My Neighbours The Yamadas is the work of eccentric director Isao Takahata, whose previous work includes Pom Poko (Racoon Wars), Only Yesterday and Grave Of The Fireflies. This is also the film that premier animators Studio Ghibli released between their international successes, Princess Mononoke and Spirited Away. In contrast to their latest offering, otherwise known as the Boschtian experience, Howl's Moving Castle, My Neighbours The Yamadas could not be more different: a sweet, funny, delicately drawn series of family adventures.

Like much of the Ghibli oeuvre, My Neighbours The Yamadas seems like a children's film at first, until you realise it's really far too existential and grown up in its themes. In the West, we have become accustomed to the neutered offerings of Disney - even Pixar takes fewer chances these days - while in Japan, there is a long tradition of comics for all ages and tastes, and this tradition extends into the realm of cinematic adaptation.

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My Neighbours The Yamadas differs from Takahata's previous work and the look of Ghibli films, as the animation resembles neither the errant fairytale style of My Neighbour Totoro, nor the dynamic, vividly coloured semi-realism of Howl's Moving Castle. Instead, Yamadas employs delicate, hand-drawn watercolour animation that is tied more closely to the traditions of Japanese painting and ink drawing. In one memorable sequence, the young married couple, Takashi and Matsuko, are tossed on a stormy sea that recalls the classical Japanese artist Hokusai's tidal wave paintings.

The other element that sets Yamadas apart from its counterparts at Ghibli is the universality of its interpersonal humour. While fans of Japanese animation debate endlessly as to the quality of foreign language dubs and subtitling, My Neighbours The Yamadas portrays the difficulties of family life that are common the world over.

Centering on parents Takashi and Matsuko, teenage son Shige and school-age daughter Nonoko, the film begins its story with the children's realisation that "there was a time when mom and dad weren't married." This moment leads into one of the most delightful metaphoric sequences. Takashi and Matsuko, clothed in traditional Japanese wedding garb, climb aboard a luge and proceed to slide down a giant wedding cake as a voiceover offers them advice for embarking on married life. In my opinion, this idea of marriage as an Olympic sport, tobogganing down the wedding cake of life, is thoroughly apt, and if I ever have to make a speech at someone's wedding, I plan somehow to work it in.

There's also an interesting little sequence about how Shige and Nonoko came to be born. Anyone who has ever spent time in Japan will be familiar with the concept of "Japlish", the Japanese fascination with random combinations of English words, usually found on hip tee shirts and girls' stationary. In Yamadas, the sequence that explains the children's births acts as a kind of visual version of Japlish: storks are seen delivering babies from a cabbage patch, but this is not how Takashi and Matsuko choose their children; instead they are seen pulling a giant peach from a river, which splits apart, flinging naked baby Shige into the air. Nonoko emerges Athena-like and fully formed from inside a stalk of bamboo, wearing a pink kimono. There's no explanation as to why their births are so different, or why the Western myths of stork and cabbage patch are included alongside the distinctly Japanese version of peach and bamboo, but this is part of what makes Yamadas, not only a beautiful and complex film, but one that can genuinely be enjoyed by both children and adults alike.

The rest is made up of a series of vignettes of family life, many of them very funny and some touchingly sentimental, frequently complimented by quotations from famous Japanese poets. This is a great film for introducing adults to animation who don't normally enjoy conventional anime, because it demonstrates a totally different visual and narrative style.

Reviewed on: 02 May 2006
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Funny, delicately drawn animated vignettes of married life in Japan.
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Director: Isao Takahata

Writer: Isao Takahata, based on the comic by Hisaichi Ishii

Starring: Yukiji Asaoka, Toru Masuoka, Masako Araki, Naomi Uno, Akiko Yano, Chocho Miyako, Tamao Nakamura

Year: 1999

Runtime: 104 minutes

BBFC: PG - Parental Guidance

Country: Japan

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