Based on the manga series “Nono-Chan” by Hisaichi Ishii and written/directed by Isao Takahata (Pom Poko, Grave of the Fireflies), My Neighbors the Yamadas is a truly unique film. Both visually and structurally, there's no other film quite like this one. Centering on an eccentric Japanese family called the Yamadas; the film has no plot to speak of. Instead, there are a plethora of short episodes that focus on a particular member of the family dealing with some kind of situation, be it fighting over the remote for the TV, waking up late for work or school, or even leaving the youngest behind at the shopping center. Each "episode" is bookended with a title and a haiku adding a smart and comical footnote to every sequence.
Before I get too far ahead of myself, I need to mention the animation style. From one clip or the trailer, it becomes obvious that this film simply looks different from just about anything else. It's a bizarre and original style; the only instances where I've found anything remotely similar have been in animated shorts. Made entirely digital, as opposed to hand drawn cels, the animation resembles a comic-strip style come to life with water colors. There are a few fantasy sequences scattered throughout the film that show off the incredible detail and spectacle of this particular visual choice, but the majority of the film is much more understated. The fantasy sequences are packed with color, movement and visual references to various aspects of Japanese culture, but the majority of the film features limited backgrounds and an almost complete lack of detail in both the characters and the environments. There are quiet scenes that almost feel like a comic tribute to the films of Ozu. It's this lack of detail however, that forces all attention to be paid to the characters and the way they move and interact. This, aside from some terrific voice acting, plays a major role in presenting the characters in a realistic and relatable manner.
The family consists of Takashi Yamada (Tôru Masuoka), the father, Matsuko (Yukiji Asaoka), the absent-minded mother, Shige (Masako Araki), the wily grandmother, and the two children, Noboru (Hayato Isobata) and Nonoko (Naomi Uno). All of them have their own unique quirks, but somehow manage to seem like genuine characters. Even during an elaborate and surreal fantasy sequence, the emotion or purpose of the scene never feels forced. There's a scene late in the film in which Takashi confronts a few bike gang members who are disturbing the peace of a neighborhood. The animation shifts to a more detailed and course visual presentation. Takashi is noticeably terrified and the gang members taunt him. It’s not until his mother comes to his rescue and baffles the gang members with a speech does the style of the film resume its usual appearance. It actually amazing how the quickly the tension drops once the animation goes back to normal. The normal cartoony style becomes something of a safe-haven, where you know that the characters will be okay. After this scene, Takashi sits alone on a bench and imagines himself as a superhero in order to cope with the feeling of being emasculated in front of the gang members as well as his wife and mother. It a very touching scene and even with the elaborate fantasy sequence, it maintains a strong bittersweet tone, as does much of the film. In the end, a major theme of this film and what really ties together all the episodic scenes is the idea of acceptance; accepting not only the people around you for both their positive and negative qualities, but life itself.