In this occasional series, Illustrated Man, I will explore the intersection of anthropology and comic books, graphic novels, comic strips, animation, and other manner of popular drawn art.
I was first exposed to the beauty of Studio Ghibli productions back in my dreadlocked college daze, years before I became the father of three girls. I’ve long treasured a secret joy found only in children’s programing and in my free time – back when I had free time – I’d randomly chose selections from the kid’s section of Hollywood Video (a commercial business that rented something called “VHS” — feature films stored on magnetic tape, I know it sounds weird).
This is how I discovered Hayao Miyazaki and the beloved classic, My Neighbor Totoro. A truly transcendent film, a gift to the future. I went on to become a huge Ghibli fan. I’ve seen twelve of their nineteen features (at least according to Wikipedia) and I am now eagerly anticipating the U.S. release of Tales of Earthsea, based on the fantasy series by anthropology scion Ursla K. Le Quin.
In the 1990s, as American popular culture began to take note of Japanese anime and manga Ghibli rose in profile as a preeminent studio. Eventually its stateside distribution would be picked up by Disney under the leadership of superfan, John Lasseter. This has been both a blessing and a curse. Unfortunately this has led to a redubbing of the treasured Totoro, which replaced the original cast with celebrity voices and changed the Japanese soundtrack to one Disney believed was more palatable to American ears. Prior to this Totoro was distributed in the U.S. by low-budget and cult favorite, Troma Entertainment. If at all possible, I encourage you to seek out the earlier Troma dub or, if you have an international DVD player, the Japanese language version with English subtitles. If the fiasco surrounding the Disney release of Jacques Perrin’s Oceans is any indication, it seems likely that Disney has taken creative liberties, intentionally mistranslated, or simply cut some aspects of Japanese culture to appease American audiences.
And yet, Disney produced the American release of Spirited Away, a film many consider to be Miyazaki’s masterpiece and which won an Oscar in 2003 for best animated feature, and, most recently, the early 2010 hit Ponyo. Disney has also sought to capitalize on Ghibli’s back catalog, producing original dubs of older features previously unreleased in the U.S. including the subject of this post, My Neighbors the Yamadas.
Right off the bat, American fans of Japanese popular culture will notice that My Neighbors the Yamadas does not look like an anime film. It has a completely different stylistic feel. In place of anime’s infantile, doe-like eyes and expressive hair on long and lean bodies we get something that appears to be watercolor over ink lines with the aesthetic character of a color comic strip in a Sunday paper.
The Yamadas is not directed by Miyazaki but Isao Takahata, a anime director famous in Japan but relatively less known to American audiences (most notably Roger Ebert championed Takahata’s Grave of the Fireflies, calling it one of the greatest anti-war movies of all time). With the Yamadas, Takahata has created a genuine sleeper hit that is beautiful, sophisticated, and hilarious.
Narratively My Neighbors the Yamadas is a collection of vignettes almost all of which depict events in everyday life from the point of view of different members of the Yamada family. The short sketches are indicative of the material’s origin as a comic strip. There is the father, Takashi, and mother Matsuko. Teenage son Noboru and grade school aged daughter, Nonoko. Shige is the grandmother and Pochi the family dog. As in the previous entry for Illustrated Man on American Splendor, my appreciation of Yamadas stems from its detailed portrayal of the ordinary. Like American Splendor these are “slice of life” sketches and while the gags don’t hit pay dirt every time they come quickly and there’s enough of them so something is going to stick.
The vignettes are strung together in thematic segments, often with ironic titles like “Domestic Goddess” for a series of stories about Matsuko. Her stories center around the labor of being a housewife: doing the laundry, shopping, changing light bulbs, doing the dishes, and getting the house ready for company to visit. “Marriage Yamada Style” features Takashi and Matsuko together, doing little things for one another, annoying each other, eating out, and fighting over the TV set. Like in a musical, realism can suddenly give way to fantasy sequences, like when their epic battle over the remote control turns into this dance number:
My Neighbors the Yamadas is made all the more unique by its use of haiku as a segue between vignettes. Irascible Shige visits an elderly friend in the hospital that seems more like a country club. But when she demands of her friend, “Just what are you in for?” the friend turns to tears and they walk away together in silence. A narrator’s voice reads “No sign of death’s approach in the cicadas’ voices.”
In another scene Noboru takes a phone call from a girl while Matsuko and Shige watch with great interest. After he says goodbye he bounds to his room and turns up the music loud, with shouts of ecstasy he dances on his bed. “The scent of plums on a mountain path. Suddenly dawn.”
Takashi stumbles home late from work and is completely exhausted, everyone is asleep save Matsuko who is watching TV. He demands dinner and without looking up from the TV she informs he can have beancake or a banana. Disgusted he spits out, “Who wants to come home after a hard day’s work to beancake.” And she gets up, “So the banana, then?” He struggles even to get a cigarette to his lips he’s so tired as she fetches his fruit and some tea before sitting down to watch her show. Absentmindedly, Takashi puts the banana in his mouth without peeling it. “Turn toward me. I’m lonely too. The autumn dusk.”
I queried my friend and anthropologist of Japan, Chris Nelson, about the significance of haiku in My Neighbors the Yamadas. To my mind it served to elevate the quotidian events of the Yamadas’ life into something beautiful, equating poetry with the chores of a housewife, the insecurities of a socially awkward teen, the trials of a small child lost in the mall. Additionally, I read it as marking the stories as particularly Japanese as if the haiku was doing some nationalist work too. The original Japanese movie trailers, which come packaged as special features on the Disney DVD make clear that the Yamadas were marketed not only as a typical family, but as a quintessentially Japanese family.
Though he had not yet seen the feature, Chris took a break from archival work in Okinawa to offer this thoughtful reply:
I don’t think that the use of poetry is really marked or unusual in this particular Japanese context. In fact, I was reading your message in a coffee shop after I had been turning the pages in the weekend paper (local, not national). There in the middle were two pages of poems submitted by readers. Most of them have the same kind of seasonal cues that you’ve mentioned. What the poem does is tie the particular event of the story to the season, but also to something more abstract. It works to tie something from daily life to the ineffable. If I were a poet and I was going to write a poem, I would try to do the same thing.
It speaks to connoisseurs of poetry, who get the allusions. It also challenges me to try to say something novel with all of these “already saids.” The Ghibli folks are extending this to cartoons, but there’s also something pleasantly familiar about that to most viewers, who have seen this in lots of conventional TV animations (many made in the visual style of this one). In the case of the animation, it also provides a kind of narrative closure for the story and links a modern animation to older forms of popular performance.
There is much in My Neighbors the Yamadas that an anthropological audience will find pleasantly familiar. The English dub, staring Jim Belushi and Molly Shannon as the dad and mom, is available on Netflix and is totally adorable. I watched it with my seven year olds and they thoroughly enjoyed it. The only thing I could compare it to are the early years of The Simpsons. Those first three seasons when The Simpsons was irreverent and quirky with a sweet, affectionate core that stands in contrast to the wacky, bawdy, and self-referential years that followed. So Yamadas is family friendly, but like the early Simpsons it depicts an imperfect family in a way that will amuse adults, not because of its references to popular culture but because its representation of domestic life are humorous and honest. The Yamada family bickers and can be petty, even passive aggressive, but their faults are all recognizable and realistic.
Like my father told me, “You can pick your nose, but you can’t pick your relatives.” Que sera sera, what will be will be.