Review for My Neighbours The Yamadas - Double Play: The Studio Ghibli Collection
Anime on Blu-ray is still something of a tricky proposition in the UK, especially given the typical production run for a Blu-ray disc, as compared to the potential audience. With a few exceptions, that limits our high definition anime here to feature films. Mind you, television anime series produced at higher than SD resolutions are a relatively new phenomenon in Japan, but some companies in the US have muddied the waters somewhat by re-releasing classic anime series upscaled from SD to HD, a questionable practice at the best of times. Fortunately that isn't a practice that UK distributors have adopted. Anime on Blu-ray is still going through some teething problems though.
You'd think that Studio Ghibli would be immune to this, given the immense popularity of their catalogue practically guaranteeing sales, and the fact that most if not all of their releases in the West are theatrical features, perfect material for Blu-ray presentation. But Studio Ghibli have been surprisingly reticent to release their films on Blu-ray, and it was only with the arrival of their most recent feature Ponyo last year that we saw their first such disc. Fans were probably waiting for the floodgates to open when it came to the release of the back catalogue, but it's been more of a trickle than a flood. That's probably a good sign though, as it means that Studio Ghibli are making the effort to release these films in as fine a condition as possible. Certainly their first back catalogue Blu, Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind has been universally applauded on online reviews for the quality of its transfer.
That was released in the UK by Optimum last October. It's taken until May for the next Studio Ghibli Blu-ray to arrive, and just like waiting for buses, we get two at once. This summer we will have high definition releases of Laputa: Castle in the Sky, and My Neighbours The Yamadas to marvel at. But with every moment of joy, there is a smidgen of annoyance. Casual Ghibli fans may be irked to learn that for the Blu-rays, the numbers on the spines will be in release order, not the DVD release order, so if you're thinking of a selective upgrade of your collection, the spine numbers won't match. Of course hardcore Ghibli fans will probably upgrade the whole collection. Another little irk is that there is already some inconsistency. Ponyo was released as a DVD and Blu-ray double-play. My Neighbours The Yamadas and Laputa will also be released that way, but Nausicaa was Blu-ray only.
On the face of it, My Neighbours The Yamadas is the last of the Ghiblis that you would expect to make the transition to high definition; after all, it's not the most detailed and visually intense animation. Based on a four panel Hisaichi Ishii comic strip, its character designs are very simplistic, its world design equally so, the animation is mostly down to earth and straightforward, and the colour palette gentle and relaxing. It's very much in the mode of a Peanuts animation, and you wouldn't think that such an animation would benefit from 1080 lines of definition. Add to that its place in Ghibli history, made in 1999 as the first such animation from that company to be animated digitally using computers rather than traditionally with paints and cels. I've often noted how poorly early digital anime in general has translated to DVD, let alone Blu-ray, and I do have a smidgen of concern. I must state though that I have never seen My Neighbours The Yamadas prior to the Blu-ray, so I won't be able to compare and contrast.
The Yamadas are the typical atypical family, braving the stormy seas of everyday life, facing adversity together through thick and thin, although they are often the source of that adversity. The head of the family is hard working salaryman and breadwinner Takashi Yamada, whose one dearest wish would be for an easier life. Naturally his family thwarts him in this, not least his wife Natsuko, absent-minded and unconventional. Their teenaged son Noboru is at that age where he wishes that he had cooler parents, and is just beginning to discover girls. The youngest child is daughter Nonoko, and apart from her appetite and vocal impact, she may just be the sanest one of the family. Actually the head of the family is grandmother Shige, who own the land that Takashi built their house on, and she never lets him forget it, or the fact that she has the sharpest tongue in the family. My Neighbours The Yamadas offers little vignettes into the lives of this eccentric family.
I'm still new enough to this Blu-ray malarkey to be overwhelmed by each subsequent transfer. My first Ghibli Blu-ray is no exception, with a crystal clear, and beautifully defined 1080p 1.78:1 widescreen transfer. What surprised me was that there are no black borders. The Ghibli DVDs that I have seen all have black borders to combat overscan on old CRT sets. The Yamadas Blu-ray makes use of every pixel available to it. There's also the joy of watching the film in its intended 24 frames per second, as opposed to being converted to PAL, or worse still, a low resolution, prone to ghosting NTSC-PAL conversion. You're already winning with the Blu-ray in that respect.
What I wasn't expecting was how good a simple animation like My Neighbours The Yamadas would look in high definition. The character designs are still simplistic, the world design too, but every line is clearly defined and accurately reproduced. Where on DVD you may get jaggies and aliasing, there's none of that here. What impressed me most were the colours. My Neighbours The Yamadas uses watercolours for its backgrounds, and slightly stronger pastel shades for its characters. The thing about watercolours is that there are natural gradients to how the colour is distributed. This is all accurately reproduced on Blu-ray to my eyes. It would be impossible to do the same on DVD, you would hit problems like macroblocking and colour banding the moment there was any step change in colour intensity.
