but some of the background characters came off as under-acting to me. Some of the names weren’t pronounced right in the dub like Yamashita (the I is silent!) or how the baseball commentator played by real life sportscaster Jon Miller botched the name “Korakuen Hall”. Sorry that I had to use my former Japanese student credentials, but that bugged me. Even though the animation has aged better than most other films Ghibli or otherwise, this does suffer from Unintentional Period Piece Syndrome. There are cassettes being used, the video game system the Yamadas had screamed mid-90s to me (My Dreamcast would be more impressive than that!), a couple of plots that could’ve been avoided if they had cell phones which would’ve been rare at the time for the average person to have, no GPS in a couple of driving scenes, and there were multiple examples involving an archaic piece of technology that has unintentionally become a running gag when I make these critiques…PAYPHONES! Why do they keep showing up in movies and series I review? It really doesn’t help when I cover anything from the early 00s and prior where I see them pop up for people to use instead of a cell phone. Some of those scenes did put me out of the moment. I did have to get used to the narrative style with random vignettes instead of a straightforward story. Some of these segments last as shortly as a minute and can be scattershot at times. They are certainly entertaining regardless, but they could confuse someone who’s expecting a clear cut beginning, middle, and end in a straightforward way. My Neighbors the Yamadas isn’t avant-garde from a production and storytelling standpoint (although there are elements more experimental than a ton of other Ghibli flicks), but sometimes the yonkoma origins can really show with the random segments as opposed to a more traditional narrative way of storytelling. I also know Nonoko was going to play a bigger role especially with her getting narrator time besides the narrator himself which felt a bit of a decoy. Yes, she’s there in multiple points after the fact, but that was a choice that I wouldn’t have picked unless most of the movie was through her eyes or at the very least be used for a vignette solely about her.

My Neighbors the Yamadas is an underrated gem in Studio Ghibli’s library and a very welcome difference from Isao Takahata’s other (more serious/tragic) works. The comedy is legitimately funny and the animation is low-key astonishing with the watercolor-based art as well as the tastefully minimal backgrounds. The depiction of this wacky family was fun, yet surprisingly realistic and it’s amazing seeing a family coming together even despite their issues towards each other. However, there were some dated elements and the vignette style could throw some people off. While I didn’t think it was as impactful as Grave of the Fireflies, this was still a wonderful watch and certainly a positive jam of a movie. My Neighbors the Yamadas is a deep cut from the house Isao and Hayao built, and this is definitely a movie that can make most people smile. It may not have the popularity of a Spirited Away, art house elements of Princess Kaguya, or the magical nature of a Kiki’s Delivery Service, but this movie deserves to in the conversation of one of the better Ghibli works out there. Definitely Recommended. I needed to be able to smile after dealing with darker moments in my life.

Adjustable Point System:
-Add 1 point if you like animated comedies that aren’t crude.
-Subtract 1 point if you want a streamlined plot.
-Subtract 1-2 points if you’re not a fan of slice-of life anime.

Pros:
-Amazing production and art design
-Quality comedic moments
-Heartwarming and wholesome depiction of a family staying together no matter what

Cons:
-Unintentional Period Piece Syndrome
-Vignette style isn’t for everyone
-Some choices in the story were better than others or could’ve been omitted

Final Score: 9/10 points

Content Advisory: My Neighbors the Yamadas is fine for most families, but there are some reservations that I must warn people about. Takashi smokes and drinks. One vignette involves him coming back home drunk. There is slapstick violence, but there are cases of offscreen violence with the biker storyline where there’s a newspaper article mentioning an old man dying. Shige and her friend to gossip about a male nurse potentially having an affair, but there’s no sexual content. One brief joke involves Noboru commenting on a shot of sake being “too dry” which implied that he’s tasted it before despite being in his early teens before his parents rightfully freak out. There’s also one very brief example of nudity which prevents this from being shown to the youngest audiences.

-Curtis Monroe

All photos are property of their respective owners and used under US “Fair Use” laws. My Neighbors the Yamadas is property of GKIDS. The Blu-Ray/DVD cover is from Amazon and is property of GKIDS.

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