When Studio Ghibli is mentioned, one tends to think, first, of the great films of Hayao Miyazaki whose Spirited Away and Princess Mononoke drew widespread attention to the Japanese animation studio a decade ago. Images come to mind of determined heroines defying gravity as they swoop over bright blue seas and through pure white clouds €“ and of worlds full of biplane-flying pigs, folkloric forest creatures and bizarre, yet oddly toyetic, seed-planting monsters. Yet in 1999, whilst riding high off of the success of the action heavy crowd-pleaser Princess Mononoke, Studio Ghibli made a bold change of direction with the release of My Neighbours the Yamadas €“ an offbeat and stylised film about the day-to-day life of a family of five, now available for the first time on Blu-ray. Director, Isao Takahata, had long been a counterbalance against the work of Miyazaki prior to Yamadas, with the tragic Grave of the Fireflies and the sublimely banal Only Yesterday contrasting the free-spirited fantasy fun of his colleague€™s output. Even Takahata€™s forays into more imaginative worlds, such as that of Pom Poko (which is about shape-shifting racoons), have tended to wear an earnest social conscience on their sleeve and set a darkly satirical tone. But even so, the simplistic line-drawings and watercolour palette of Yamadas reflect his most extreme departure from the house style to date. Yamadas is a sophisticated series of brief vignettes adapted from a newspaper cartoon strip. It feels something like the Japanese equivalent of Peanuts: there is a wistful and contemplative air to much of it, as we hear poems by the likes of Basho quoted over images of the changing seasons. Unlike most animated features, it€™s not short of silence and stillness. It€™s also mostly plotless and the filmmakers€™ respect their audience enough to trust them to find humour in the smallest, low-key moments. At times it€™s got far more in common with Mike Leigh than Walt Disney. But don€™t be fooled by the film€™s slow pace and seeming aimlessness: My Neighbours the Yamadas is every bit as grand and ambitious as a Howl€™s Moving Castle or Ponyo. Yamadas is a touching human story, dealing with all the highs and lows of life with as much casual grace as Pixar€™s Up. As grandma watches the cherry blossoms falling and contemplates how much time she has left we see that, in a surprising way, the stylised graphical approach lends itself to great moments of intimacy and an emotional approach to storytelling. It€™s alive with complex ideas and richly experimental in terms of form. I wouldn€™t seek to raise the formally experimental and thoughtful My Neighbours the Yamadas above fantastic adventure stories like Castle in the Sky or Porco Rosso. But it€™s certainly equally good and not to be overlooked on account of its oddness.


The most recent Studio Ghibli Region 2 DVD releases were disappointingly vanilla in terms of extra content, offering lots of storyboards and a generic trailer reel. Happily the Blu-ray release of My Neighbours the Yamadas has been given more a compelling feature set. The storyboards and trailers still remain (only more so, with Japanese and international trailers and TV spots added to the mix), whilst there are two nice documentary additions. The first is a detailed look behind the scenes of the Pixar-orchestrated American dub of the film, which features Jim Belushi as the father. It would be fashionable to reject the US dub out of hand, but the time and effort put into the localisation of these Ghibli releases makes them a viable and credible alternative for those allergic to subtitles. There is also a Japanese-made documentary, which runs around 45 minutes in length, covering the film€™s inception, production history and release in amazing, candid detail. Far from the usual €œmaking of€, which would typically be a polite and self-congratulatory advert, the documentary on offer here contains interviews in which, for instance, Miyazaki criticises Takahata€™s filmmaking, saying €œI wouldn€™t make a film like this myself€ and nor would I want to watch it.€ Takahata does likewise, telling the documentary crew that Miyazaki€™s fantasy films are misleading and dishonest. It€™s baffling and brilliant to behold this odd turf war between two undisputed masters and lifelong collaborators. Are they having a joke with us? It doesn€™t look that way, but maybe something is being lost in translation. In any case, it makes for decent viewing, especially in the lengthy scenes that show us members of the Japanese cast throwing tantrums in the recording suite, with one boy€™s mother called in to forcibly make him read his lines as he bawls his eyes out. This may be a bit of a stretch, but the tone of this documentary is strangely appropriate given the feature it supports, in that both nakedly portray human frailties without cynicism or sentimentality. As well as entertaining, the documentary is also damned insightful, with the narrator paralleling Takahata€™s work with that of Ozu and with the director going into detail about his love of an obscure Canadian animation, Crac by Frédéric Back. My Neighbours the Yamadas is available on Blu-ray now.
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A regular film and video games contributor for What Culture, Robert also writes reviews and features for The Daily Telegraph, and The Big Picture Magazine as well as his own Beames on Film blog. He also has essays and reviews in a number of upcoming books by Intellect.