Starring Kokondei Shinchou, Makoto Nonomura, Yuriko Ishida, Norihei Miki
Written By: Isao Takahata
Directed By: Isao Takahata
Studio: Buena Vista
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While Hayao Miyazaki (Spirited Away) reaps the major awards and media attention, his Studio Ghibli colleague Isao Takahata appears the more versatile animation director. That might be why the lesser-known filmmaker is lesser known; he lacks a representational style while Miyazaki movies are easily recognized as such. Takahata, who doesn’t even have a bio on IMDB.com, is also less creative and less effective in much of his writing, but as a director his work is also less complicated, less phantasmagoric, more emotive. His Grave of the Fireflies has been known to make a grown man cry.
Thanks to Disney’s deal with Studio Ghibli, Takahata’s last two films have finally been released on DVD in America (they don’t get theatrical distribution like Miyazaki’s). Containing extremely different stories, different designs and different techniques, Pom Poko (1994) and My Neighbors the Yamadas (1999) are separate delights for grown-ups with a real appreciation for animated films (not to be confused with those who still watch Scooby-Doo while eating cereal in the evening).
Pom Poko is easily confused as a Disney-type cartoon, telling a story of adorable raccoons dealing with diminished wildlife as a result of Tokyo’s urban expansions. Think Robin Hood meets Miyazaki’s more fantastical Princess Mononoke, which shares the environmental message. But despite the cute, anthropomorphic surface, it can get pretty violent and crude. The raccoons begin their campaign against the humans by killing construction workers, though not too graphically. Whenever the animals are injured or killed, they are drawn alternatively more realistic or more sketched, either way giving them less distinction as loveable characters. Many of the themes, including terrorism, prostitution and abstinence would never show up in a Disney feature, even if they were deep enough in subtext that children might not notice them.
The really crude part comes from the Japanese folklore influencing the story: raccoons were believed to be shape shifters, the males even more magical because of their large, malleable testicles, which could change into objects while the rest of the animal retained its true form. Keeping with this myth, the male raccoons are drawn with the significant anatomy and much of the story revolves around metamorphosis, testicular aspects included. At times, the raccoons even break into the occasional song celebrating their balls. Understandably, Disney’s English-dub ignores all mention of the body parts (the drawings are not censored, however).
With Pom Poko, Takahata packs a lot of comedy and drama into a long, extensive narrative. With more than a few characters and storylines the movie can seem a bit much. It is shocking, in fact, how much he is able to include comprehensibly. The two-hours feel longer, but not because it drags. Despite some feeling of clutter, the movie fills you up like its native country’s food: you remain hungry through the consumption but feel really stuffed later on.
My Neighbors the Yamadas is nothing like Pom Poko. Based on a Japanese 4-panel comic that resembles American family-based strips “For Better or Worse” and “One Big Happy”, the drawings of Yamadas are less refined. Although the entire film was produced with computer graphics (as opposed to hand-drawn cels still used with most of Studio Ghibli’s output), it is more akin to Charlie Brown movies than the new Garfield feature. Yet unlike either, Yamadas is almost too well directed; the staging of scenes is as inventive as any in The Incredibles even if what happens in those scenes aren’t as remarkable. There is no story and no plot, only short episodes as if the 4-panels came to life. I’m unsure whether the script is based on specific strips but it plays like an adaptation of the published collections found in bookstores’ humor section.
The Yamadas consist generically of father, mother and two kids, a boy and a girl, plus a grandmother. The compiled shorts go through the motions of suburban family life: parents fighting over the remote control; kids’ getting lost at the mall; the son’s troubles in school; nagging by the grandmother towards her daughter-in-law. Occasionally the movie gets tedious and too familiar, but with the simplicity of the observational humor is a genuine sensitivity not to be confused with heart-tugging fluff. And every so often the bits get a little more capricious, dealing with superheroes and such.
The main thing to remember with both Takahata films, and this goes for all of Disney’s imports, is to watch the subtitled versions. Yamadas’ dub is not too awful; there is no vocal work by Kirsten Dunst, Claire Danes or Dakota Fanning to distract, at least. Jim Belushi and Molly Shannon are barely even recognizable, but they still seem a bit unnatural at times. As for Pom Poko, by listening to the starless dub (or reading the easily mistaken English captions of the dub) you miss all the testicle talk and a few other inclusions of adult language. And any English dub is overdone to the point of irritation.
On the DVD for Yamadas you can see a little feature with the American dub sessions, starring Belushi and Shannon, that continues my wonder of whether the actors actually do so much physical acting in the studio for real or just when the cameras are rolling. Each DVD has the option of watching the entire film as storyboards, but the Yamadas boards are way too sketchy to care and the Pom Poko boards are on a second disc which eliminates the option to go back and forth between them and the final visuals.
My Neighbors the Yamadas:
-Behind The Microphone With Voice Talent From The Film
English Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround Sound
Japanese Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround Sound
My Neighbors the Yamadas:
English Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround Sound
Japanese Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround Sound
Widescreen (1.85:1) Enhanced For 16×9 Televisions
Favorite Scenes: Pom Poko: The scene where the elder raccoon shows the men what he can do with his balls. My Neighbors the Yamadas: The scene where the grandmother tells a local gang member to become a crime fighter.
Running Time: 119 minutes