Here's one Studio Ghibli film which was basically completely different than what I expected. And, seeing as it's one of the only films from the studio which didn't do all that well at the Japanese box-office, I'm guessing I wasn't the only one to expect something different from it.
From looking at it vaguely, I thought My Neighbors The Yamadas would follow one goofy family as they embark on some crazy adventures. In fact, this is a much more artistic and reflective creation more akin to a deadpan comic strip. The humour isn't cartoonish at all, it's actually pretty subtle and restrained. Here we have an ensemble character study about everyday Japanese family life in which everyone looks really weird, like caricatures, and which promotes an overall cosy, poetic vibe. Our focus is entirely on this one family as we pop in and out of their lives depending on what mini-theme the movie wants to tackle. It can be about something really small, like the mother and the father fighting for the remote control or it can be about the family forgetting the little girl and worrying about her until they find her again. It's not always hilarious stuff but as a playful, observational look at family life, it's a smart and thoughtful little film and it works quite well. Unfortunately, that also means that younger viewers won't be all that interested and older viewers looking for a narrative like most of the other Studio Ghibli films will no doubt be disappointed. It must have been a nightmare to find an audience for this one.
That said, My Neighbors The Yamadas should be applauded for trying something different and daring to use animation as an art form rather than a storytelling tool. What the film lacks in obvious marketability, it makes up for in style, heart and good intentions. The techniques used to make the film's unique animation style were difficult and expensive as hell so this was doomed to be a bit of a flop from the get go, it seems. On the plus side, it really looks amazing and there's no other anime feature like it that I can think of. The film has an obvious charm to it and it'll make you feel nostalgic for family time you probably don't even enjoy all that much when it's actually happening! Still, watching such a likeable, closely-knit family go through random everyday situations has an inherent cosy quality which makes the film simply impossible to hate, even if you find it too pretentious. Some of the movie's vignettes are funny, others are purely existential and some are just random or cute. It's a mixed bag and it's unlikely you'll like everything thrown at you by the film but chances are you'll still enjoy most of its sepia-toned ponderings. Another drawback is that My Neighbors The Yamadas feels a little long for something not story-based and the music I personally found to be annoying as hell, but that's just me.
As a whole, I enjoyed My Neighbors The Yamadas and I do recommend you checking it out, at least once, if only to marvel at its uniqueness and all the hard work that went into the making of it. Besides, it does have its genuinely funny moments and the writing is sharp enough to still make you feel like you're watching a quality Studio Ghibli film.
Mature, sweet and thoughtful.