Synopsis: The Yamadas are a typical Japanese middle-class family. Takashi Yamada, the father, is a salaryman who's the sole breadwinner. His wife Matsuko, the mother, is an easygoing housewife who would much rather relax than do house chores. Takashi and Matsuko have two children, Noboru and Nonoko. Noboru is the average high school student with first crushes and less-than-excellent grades while Nonoko is the pesky little sister and baby of the family. Then there's Shige, Matsuko's mother, who also lives with them. My Neighbors the Yamadas chronicles how the family copes with the challenges of daily life.
Review: Just because a film is by Studio Ghibli does not automatically mean that it's the greatest thing since sliced bread. That's what I learned after watching My Neighbor the Yamadas. Up until now, I've practically loved and raved about each and every Ghibli film I've seen.
As the title suggests, My Neighbors the Yamadas is a chronicle of the life and times of the Yamada family. One minute Takashi Yamada is stressing about an office envelope he thinks he left at home, the next minute Matsuko is frantically trying to remember what she needs from the store. There's no continuing plot, it's just one unrelated situation after another involving the members of the Yamada family. Whether it's about grandma paying the taxes right or Nonoko getting left behind at the mall, every day seems to be a major event at the Yamada household.
So what's my problem? My Neighbors the Yamadas is not a bad film per se. I think its main flaw is that it gets boring as you go along. After the novelty wears off, one would have to muddle through a lot of the same thing before seeing the end of it. It took me two weeks to watch all 104 minutes because I kept dozing off. Everything was just so... typical. I didn't find anything particularly laugh-out-loud funny nor tremendously interesting. And since there is no real story, there's no climax either. I felt I was merely waiting for the credits to roll as I sat through each and every situation.
Art and animation-wise, I have to give My Neighbors the Yamadas a thumbs up. The entire film is presented uniquely in comic strip fashion, such that the characters look like moving caricatures against roughly drawn backgrounds. The experience can be likened to watching my newspaper's daily funnies come to life. Character designs and settings are extremely simple, but the combination of pencil sketches and light washes of watercolors gave the scenes a quaint, artsy charm. The English dubbing was extremely well done to boot. Jim Belushi and company do a stellar job of making the Yamadas reachable to western audiences while at the same time retaining their Japanese roots. Even the way they pronounced all the Japanese names was good. I enjoyed listening to the soundtrack as well.
My Neighbor the Yamadas would probably work nicely as a half-hour animated short, but stretching it to become a full-length film feature is just too much. There's a reason it did not become a box-office hit in Japan, and that is probably it.
Miscellanies: My Neighbors the Yamadas was originally released in 1999.