Despite the simple animation, there is detail and nuance if you look for it. Yamadas looks as if it is animated on paper; and there is a paper-like texture to the backgrounds. There is also imperfection by design in the animation. Colours don't necessarily fill spaces perfectly, and lines aren't necessarily perfectly defined and complete. There is even a minute almost imperceptible lateral wobble to the image. It's as if they took the animation style used in the Roobarb cartoons, and dialled it back until it barely registers. It gives the film a very natural, organic feel. The only flaw I noticed was in one scene where a character moved, but the textured colour of his jacket stayed stuck in position on the screen, but that may be an artefact of how the film was animated back in 1999.
The images in this review are sourced from the PR material, and aren't necessarily representative of the Blu-ray disc.
You have the choice of DTS-HD MA 5.1 Japanese and English, with optional translated English subtitles. I went for the original language with subtitles first. The film's audio reflects its simplistic visual ethos; the dialogue is mostly confined to the central channel, while the surrounds are mostly used for the music. Still there is a clarity and presence to the sound that is really pleasant, especially considering the eclectic selection of music in the film, from classical to gentle pop. I tried the English dub, and as usual for a Ghibli title with Disney backing to it, it's a high quality dub, with Jim Belushi ideally cast as Takashi Yamada. There is a lot of on screen text in the film, and that could have meant some gripes at the lack of a signs only track, but the larger presence of a narrator in the English version solves that. In fact my only gripe is in that the subtitles have been localised, with Yen prices converted to dollars, and with people dialling 911 when calling the police.
This dual play release has both the new Blu-ray disc, and the original DVD with it, but I only received the Blu-ray check disc, and can't comment on the DVD or its extras. That said, this Blu-ray does offer a fair bit more than its lower resolution counterpart when it comes to extra features.
The disc comes with some understated animated menus to present the film.
Making the leap across from DVD are the storyboards, which aren't the multi-angle, picture in picture affair that you usually expect from Ghibli discs. In this case they are presented in a gallery format, 344 pages of HD pencil sketch storyboards for you to click your way through. It may have been better to present this in slideshow format to save on remote control wear.
Also originally on the DVD and now on the Blu-ray are 2 minutes of TV Spots in SD resolution, and 13 minutes of the Original Theatrical Trailers in HD. The trailers start with the pencil sketch promo reel that was used when the film was first announced as Ghibli's next project.
There are 10 minutes worth of Studio Ghibli trailers, Nausicaa, Ponyo, Howl's Moving Castle, Tales From Earthsea, Laputa: Castle in the Sky, and Spirited Away.
New to the Blu-ray are two featurettes, with a Behind The Microphone 5½-minute glimpse at the English voice actors at work. More substantial is the NTV Special Program that lasts 45 minutes. This is an SD quality featurette that takes a look at the making of the film, with behind the scenes glimpses of the animation, the voice recording, and the composition of the film's music. Of most interest are the interviews with Hayao Miyazaki and Isao Takahata, and how two very different visions have come together to make Ghibli what it is.
My mention of the Peanuts cartoons and comic strips was deliberate, as while not only reminiscent of the Charles Shultz comics in visual simplicity and short vignette style, it also captures the same gentleness, the same wry observation on life, a similar mix of comedy, philosophical musings, and occasional flights of imaginative fancy. It's a little more mature and adult in tone; perhaps what the Peanuts gang would have been like if they had ever grown up from their eternal childhood. As such, it was a little surprising to find that My Neighbours The Yamadas was so welcoming and familiar in tone. It's very much a warm, reflective, and gentle musing on the family unit, a celebration of the imperfections and flaws in life, Isao Takahashi's message is to take life easy and not be hung up on every setback and disappointment.
It's not a feature film with a plot however, rather a collection of observations of this slightly odd family, seeing them in various aspects of their lives, the challenges they face and how they react. Any attempt to describe it would invariably end up as a lengthy collection of best bits, which would spoil the film to some extent. Although I do feel compelled to share my enjoyment of the scene where Takashi has a slow motion kung fu battle with his wife for mastery of the television remote control, or grandma's unexpected admiration for a pesky caterpillar on a florist's prize chrysanthemums, the family forgetting Nonoko in a department store, or Noboru's first love and how he reacts to a simple phone call.
It's not all simple four-panel comic strip humour though, as there are diversions, flights of fancy that remind you that you are watching a theatrical feature. Early on, there is a wonderful allegory of marriage and family, that begins with the happy couple embarking on a perilous bobsleigh ride, and that blossoms into something spectacular. Then later on there is a real world interlude, quite dark and moody (a little like the A-ha Take On Me video), where Takashi fails to deal with a couple of antisocial louts, only for grandma Shige to manage the situation and emasculate him into the process. He deals with this by embarking on a fantasy of imagination that casts him in the role of a superhero, unconstrained by his own fears. It's moments like these that stopped me from wondering why My Neighbours The Yamadas was a feature film and not a television show, as it so easily could be.
My Neighbours The Yamadas didn't blow me away. It's a simple, enjoyable film, but one that doesn't engender any lasting appreciation. Having said that, it is in my mind the most accessible of Isao Takahata's films that I have seen, not as harrowing as Grave of the Fireflies, as reflective as Only Yesterday, or just plain weird as Pom Poko. My Neighbours The Yamadas on the other hand offers a little something for everyone. It's a film that revels in the quirks in human character, finds joy in the small things, a little leftfield view of life that is by turns funny, entertaining, thoughtful and silly. It's comfort food for the soul.