It’s Pronounced “Nuclear”

My Neighbors the Yamadas represents an oddity amongst the other films in Studio Ghibli’s roster, most of which are made up of the visionary films of Hayao Miyazaki. Directed by Isao Takahata, it is distinguished not only by its watercolor-inspired look but by focusing on the humor inherent in the everyday lives of a middle class family. We’re a long way off here from the Shinto-infused phantasmagoria of Spirited Away.
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After a dream-like literalization of metaphors sequence that compares marriage to, among other things, a bobsled run, we are dumped unceremoniously back into reality, as the Yamadas realize that they’ve left behind the youngest member of the family accidentally at a department store. What ensues is not the slapstick un-hilarity of the Home Alone variety, but the pleasures of looking on at a stomach churning, very possible situation viewed from a safe distance. While everyone in the car begins to boil over in worry and recriminations, back at the information desk, the lost daughter Nonoko calmly informs the attendant that her whole family are the ones who are lost.
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The movie is comprised of little vignettes like this, all of which have their own separate conclusion, followed by a thematically appropriate poem, usually by Bashō. Struggling to find an American equivalent, I suppose that the tone and subject matter are closest to the Peanuts strips and films, the difference being that with a few exceptions, the focus remains pretty squarely on the family unit. You half expect any secondary characters to erupt in the “Wa-wa-wa-wa” language delegated to the adults of Charlie Brown’s world. The grandmother is one of the singular creations of this film, her unremitting air of capability only making it all the funnier when she makes a mistake.
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Speaking of mistakes, I listened to a bit of the English language track to see how it stacked up against the original Japanese with Subtitles and it was as bad as I could have imagined. The least of the crimes of translation are when the familiar is substituted for the inconceivably alien world of another culture, like inserting the word “hamburger” whenever someone might say “donburi.” But more often, whole reams of dialogue are re-written and when the film fails, it is deemed that the original was simply too “foreign” to begin with. The voices are relatively well-cast, but the timing and delivery are terrible and the lines as rescripted are atrocious. Among the “improvements” to Yamadas is a sequence where the mother breathlessly runs to the front of a bus and explains frantically that she has missed her stop. The bus driver, with a face of stone responds mechanically (and all too familiarly), “Please step back behind the white line, Ma’am.” In the English track, he instead barks out “You didn’t need to ring the bell to tell me that!” A line still funny in translation is replaced with something unfunny in any language.
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In fact, both the scenarios and characters are recognizable enough: a grouchy dad is a grouchy dad in any culture, whether he employs chopsticks or not. Whereas the cartoon strip-like narratives hew pretty much to real-life situations, there are oft-times imaginative flourishes, such as when the mother’s constant nagging to “Study Harder!” to her son multiplies in the moment into a chorus and the room fills with chanting mother clones.
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The film hits you hard over the head with the sentiment of family, but unlike a Pixar film, it means that misfortune and its consequences are something you bear together. No one is going to be granted superpowers to spare the audience from the hardship of identification. It is not unrelentingly funny, but it all rings true, which shouldn’t be daring in this day and age. Finding humor inspired by the real world and characterization is something of a waning art. The Japanese still have the West over the barrel when it comes to deriving emotion from the closely observed, no matter how fantastical the surroundings, whereas Americans are still settling for observations on the fantastical (although from everything I hear, Wall-E raised the bar for us on this side of the Pacific).

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