"My Neighbors the Yamadas" is an interesting animated film from Studio Ghibli. It's another animated film that would fit under their slice of life category next to their classics like "My Neighbor Totoro", "Kiki's Delivery Service", and "Only Yesterday" and yet its presentation and style are so unique and unlike anything that the famed Japanese animation studio has ever made before and possibly even since. I love animated films that are unique like that and this is one that truly is unique from Studio Ghibli and I really liked it for that. While I certainly don't think this film ranks among their very best works, it has a certain style and charm that only a director like Isao Takahata could bring to the screen and it stands out as being one of his most unique animated creations throughout his life.
Describing the story of this film is tricky mainly because there really isn't a story to follow. It's rather a series of vignettes that follow the Yamada family. They consist of father Takashi (Touru Masuoka), mother Matsuko (Yukiji Asaoka), son Noboru (Hayato Isobata), daughter Nonoko (Naomi Uno), and grandmother Shige (Masako Araki) and are shown their family life and the various events that happen to them. That's really all the film is and I think that's how I can best describe it.
There's really so much uniqueness about this film that I really admired. Studio Ghibli has always been a studio that can capture the real world so vividly in their animated works and this is no exception as I think it mainly comes down to the simplicity of the film which ties into the story itself. As I said before, this film doesn't really have a narrative to follow but is rather a series of vignettes focusing on the Yamada family stitched together alongside haiku intertitles to go with it. While I do think its nature can be a bit convoluted and the film can feel a bit messy because of this presentation, it more than makes up for it with its pleasant charm and often humorous set-pieces with the family. There are a lot of funny moments in the film that stood out to me that reminded me of my own situations with my family. My personal favorite is the one where the family has ginger in their miso soup for breakfast and Matsuko casually drops the fact that ginger does make people forget things and sure enough, the entire family starts to forget simple things as they try to start their day from mundane things like leaving their lunch behind, to crazy stuff with Noboru forgetting to take off his pajamas and putting his clothes on top of them as he rushes to get to school. Stuff like that is very funny. It definitely felt like I was watching a bunch of comic strips brought to life through animation and I think that's the goal that film was going for since the film is based on a manga series called "Nono-chan" by artist Hisaichi Ishii and they really capture the manga down to a tee even in the animation. I guess that should lead me into talking about the animation of the film and it's really stunning to look at. This is one of the most unique films that Studio Ghibli has ever made and there's a lot that stands out about it.
One thing that I noticed about Isao Takahata's work throughout his tenure at Studio Ghibli was that he started to lean towards making his animation appear more artistic than before leaning away from the realistic look that other Japanese anime were capturing and this film is great proof of that. It really captures the look of a comic strip with the simplicity of the character designs being very round and easy to draw and the backgrounds feeling very limited and not finely detailed. There might only be one piece of furniture drawn in the background and it might not be fully finished with just enough line work to make out what it is without it being too detailed. I really love the simplicity like that. The other big element that the film has going for it is the watercolor look. This film has some gorgeous use of watercolors and it makes the film feel so warm and inviting as if you are looking through a cozy picture book. Though just because the film is mostly reliant on simplistic animation doesn't mean it's entirely simple. One of the best-animated sequences is near the beginning of the film as we see a fantasy of how the family grew with moments like the marriage of Takashi and Matsuko, the birth of their children, and moving back with Matsuko's mother with a lot of tributes to Japanese art including the iconic Great Wave off Kanagawa wood print. It really does make sense why the look of this film is as influential as it is with animated films like "Ernest & Celestine", and Pixar films by Pete Docter and Domme Shi have all taken inspiration from the film. Then there are the characters themselves who are also fun to watch. While they don't have much development, they're made up by having tons of personality. The daughter Nonoko is mainly the audience character as we are shown the weirdness of the family through her eyes and see this crazy family like how her brother Noboru is forced to constantly study his schoolwokr though struggles at it, her grandmother Shige being a little nutty and sometimes cranky about things, and the relationship between Takashi and Matsuko as they try to make the family work even if it comes with struggles. The family itself is a little dysfunctional like any family, but they all love each other very much and they're truly the glue that holds the film in place.
In all, "My Neighbors the Yamadas" is a lovely little film from Studio Ghibli. The story has some fun moments with its unique storytelling, the animation is lovely and works perfectly with its simplicity, and the characters are fun to watch and work off each other very well. While this may not be among my favorites from Ghibli and director Isao Takahata, it's still a cute little film that I do recommend checking out. It's the kind of animated film that'll make any family smile and I think that's what it was bound to do.