Mundanity through Studio Ghibli
Why slice of life matters
Studio Ghibli is the most famous film studio in Japan. Everyone can identify what a “Ghibli character” looks like, even if they don’t watch the movies. It is one of the things that uniquely makes Ghibli an international brand, beyond every other anime studio.
Also, yes I am talking Ghibli again… but hopefully in a new way. For context, the above character is Totoro from the movie My Neighbour Totoro. This article isn't about this film. This is a deep dive into one of the Studio's most overlooked movies.
My Neighbours the Yamadas (MNtY), is very different to the classic spectacle of colour and style. Even though it is in the My Neighbours Cinematic Universe, the two films could hardly be more different. From the outset it is a series of vignettes following a single family in a standard nondescript Japanese house, in a standard nondescript Japanese town.
This is in stark contrast to the imagination land world building that keen Ghibli fans are accustomed to. Tourists from around the world travel to the Ghibli Museum in Mitaka, Tokyo scouring online forums explaining how to find a ticket. They don’t go there to understand how Ghibli came up with the idea of a Japanese family.
Ghibli Park in Nagoya is the new popular destination among devotees, with giant models replicating famous fantastical locations and characters from their films (see link below for more). What they didn’t build was a replica of the Yamada’s residence or really feature any of the Yamadas even in in merchandise. For more on Ghibli Park, I’ve written extensively on our visit.
In reviewing MNtY, it is impossible to avoid the context that it’s the Ghibli movie that is the least Ghibli. Although hopping cursed turnip-headed scarecrows (Howl’s Moving Castle) don’t appear to have much to do with parent-pig transformations (Spirited Away), the concept of magical realism permeates every other Ghibli movie. It has meant MNtY isn’t shown in the Ghibli movie marathons, isn’t a highlighted classic and has just been overlooked amongst the ouevre. The subject matter is different, the aesthetic is different and the location is different.
Ghibli movies don’t deal with the family unit, often focusing on a young female protagonist. Scratch that, most movies don’t deal with family units. They are more ready to claim an ensemble of fast driving covert ops agents or equivalent (I haven’t seen Fast and Furious 15) as family, than actually making a movie about family. My theory is that it's just hard to develop and track characters across generations and provide them with interesting motivations and storylines. Much tidier to follow one or two characters around.
How does Ghibli approach family in a movie that has family in the title?
Well the most obvious trait the family in MnTY has is being annoying. Clearly a conscious decision by the director Isao Takahata, each character in the family breaks social and ethical boundaries. Not in any way that is film-worthy, no one is breaking into banks here. More in a day to day eavesdropping manner. Takahata chooses to focus on aspects of life that wouldn’t even make it onto Facebook.
The mundane family relationships is major strength of the movie since it feels painfully real. You can imagine your own family members going out of their way to bother you in the exact scenes MnTY are fond of portraying. Instead of tediousness, the movie celebrates this.
This is at odds with how Japan projects itself using mass media. If you imagine Japan on film, it’s either ancient samurai warfare or futuristic cyberpunk landscapes. The Yamadas strips this preconception away and leaves a frustrated family in it’s wake. This clearly draw from his own family dynamics, but it certainly makes for relatable content.
For me, this shows the Japan I know. One filled with life’s minor inconveniences and petty squabbles, or told another way, a real country with people facing human problems.
Substance or style
Beyond just having annoying characters, the film is almost intentionally incongruous with traditional Ghibli and Takahata style. Instead of the intricately imagined and recreated details of the other Ghibli work, the movie looks almost incomplete. The characters are drawn in a crass caricature manner that look more comfortable on a comic strip than a movie.
While Ghibli has adapted from other works before (Howl’s Moving Castle, Tales from Earthsea), this is actually drawn directly from a newspaper comic strip, Nono-Chan. It'd be like if Pixar announced their next movie was based on Garfield.
So what is Takahata trying to say with this stunt?
Slice of Life
A tangent into the genre of slice of life helps explain this perplexing movie. Popularity for mundane activity watching has soared. There are hundreds if not thousands of nichijoukei (directly translated to daily life) content. This is not restricted to carefully hand drawn cartoons either, think of the millions watching daily vloggers or reading weekly Substackers.
Admittedly this has not been an area of interest for me. I mean, I live a daily (mundane) life myself, so why would I choose to watch something that mirrors that?
Well after watching MnTY with its crude artwork and cruder family, I started noticing something.
Nichijoukei content was all around me. In fact, they were favourites of mine and I just hadn’t noticed before. Seinfeld is by their own motto, a show about nothing. Of course that also brings in Curb Your Enthusiasm, The Office (sort of with the British version), and even Friends (for the non will they, won't they bits). Movies like Boyhood, Clerks, and Eighth Grade, none of them really have overarching plots. Am I also a Slice of Lifer?
The way I rationalised my own enjoyment of this media is that it’s much easier to relate to people who have mundane day-to-day problems. Even if I’ve after fighting dragons and defeating evil snappy fingered villains, these concerns are not universal. With that, there is only so much supernatural content that you can consume before being worn out by their unrelateable issues.
Amidst all of the crash bang superhero-laden content, often its the human and everyday moments that fans gravitate towards. The more otherwordly the movies and TV Shows are, the less frequently people are able to watch as they hit an excitement per minute overload.
Instead, Slice of Life can describe comfort in all scenarios. So it’s little wonder this has become the most popular media in each genre, watching others live their life is easier than living it yourself. Everything just is low effort living; from games like the Sims, or even lower effort activities than pretending to be people like watching family and friends interact in TV, movies, and anime.
Back to the Yamadas.
By deviating from their norm, the filmmakers may also believe that audiences are asking for more of the “quiet” content. Fans of the Studio have regularly claimed that its the slower and more deliberate pace that they love most about Ghibli films. My Neighbours the Yamadas tests this theory, delivering often the least enjoyable aspects of family on a big screen.
Is MnTY a movie that pushes boundaries or plays by the slice of life anime rules? Do we reward filmmakers for rerunning the old classics or is it better for them to try something new?
The best and worst thing for MnTY is that it is a Studio Ghibli movie. It carries all of the baggage that people expect from the acclaimed studio, as well as bringing some of the audience. By using this pre supposed belief of how a Ghibli movie should looks and feel, Takahata reveals his own values of choosing family through the brief highs and the frequent lows. The art mimics this rough portrait of the world and somehow brings the characters even more to life.
My short review would be, it's an enjoyable watch that is meant to be unbearable when characters imitate your own family.
Amid all the chaos, the mundanity of the daily is what matters. Be it family, everyday interactions, and neighbours, the joy is found in these small things. By the end, this wider message tells us that the Yamada family is happy being a mundane slice of life. The filmmakers are also happy to have My Neighbours the Yamadas be their most mundane (or boring). Maybe this should be enough for all of us.
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