Castles in the Sky: My Neighbors the Yamadas, by Aaron Pinkston
I’m not exactly sure why, but of all the films playing during the Castles in the Sky series, I was least interested in My Neighbors the Yamadas. I didn’t exactly have a lot to go on, but between seeing a few photos from the film, reading its brief description and the English-version voice actors (primarily James Belushi and Molly Shannon), I wasn’t expecting much. With these odds, I obviously loved it — one of my absolute favorites of the series thus far, an original and surprising piece of pop art.
In its simplest explanation, My Neighbors the Yamadas tells the story of a family — really any family, but specifically the Yamadas, a family of five. Though we don’t get to know a lot about each specific member of the family or their history, the film shows us everything we need to know about them through their wacky interactions. Without any actual resemblance, I’m reminded of the Simpsons while watching the Yamadas. More broadly, the family feels straight out of an American sitcom, with antics ensuing over who gets to watch the television, the kids complaining about what’s for dinner, etc.
Coming to the midpoint of the series, the differences of My Neighbors the Yamadas influence its relative greatness. Directed by second-in-command Isao Takahata (whose work was seen earlier in the series with the charming Only Yesterday), the film’s animation style has been completely overhauled with a simpler look. Instead of the hard-edged, colorful classic anime look of other Ghibli films, this film uses a slightly dull watercolor and hand-drawn feel. It also beautifully employs a lot of white space, which is unusual for any animated feature. Many frames of the film show the characters interacting with each other without any background. This tactic allows for a more fluid presentation, with interesting transitions from scene to scene without the use of cuts.
Two scenes in the film stick out in terms of the visual style. First is a subtle use of showing a baseball game on a television. The style of this sequence is similar to the overall film, with the use of watercolor and a very fluid motion, but it is more refined. It’s strange that the filmmakers use this moment for perhaps their most beautiful design, but it’s charming in that way. The other scene is quite different visually, coming at the moment in the film with the most dramatic tension. In this moment the father is forced by his wife and mother to confront a biker gang that is disturbing the peace with their noise and litter. As the father approaches the baddies the animation changes from the grotesque stout caricatures to more realistic and shadowy figures. This change happens without warning, which brilliantly raises the stakes. As soon as the situation brings back comedy, the characters return to their short, fat figures.
My Neighbors the Yamadas is also the most innovative narratively — that is the say, it is the least narrative film of the series. Instead of having a connective plot, the film plays like a series of comic strips. The film is broken up by different “categories,” which sort of take the place of the standard Ghibli themes. After each category title there play a series of brief situations or scenes — usually highlighting specific relationships, like in “Father-Son Bonding” or “Marriage, Yamada-Style.” I mentioned how the film’s central family feels like they come from a sitcom and in this narrative sense the film has a feeling of a “best of” compilation. This allows the film to literally cram in as many situations and jokes into the 110 minutes, which does feel a bit long by the end.
My last concern with the film before viewing it, the voice cast, also was a surprise. Say what you will about James Belushi, his role as the stern but kooky father is perfect for his abilities. His voice fits the character design, which is always a plus, and he never overplays a role that could have turned into a dummy without any heart (think: later year Homer Simpson). I had fewer worries about Molly Shannon, but she also brings it, also without being overly wacky, even when the character is just that. Again, the Disney American production avoids stunt casting while bringing in distinctive and recognizable voices.
My Neighbors the Yamadas will certainly end up the biggest surprise of the series. It doesn’t have the clout of Ghibli’s heavy hitters, and it probably doesn’t have the staying power, but it was a beautifully drawn and funny, relatable story of family. So, even when being pretty different from any other Ghibli film, it’s pretty much exactly Ghibli in that way.