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June 2011

My Neighbours The Yamadas

voice casts: Jim Belushi, Touru Masuoka, Molly Shannon, Yukiji Asaoka, and Tress MacNeille

director: Isao Takahata

104 minutes (PG) 1999
widescreen ratio 1.78:1
Optimum blu-ray region B

RATING: 8/10
review by Sarah Ash

My Neighbours The Yamadas

We've come to associate the name Studio Ghibli with Hayao Miyazaki's powerful and colourful fantasies rooted in Japanese folklore, like Princess Mononoke, and Spirited Away, which may be why My Neighbours The Yamadas (aka: H˘hokekyo tonari no Yamada-kun) comes as a something of a surprise. Made two years after Princess Mononoke, with Isao Takahata at the helm, it offers a series of vignettes, domestic snapshots of the ordinary life of a very ordinary Japanese family.

Salaryman Takashi Yamada (Jim Belushi/ Touru Masuoka) and his wife Matsuko (Molly Shannon/ Yukiji Asaoka) live with their teenage son Noboru, younger daughter Nonoko, and Grandma Shige (Tress MacNeille/ Masako Araki), and - the dog. Based on a popular four-panel manga by Hisai Ishii, the story of the Yamadas has something in common, therefore, with Peanuts, or Calvin And Hobbes. Told with gentle but accurately observed humour, these 20 scenes create a convincing and sometimes touching portrait of the day-to-day trials of family life.

Maybe the most remarkable thing about the film is its visual language; it brings the original cartoon drawings to the screen in a minimalist, sketchy way with a remarkable fluidity that, although understated, is a masterful piece of animation. Every now a brilliant little sequence occurs that remind the viewer of the exceptional skills of the animation team (check out the glimpse of a baseball game on TV or the neighbourhood night-time bike nuisances disturbing the family home) but mostly deceptively simple minimalism prevails. Even the colours are subdued and subtle: often a pastel palette set against a white background. The blu-ray makes it look crisp and fresh - and navigating around the disc is very fast and straightforward.

And so we get to see how the family drive home from the shopping mall, leaving daughter Nonoko behind by mistake; mother and grandmother become convinced that putting too much ginger in the family food causes lapses of memory; Noboru struggles with his school work; Grandma Shige visits an old friend in hospital... Sometimes a haiku appears on screen to highlight a particular feeling (though this can be in an ironic way as well as a poetic comment on the fleeting nature of life).

On the music side, Joe Hisaishi is absent, and the honours go to Akiko Yano; her theme song for the show appears in various guises, often with an improvised, casual feel that suits the material well. Other music is referenced from time to time: Mahler (yes, spot the Mahler!), Bach, snatches of enka and snatches of popular themes that a Japanese audience could probably easily identify.

The Yamadas are not the Simpsons or the Griffins; there are no broad comedic brushstrokes to be found here, only gentle, quirky comedy told in an engaging and deceptively simple way. At the end, you come away smiling gently, and nodding in agreement about how much families around the world have in common with each other.

The Buena Vista 2005 dub is offered here on the blu-ray release with the original soundtrack as an option with English subtitles. I was a little sceptical at first as to how well the US version would work, but I found the dub to be remarkably convincing; Jim Belushi (as Takashi) and Molly Shannon (as Matsuko) give persuasive performances as the laconic husband and his somewhat distracted wife, and Tress MacNeille is a joy as hard-bitten Grandma Shige.

Special features include: storyboards; NTV special programme: super TV '15 months exclusive coverage: secrets of My Neighbours The Yamadas'; behind the microphone; TV spots; original Japanese theatrical trailers and Studio Ghibli collection trailers. Out of these generous extras, I found the '15 months exclusive coverage' by far the most fascinating and informative (even though the subtitles here are puzzling rather than illuminating in places) especially in giving glimpses into director Isao Takahato's original inspiration for the animation style and his working processes.



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