October 26, 2005

My Neighbors, the Yamadas

My Neighbors, the Yamadas ("Houhokekyo Tonari no Yamada-kun") has the most unique look of any Studio Ghibli film to date. Based on the "4-panel manga" (what we call a "comic strip") by Hisaichi Ishii, it faithfully preserves his original pen and ink, and water-color style. It also stands as perhaps the first completely digital production that looks completely hand-drawn.

Like the anime series Azumanga Daiou, also based on a 4-panel manga, My Neighbors, the Yamadas is less a cohesive, 100-minute story narrative than a series of loosely-connected comedic vignettes that follow a familiar formula: hard-working Dad, stay-at-home Mom, Brother, Sister, Grandma, and the Family Dog. Set in suburban Osaka rather than Tokyo, it can be compared in tone and style to Fox's animated sit-com series, King of the Hill, which takes place in Texas.

The sentimental, family sit-com material survives translation fairly well. The opening sequence, which delightfully analogizes the beginning of marriage with Mom and Dad racing a bobsled down the side of their wedding cake, also puns off the Japanese fairy tales Momotarou (The Peach Boy) and Kaguyahime (The Bamboo Cutter), and to storks delivering babies to a cabbage patch. But for the most part, these culture references don't obscure the humor.

True, in some scenes, a familiarity with Japanese culture is required to get the punch line. The hagaki speed-sorting scene, for example. A hagaki is a New Year's greeting card. In Japan, the post office stores up all your hagaki cards and delivers them in a big bundle on New Year's day. Other props such as the kotatsu (a cross between a coffee table and an electric blanket) and hanko (a signature stamp) get glossed over in the sub or are just ignored in the dub.

Otherwise, the family sit-com genre speaks in a universal language, and the casting of Jim Belushi makes the English-language dub work remarkably well. His longer monologues come off a bit clumsily due to lip-syncing constraints, but he captures perfectly the grumpy, exasperated repartee that these set comedy pieces demand. Of course, he plays the same part on his sit-com According to Jim. The lot of the beleaguered, middle-class dad is the same everywhere.

The one real failing of the dub is that it does not portray the Mom's (and Grandma's) distinct Kansai (Osaka) accent. To get it the contrast right, she should have at least sounded like Texas-native Peggy Hill (King of the Hill). But the narration by David Ogden Stiers more than makes up for it with his readings of the haiku poems than bracket every segment. The man has a voice like a Stradivarius. I only wish they had compiled all of his readings in the DVD extras.

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