*½/**** Image A Sound B Extras D+
written and directed by Isao Takahata
MY NEIGHBORS THE YAMADAS
**/**** Image A Sound A Extras D
screenplay by Isao Takahata, based on the comic strip by Hisaichi Ishii
directed by Isao Takahata
by Walter Chaw Two films by the other guy at Studio Ghibli, Isao Takahata's Pom Poko and My Neighbors the Yamadas have the director deviating extravagantly from his masterpiece Grave of the Fireflies--one of the bona fide classics of the anime medium--by hopping from that film's heartbreaking war idyll to these films' anthropomorphic mysticism and broad slapstick. Anime gets a bad rap in the United States for being either pornographic or inscrutable (indeed, much anime pornography is inscrutable)--it's an easy way to dismiss an entire medium as foreign and/or amoral, but as a blanket condemnation it's as misguided at its essence as deriding black-and-white pictures, or talkies, or films altogether--and the truth of it is that for every memorable anime, there are probably fifty forgettable ones. As that ratio holds pretty steady for all films, though, the problem for fair-minded folks approaching the medium for the first time boils down to a picture with, crucially, a pedigree like Pom Poko.
Pom Poko's acquisition and release by Disney as part of their sudden Studio Ghibli largesse is a cause for celebration, no question, but it's a picture that presents a formidable problem. Steeped in Japanese mythology and popular culture, Pom Poko has almost no crossover appeal, will be inscrutable to the vast majority of the western audience, and, with its whimsical treatment of its animal subjects' proudly-displayed testicles, can count itself out of a lot of western homes in a culture that is notoriously squeamish about the display of the human anatomy. I say this without broaching the topic of cultural sensitivity or, indeed, curiosity, but there comes a point where cultural specificity is such that there's really no point in defending something that just doesn't translate. I hazard that in such cases, often the only possible reaction is one of paternalism--First Lady Laura Bush's description of foreign offers of aid in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina as "very sweet."
Which is not to say that there are no touch points in Pom Poko, a film about raccoons (and by extension, nature) who rail against the encroachment of industry on their land only to find that the march of time is inexorable--just to say that there are no valuable insights. The raccoons are not without resources, however, as they teach themselves to assume any form (including human) and proceed to sabotage mankind's machineries of urban development. Told documentary-style with a ubiquitous God's-eye narration, the piece is a loose series of vignettes running the gamut from scatological slapstick to opulent spectacle to semi-piquant bits of relative quiet introspection. Without form, though, and with its erudition limited to the rhetorical dead end of the nature-vs.-man tension, the film, which falls into repetition and speechifying early and often, feels interminable at close to two hours. Exacerbating our frustration, the raccoons' constant shifting between three raccoon forms (not even talking about the myriad shapes they take in their frolicking and eco-terrorism) is consistent (the dead look one way, the political look another, the animal, a third) but as tedious and ultimately unnecessary as the vast majority of the rest of it. Where Grave of the Fireflies--despite its grounding in an immutable place and time--has something complex and valuable to say to all of us, Pom Poko is an artifact of an alien culture with very specific training required to appreciate it. It's not even instructive (in fact, it's counterproductive in a lot of ways) to note that the film looks great and is animated with Studio Ghibli's typical focus on quality and detail.
Less alien but almost as vacuous is Takahata's My Neighbors the Yamadas, an animated, watercolour evocation of a popular Japanese comic strip that takes on the cadence of bound collections of comic strips. Although I love "Calvin & Hobbes" beyond all reason, I wouldn't be the first in line for a similar film treatment--or, most likely, any film treatment: It's one thing to adapt graphic novels for the screen, but comic strips (like Garfield, for instance) seldom have continuity beyond rigid characters with rigid attributes placed in stock comedic situations. With no room to develop, then, too often the situation dictates the interest in a given scenario--and while there's some interest in discovering that family sitcoms appear to work from the same well of ideas everywhere in the world, it's not enough to elevate My Neighbors the Yamadas beyond fights for the remote control, bickering with the mother-in-law, and the occasional "special" episode that deals, swiftly, with marital tension and a family joined in worry over a missing child. Though its tone is indisputably gentle (and those raised on decades of situation comedies should find it perversely comforting), it's only a film because it's been packaged as such. It'd work better, really, as the sort of festival interstitial that plays instead of previews, used the way that "The Simpsons" used to play on Fox's "The Tracey Ullman Show".
Fluffy as a French pastry and almost as cloyingly sweet (if, occasionally, spiced with some Japanese Shinto mysticism and stock existentialism), My Neighbors the Yamadas comes home courtesy Disney with the usual Disney/Ghibli special features. A "Behind the Microphone" (6 mins.) segment has American re-voicers Jim Belushi and Molly Shannon talking a lot but not saying anything. Sixteen minutes of trailers (promotional cuts, animated storyboards, etc.) are interesting to sit through at least once, I guess, while a storyboard function allows one to toggle between the finished product and its blueprint. (If it's proof that storyboards were used, consider me convinced.) The film's 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer isn't asked to do much and the telecine operators dutifully stay out of the way; ditto the two DD 5.1 audio tracks (one in the original Japanese, the other in dubbed English) that appear to my ears identically well-distributed, their main difference being the obvious fact that Jim Belushi and Molly Shannon are no substitutes for professional voice actors. Watch the subtitled original version--you won't miss a whole lot visually. Automatically-cued trailers for Howl's Moving Castle, Spirited Away, Cinderella Special Edition and the Disney/Ghibli re-releases can also be accessed through the main menu. They, along with spots for Valiant, Toy Story, and Tarzan Special Edition round out the cardboard-slipcovered presentation.
Meanwhile, the 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer of Pom Poko sizzles, reproducing the picture's lush, more traditional Studio Ghibli animation with fidelity and pop. Dolby 2.0 Surround audio mixes in Japanese and English reveal a minimum of fireworks; again, I'd choose the original track as the definitive listening option. Eight minutes of promotional spots prove to be sort of interesting, if not necessarily invaluable, with the first disc of this two-disc set rounding out with auto-trailers again of Howl's Moving Castle, Spirited Away, Cinderella Special Edition, and the Disney/Ghibli re-releases along with the same roster (Valiant, Toy Story, and Tarzan Special Edition) of other trailer choices. The second disc, like the one included with The Cat Returns, houses the entire film in its storyboarded outline. Why? You're asking the wrong guy. The swing-tray keepcase is housed in a cardboard slipcover. Originally published: September 12, 2005.
- Pom Poko
119 minutes; PG; 1.85:1 (16x9-enhanced); English Dolby Surround, Japanese Dolby Surround; CC; English subtitles; 2 DVD-9s; Region One; Disney
- My Neighbors the Yamadas
104 minutes; PG; 1.85:1 (16x9-enhanced); English DD 5.1, Japanese DD 5.1; CC; English subtitles; DVD-9; Region One; Disney