My Neighbors the Yamadas Movie Review

In the US, we embrace animated families steeped in enormous dysfunction--the Simpsons, Family Guy's Griffin clan, or the poor bastards on King of the Hill. The Japanese Yamadas, on the other hand, title characters in this unique collection of vignettes, have a more universal level of dysfunction. Their humor doesn't lean on huge levels of bumbling idiocy and resentment; instead, it is gentle and knowing, like the Japanese poetry that appears throughout My Neighbors the Yamadas.

The Yamadas are your basic suburban family weathering the storms that most families deal with. Because their issues have such a commonality, nearly everyone, regardless of age, will find something to connect with -- and chuckle at -- in this charming feature just released on DVD here in the States.

In the dubbed English language version, Jim Belushi plays Takashi, the gruff hard-working patriarch, respectful yet pushy; SNL vet Molly Shannon is Matsuko, his forgiving, forgetful wife. The couple, whose courtship and early years of marriage are illustrated brilliantly as a playful amusement park ride, lives with their two kids, teenage Noburu (Spy Kids' Daryl Sabara) and his cute little sister Nonoko (Liliana Mumy), and Matsuko's mom, played by voice-over veteran Tress MacNeille

After that opening sequence about the whirlwind a couple's life can be, My Neighbors the Yamadas plays as a series of short sketches with titles like "Father-Son Bonding" and "Age Comes Before Wisdom." Takashi and Matsuko fight over the TV remote, leading to a creatively choreographed tango. Nonoko gets left behind at the mall and assumes her family is lost (of course). Noburu sweats over final exams (literally) and finds his first crush.

To present the Yamadas and their tribulations, animator Isao Takahata -- approaching his 70th birthday as his 1999 feature hits a wide American audience -- creates an easy watercolor world, a style rarely seen in film. The characters look like a peek inside an illustrator's sketch pad, and the outer portions of the frames are often unfinished or void of color. It's a warm, calming approach, one that's quite different from standard hand-animated features, and even a far cry from the fluid visuals seen on the Yamadas own TV screen.

If the stories in The Yamadas sound too soft, that's not always the case. In one particularly hard-edged segment, Takashi comes home from work looking unusually overtaxed, barely able to stay awake. With some knowledge of the Japanese workplace culture, one may imagine that he's a little drunk. After Matsuko offers him food, Takashi calls her choice of snacks "stupid". There's no humor involved, and the sequence is simply quiet and telling -- sometimes this is how married couples deal with one another.

The biggest weakness with My Neighbors the Yamadas is its bulky length. At 1 hour, 44 minutes, Yamadas feels overstuffed with material, and watching it all gets a little tedious about a half-hour before the final credits. Thankfully, it's not necessary to watch Yamadas as a feature -- the film's short sequences are just perfect to be enjoyed in bite-sized pieces, and the DVD format makes it a snap to find your favorite scenes.

My Neighbors the Yamadas is one of two animated films by Takahata (the other is 1994's Pom Poko) to find a U.S. DVD release thanks to Disney's distribution deal with Studio Ghibli, home to the legendary Hayao Miyazaki (Spirited Away). While one might expect that Japanese animation may not be everyone's taste, Yamadas is just the opposite. It's got a little something for everyone, and adds a welcome variety to current animated video fare.

Aka Houhokekyo tonari no Yamada-kun.

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Comments

My Neighbors the Yamadas Rating

" Good "

Rating: PG, 1999

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