Isao Takahata is often referred to as ‘the other Miyazaki’, which is a little dismissive of his unique style given that he just hasn’t achieved the fame of his Studio Ghibli colleague. His four films share subtle characterisation yet are hugely diverse, even if they are not as visually dazzling as Hayao Miyazaki’s.
I had yet to see My Neighbours the Yamadas on purchase, unlike most of the Ghibli collection, but my love of the studio meant that I bought it happily. Employing a completely distinct visual palette of watercolours and exaggerated, caricatured character design, Takahata’s story of the everyday life of a contemporary Japanese family barely resembles a Ghibli production but unmistakably has the spirit of one, celebrating the joys of life despite adversity. Many have dubbed Miyazaki the Kurosawa of Japanese animation and Takahata the Ozu, and Yamadas gives the analogy great credence. Like Ozu, he luxuriates in the poetry of simple moments, celebrating the strength and eccentricity of ordinary people.
To that end, Yamadas is completely episodic, beginning and ending at arbitrary but satisfying points, alternating between wish-fulfilling fantasies and street-level confrontations. In one of these sequences, he fascinates by gradually transforming the exceptionally cartoonish Yamadas into taller, darker figures that flicker as if standing in candlelight, akin to the style of the short film adaptation of The Snowman. Such haunting gestures make me long to revisit this film, especially since in hindsight the random points that we enter and leave the film render it somehow cyclical, as if returning to the beginning knowing the structure to come will enable keener understanding of what Takahata is doing.
But for all its visual dynamism and meandering structure, this is primarily a very funny and endearing film about a family with numerous foibles but much love for each other. Some may dislike the lack of conflict and narrative momentum, and for that reason it’s no wonder that Yamadas has not garnered the audiences of Spirited Away and co. But if you adore Ghibli as a style and an ethos, then you must see it and experience how versatile that style can be.