Mark Mayerson

Writer, Cartoonist, Sculptor

My Neighbors, The Yamadas and Pom Poko
(March 30, 2013)

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.