Ghibli Month: My Neighbors the Yamadas

My Neighbors the YamadasTsunderin: Previously in the series I had mentioned a movie being something out of the norm for Ghibli; a film that was seemingly an outlier in terms of artistic direction. I was so naïve back then.

Yes, call it the folly of shortsightedness, but I have been thoroughly corrected at the hands of Isao Takahata. I have seen My Neighbors the Yamadas. This isn’t necessarily a negative thing, nor is it a positive thing, it’s merely a different thing and something that I happen to like despite not understanding some of the choices that the director made. Takahata has simply presented us with a film that tries to be more like art than an actual film and in many ways this movie is comparable to modern art in particular: some people will draw more meaning from it than others, and others still will find it completely worthless as a film. I can see both sides—especially the ‘modern art’ side, since my high school-inherited bullshitting sense is going off the hook at all of the haikus separating some of the story.

So for those of you keeping tabs on this series, you should know that this is where I usually start the plot synopsis. This movie doesn’t have a plot. Thank you all for reading, have a nice day.

No, no, I’m not going to dismiss the story that quickly, but I’m also not going to pretend that there’s something tying all these stories together outside of the characters. In the same way that Only Yesterday had several sections devoted to the protagonist’s childhood, My Neighbors the Yamadas has little stories about random events that happen in the Yamadas’ lives, except rather than having it take up a small portion of the movie, it is the movie. And, for better or worse, the normalcy implied by the title—Yamada being a rather common Japanese last name—is something that the movie tries to extol. Stories range from watching television, to going shopping, to being forgetful over things that never have any large consequences. It’s a slice of life story without the drama.

MadameAce: This is normally the part of our review where I either start complaining about or praising the movie. Well… I’m not sure what I make of this film. My Neighbors the Yamadas is divided into numerous parts ranging in length from a couple seconds in length to a couple minutes, and I’ll admit that after Pom Poko, I was really apprehensive to see another film by Isao Takahata. Sure, it’s got that modern art feel to it, and I’ve never been a fan of modern art—in fact, other than Dada, it’s probably the one art form that I actively dislike—but I’d say that here it works. Like Rin, I’m also calling bullshit on the use of haikus, but at the same time, I almost started freaking out when Matsuo Bashou’s words started flashing across the screen, as he is my favorite poet. But other than my love of haikus, I can’t really say that they have a place in the story outside of being fancy scene breaks.

Poetry is badass though.

Poetry is badass though.

On a whole, while I do think all stories should have a deeper meaning to them, there still needs to be something on the surface. I’m not sure what I’m supposed to take from My Neighbors the Yamadas at face value. The lack of plot means that there is only the hidden message. Unlike Pom Poko, this is not pounded into our heads, and is instead what the audience can make out for themselves. For me, I’d say that My Neighbors the Yamadas is a commentary on life. There are no epic plots or mortal enemies, just the mundane routine of day to day annoyances and dealing with asshole family members that you love despite the fact that they’re assholes.

In this regard, My Neighbors the Yamadas is an incomplete story, and I don’t think it should be completed, because as it is, it is more applicable to real life than a lot of other stories. The animation and music also reinforce its unfinished feel. The scenes and characters themselves look like thumbnail sketches and not fully realized animation. It’s the kind of art that I expect an artist to draw quickly to organize and map out to create a finished work, instead of being the finished work. Most of the background music also does the same thing, particularly the songs with vocals. There are no lyrics, just a woman singing “la la la” over and over again.

However, being applicable to real life doesn’t always make something good, and it’s not impossible to be both applicable and have a plot, otherwise there’d be very few good stories out there. Sometimes the metaphors in My Neighbors the Yamadas go a little too far and are so out there that I cannot begin to imagine what they mean. For instance, early on in the movie, there’s a scene of the grandmother riding her bicycle and being chased by a giant snail. The other Yamadas are eating lunch on at a floating table in the sky. The dad switches places with the grandmother, so he’s being chased by the snail instead and she can enjoy lunch.

