Saturday, March 30, 2013

My Neighbors, The Yamadas and Pom Poko

While I am very familiar with the Studio Ghibli films directed by Hayao Miyazaki, I have to admit that I haven't paid as much attention to Ghibli's other directors.  In the last week, I watched My Neighbors, The Yamadas and Pom Poko, both directed by Isao Takahata.  Both films, though very different, were excellent.  I wish that I'd watched them sooner.

My Neighbors, The Yamadas is basically a sitcom and based on a Japanese comic.  However, there are sitcoms and sitcoms.  Lucille Ball getting her fingers stuck in a bowling ball when Desi Arnaz is bringing home an important business contact for dinner is one kind.  The characters in I Love Lucy are well defined, but shallow.  The pleasure comes from seeing how the characters react in a given situation.  There's real craft to this kind of show, but it's not really about character.

The other kind of sitcom is one where the situations reveal more about the characters' inner workings.  Shows like M*A*S*H or Frasier are not only funny, but also dig deep to reveal their characters' humanity.  For all her talent, Lucille Ball doesn't fit into this kind of show.

On the surface, My Neighbors, The Yamadas is a series of vignettes built around a five person family: mother, father, son, daughter and grandmother.  That's not very promising material; we've seen this kind of thing hundreds of times.  However, while the character designs are far more cartoony than the typical Ghibli production, implying a shallowness to the content, the characterizations are at least as good as anything Ghibli has produced.  The film is quiet and unspectacular, but the characters are so beautifully developed that they have depth that few recent animated characters have.  What is so appealing to me is that these depths aren't revealed through overwrought drama, but through thoroughly mundane daily events.

I've always admired Bakshi's Heavy Traffic for it's combination of cartoony design and emotional depth.  My Neighbors, The Yamadas resembles Bakshi in this way and it stands in stark contrast to the current crop of cgi films that fill the screen with detail while presenting characters who are not nearly as rich.

Pom Poko is radically different film than The Yamadas in terms of design and story, but like it in having so much going on beneath the surface.  The story concerns the expansion of human suburbs destroying the forest home of the tanuki, a species that Disney has labelled racoons in their dub and subtitles, but apparently is a form of badger.  The tanuki have a rich folklore in Japan and are supposed to be shape shifters.

On the surface, this is another ecological fable, something Ghibli has dealt with on several occasions.  However, the various ways the tanuki attempt to deal with the human expansion says more about the plight of aboriginal people than it does about wildlife.  I don't know enough about the Ainu, Japan's aboriginal people, to know how this film relates to their experiences, but Pom Poko could have been written about the natives of North America.  One tanuki contingent wants to violently resist and kill the human interlopers.  There is real death in this film, unusual for a film that seems to be family-friendly.  Another contingent ends up assimilating, using their shape-shifting abilities to live as humans.  The remainder of the tanuki attempt to maintain their way of life under greatly reduced circumstances.

How unusual for a animated film to deal with issues of terrorism, assimilation and the attempt of colonised people to maintain their culture.  Name a North American animated feature that even comes close.

Pom Poko is also unusually frank by North American standards about biology.  The male tanuki are drawn with visible testicles and have no reservation about using them in their transformations as well as singing with pride about them.  Given Disney's skittishness about Song of the South, it's amazing to me that Disney released this DVD.  I can only guess it was due to a contractual obligation rather than a willingness to stand behind the content.  The film is as subversive a family entertainment as I've ever seen though I'm not aware of any flak aimed at Disney as a result.

After watching these films, I will be doing my best to see the rest of Takahata's work.  These two films have placed him high on my list of the most important animation directors.


Brubaker said...

Japan's never been skittish about nudity in cartoons, even when aimed at kids. Growing up in Japan, I watched a ton of cartoons that had nudity.

I enjoyed "The Yamadas" (I always enjoyed it whenever they animated Hisaichi Ishii's comic strips), but I still haven't checked out "Pom Poko" yet.

If you haven't seen it yet, I recommend Takahata's "Grave of the Fireflies" as well.

S. Stephani Soejono said...

I really liked the part where The Dad in Yamada was trying to get local delinquents to be quiet but failing miserably. And the bits when the son was instructed to study by his mother that eventually the scolding became a song

mélanie daigle said...

I was hooked on Isao Takahata's version of Anne of Green Gables when I was a kid. It used to air on SRC (the French CBC) along with many other Japanese and Japanese/French co-productions back in the day. It was only after watching My Neighbors, The Yamadas many years later that I realized the same person directed both projects! Quiet films that focus on characters in everyday situations are my absolute favourites - animated or not - and I suspect all those hours I spent mesmerized by Anne of Green Gables and Heidi as a kid have something to do with it :)

I know it's terrible, but I've yet to work up the courage to watch Grave of the Fireflies...

Brubaker said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Brubaker said...

It should be noted that Takahata can't draw at all, one of the few animation directors that doesn't do any drawings. He relies on other people to do preliminary artworks and designs for him.

That's why his films have wide variety of designs; it all depends on who was working with Takahata on that project.

Christopher Sobieniak said...

That is important to note about Takahata's work Brubaker. It certainly doesn't make him a bad direction given the employment of talented people under his wing to bring his ideas to life.

Christopher Sobieniak said...

Arguably America has always been very prudish when it comes to what is considered decent, even to see on animals in art/animation. While I suppose I never thought about that as a kid, it's something I find pretty hard to figure how why so many have to question the biological functions of a character that clearly is not draw as bearing any anatomical functions relating to it (it's a cartoon after all). Yet at the same time, it's funny how we often deflate that issue well in animation because we could sometimes suggest an animal was either female or male through the usual humanized traits often in the facial/body department. It's never about what's between the legs, but too often we end up looking down there anyway.

Daniel Thomas MacInnes said...

If you're curious about the rest of Isao Takahata's storied career, we can easily hook you up at the Ghibli Blog. Cough, ahem. Seriously, though, it's always good to see someone else discover the great director's work. I was lucky to see Yamada-kun on the big screen back in November, and it's such a sensational movie. A very quiet and serene one, too, which unfortunately confused Japanese moviegoers who wanted another Princess Mononoke.

Michael Sporn said...

I have to thank Daniel Thomas MacInnes for my appreciation of Takahata's work. He literally made me feel guilty for not having seen these brilliant films. And all he did was to so generously give me copies of many of the films.

It's wonderful to come upon a really fine director knowing you'll have hours of pleasurable viewing ahead. I'm looking forward to seeing his newest film, "The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter."

Agha_Memnun said...

Here is Takahata's incredible (and, yes, quite subversive) 1968 directorial debut, "Horus, Prince of the Sun":

Brubaker said...

Isao Takahata started directing on Toei's television shows.

Here's an example, a final episode of "Moretsu Ataro". Takahata directed both segments (and also the opening title).

No English subs. Sorry.

Rodrigo Caetano da Costa said...

Also great movies from Takahata are "Grave of the Fireflies" as you probably know and "Only Yesterday", both great movies! His last feature for Ghibli was in 1999, the Yamadas themself, but in Fall 2013 his releasing another one called "The Tale of Princess Kaguya"! Can't wait!