Isao Takahata is rarely mentioned without also mentioning his relatively more famous friend and fellow animation director Hayao Miyazaki, with whom he founded the iconic Studio Ghibli. Miyazaki’s films, from Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind to Spirited Away, remarkably balance epic, supernatural settings with protagonists from relatively realist backgrounds. Miyazaki’s adventures down the proverbial rabbit hole give way to stunningly emotional narratives about self-discovery and actualization. In Miyazaki’s work, while families and friends have a presence, the focus is ultimately on the protagonists as individuals, vigilantly confronting the present, who learn how to navigate an intimidating world.
What separates a lot of Takahata’s work from that of his celebrated contemporary is an added significance of families, and the informing presence of the past. Grave of the Fireflies is from the point-of-view of the ghosts of two war orphans, brother and sister, during America’s firebombing of Japanese villages during WWII. The children, Seita, and his younger sister, Setsuko, navigate the area in which they died and re-evoke the trying circumstances that led to their deaths. Only Yesterday is the story of Taeko, a 27-year-old city woman returning for a second year to work at a safflower harvesting and dyeing farm, because of the sense of comfort and welcoming in the country that is absent in her city life. As she senses an approaching turning point, Taeko feels suddenly followed by the evocative manifestation of her 5th grade self, the period when she first experienced a turning point in her life. And My Neighbors the Yamadas is a collection of vignettes in the lives of a comedic Japanese family: a mother, Matsuko, a father, Takashi, a son, Noboru, a daughter, Nonoko, a grandmother, Shige and a lightly present family dog, Pochi. The family’s absurd interactions with one another range from frustrating to rewarding.
Takahata utilizes the supernatural subtly and representatively. In Grave of the Fireflies and Only Yesterday, the phantoms that punctuate the narrative help to invoke the memories that drive the story forward. In Grave of the Fireflies, Seita’s ghost, after reuniting with the ghost of his younger sister, Setsuko, takes her through Kobe, Japan. Their travels reawaken the memories of their short lives together. As ghosts, Seita and Setsuko seem permanently illuminated by a dull red and orange light, reminiscent of the firebombs they narrowly escaped while they were alive. The train they board as phantoms is the same train they took to reach their aunt’s house after their own house burned down. The structural framing of children’s ghosts watching and reliving their own tragedy is a haunting, effective rebuke of the consequences of war. Even though the scenes that portray the memories of their lives are more brightly detailed and colored, the animation still seems muted and darkly toned, appropriate considering that the occasional moments of happiness and enthusiasm between the siblings are eventually undercut by the sobering realities of human apathy and an encroaching malnutrition. You can see the palpable regret in the countenance of Seita’s ghost when he rewatches himself relent to his aunt – selfishly reluctant to keep the children on as boarders after the death of their mother – when she suggests that they sell his dead mother’s kimonos for rice, despite Setsuko’s tearful, disapproving pleads to keep them.
Only Yesterday utilizes a similar device in order to dramatize Taeko’s memories on-screen. It’s also on a train, heading towards Yamagata, that Taeko first notices the presence of her 5th grade self, and vividly recalls the first summer that she felt the urge to travel out of her hometown. From there, Taeko’s memory dives into the difficult circumstances of her 5th grade year. The boys in her class tease the girls for having their periods. Her first awkward crush asks her what kind of weather she prefers. And Taeko just seems to have a harder time in both school and day-to-day life than her sharp, Western-savvy, Beatles-loving older sisters, which in turn frustrates her taciturn father and impatient mother.
Taeko, though well-adjusted and good natured as an adult, cannot keep her memories and past from rushing to the surface as she continues to work on the safflower farm. The discomfort and alienation she felt as a child contrasts with her affinity for the countryside, her developing romantic relationship with Toshio, an idealistic organic farmer, and her friendship with Naoko, the teenaged daughter of one of the safflower farmers. As the three sit comfortably atop a hill overlooking the bright green farmlands, Taeko recalls a budding aspiration for acting. Despite the small one-line role she’s given shouting out to birds retreating in the sky, Taeko resourcefully ends her line with an expression and a wave that captures the same sentiment as the lines her teacher wouldn’t let her improvise. Her gesture resonates with the crowd. An actor from a nearby college asks her to perform in their play. Her mother and sisters, who had been frustrated with Taeko’s bad math scores, are excited that she’s finally showing an affinity towards something. That excitement is cut suddenly short when Taeko’s father sternly declares that actors aren’t good people, ending any prospective acting career. When Taeko tells her mother that one of her classmates got the part instead, her mother makes a reluctant Taeko promise not to mention that she had been approached to receive the part first. So frustrated Taeko sings a song from her favorite cartoon to cheer herself up. What keeps the memory from being too sad, however, is that Taeko feels comfortable enough to share it with Toshio and Naoko, indicating a sense of belonging she hasn’t felt anywhere else.
My Neighbors the Yamadas is somewhat of a departure from the painstakingly vivid animation and complex storylines of most Studio Ghibli films. The character models are purposely deformed, and the backgrounds are like watercolor paintings, with blank edges that are filled in by the strong personalities and situations of the characters instead of paint. The film is a succession of scenarios, like flash fiction stories, depicting the joys and pains of home life, separated by title cards and occasionally punctuated by famous haiku. The daughter is accidentally left at the mall, the son develops his first crush, the grandmother gossips with a terminally ill friend in the hospital, the parents battle for control of the television. Though the storytelling structure is unconventional and fractured, the emotional potency of the film remains intact. The combination of the brightly disarming animation and the thoughtfulness of each segment is surprisingly effective at expressing an overarching theme of persistence through the inevitably tumultuous, but ultimately worthwhile experience of family life. The opening sequence is a surrealistic montage that begins with the mother and father bobsledding down their wedding cake, and continuously transitions into fields of babies with storks flying above where they retrieve their son, bamboo forests where the father, garbed like a samurai, cuts through a stalk and finds their daughter, tumultuous seas that the family steers through together on a pirate ship, and calm waters where the family is suddenly waylaid by sharks. The scenes all add up to fun, beautifully animated metaphors for the journey of starting and maintaining a family.
One of the most thoughtful moments of My Neighbors the Yamadas is one of the few longer stories that takes place towards the end, at a point when the audience is well-acquainted with the personalities of the characters. A group of bikers are loudly hanging out in the middle of their neighborhood. The grandmother insists that the father, Takashi, ask them to leave. As he walks towards the bikers, the animation style changes to more detailed models that, in contrast to the comfortable deformation, surprisingly emphasizes the painful vulnerability of Takashi’s quiet, unsuccesful attempts to convince the aggressive bikers to leave. It’s only when the wife and grandmother rush out clanging pots, and monologue to the lead biker suggesting he use his intimidating presence to help people, that the bikers feel awkward enough to ride away. Despite their combined success, Takashi feels embarrassed and ashamed. The scene transitions to his imagined scenario as a superhero, the White Rider, who saves his family from a couple of faceless thugs through a combination of motor scooter acrobatics and nonlethal sharpshooting. The scene is a profound evocation of a father’s impulse and desire to singly protect his family. The imagined scenario ends, and Takashi is shown to be sitting on a swing, alone in a nearby park, a scene reminiscent of Ikiru. The shot dissolves into a purple-and-white outline of the park, and a haiku from Basho writes its way onscreen: “How cruel, a grasshopper trapped under a warrior’s helmet.”