We have scenes like this because the art style directly affects what visuals we get and how the story is told. As I said, I’m not really a fan of this style. I think messages should be clear, and I’m not about to spend any amount of time wondering what the hidden meaning behind a giant snail chasing Grandma Yamada on a bike down the street means.

Of course it might just be there to screw with us.

Of course it might just be there to screw with us.

Tsunderin: In regards to the background music, that’s not completely correct, as there is one song and one song only that has lyrics. As such, there’s a certain importance placed on the scene and the song itself, and though this scene is the very last one, it lays out the true message of the film.

Qué será, será,
Whatever will be, will be
The future’s not ours to see
Qué será, será
What will be, will be.

The movie has no plot because it’s the embodiment of this song. Certainly it’s ambitious to frame a film around the idea that it’s impossible to plan what’s going to happen, so why worry about it, but I think it does it rather well. Indeed, the shortcomings of My Neighbors the Yamadas are directly influenced by this mindset. Many things that make us as movie-goers comfortable are thrown out, so we’re left feeling confused, not knowing what to feel or even how to process the quirky animation in front of us.

Much of the meaning is derived from what the audience wants to perceive the film as. In a scarily accurate representation of life, we get as much as we put in. To My Neighbors the Yamadas’s credit, it doesn’t punish the viewer for not putting in as much effort as others. If the viewer decides to take everything at face value, the experience can be just as enjoyable as that of the audience member that connects the words of Bashou to what happened in the previous scene. It’s an aspect I can appreciate.

Before I wrap this up, I want to make mention of one more topic that strangely ties in with our previous film review on Princess Mononoke. Within Japanese media, and more recently in American media as well, there’s a trope that occurs with the men of the family called the ‘dumb dad’ trope. It deals with the emasculation of males after World War II and presents fathers as bumbling morons that can’t do anything right. In several ways it could be said that Mister Yamada takes part of this trope as he is lazy, forgetful, and makes stupid decisions, but I would argue that he is dancing refreshingly on the edge of said trope.

There are times when he’s being a fool, yes, but rather than making him a side-show attraction, his absurdities are only mirrored by his family. He ends up not being any more stupid, lazy, or forgetful than any of the other Yamadas.My Neighbors the Yamadas 2 This is illustrated beautifully when he goes to confront a noisy motorcycle gang (this is also a scene where the art style breaks from its chibi style and becomes more realistic). Mister Yamada certainly looks the fool when he approaches the gang with a baseball bat and a construction helmet. Not only that, but he’s scared shitless at the prospect of possibly getting murdered, yet he still tries to talk the gang into leaving. After a while, his wife and mother-in-law come out after him, but rather than shoo him back into the house, they put on an equally, if not more ridiculous showing by banging on pots and pans and dancing in the street. The scene shows that there’s still that sense of emasculation since he was forced to go out in the first place—that and he has an insecurity and a envy towards these seemingly tough guys—but that it doesn’t lessen his worth as a person. Everyone is still going to be behind him no matter his choices because they’re family, and that’s what family does.

If there’s one thing a viewer can take from this film, it’s that the bonds of family cannot be broken, even though there are moments you may really want them to. You’re stuck with them and their craziness. With their help, however, you can get through some really tough things. And just like you can’t plan what kind of person you’ll grow into, you can’t plan every little thing that happens. You might as well take life as it comes and enjoy the ride. Qué será será.

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About Tsunderin

Greetings and salutations! Feel free to just call me Rin—we’re all friends here, or nemeses who just haven’t gotten to know each other well enough. I’m a video game lover from the womb to the tomb, and Bioware enthusiast until the day they stop making games with amazing characters that I cry over. And while I don’t partake as often as I used to, don’t be surprised to find me poking around an anime or manga every once in a while either. A personal interest for me is characterization in media and how women in particular have been portrayed, are being portrayed, and will be portrayed in the future. I’m not going to mince words about my opinion either.