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Tuesday, July 20, 1999

'Neighbors' move from paper to screen


When I first heard that Studio Ghibli was going to base its next film on Hisaichi Ishii's "Hohokekyo Tonari no Yamada-kun (My Neighbors the Yamadas)" -- a must-read for millions in the Asahi Shimbun" -- I had my doubts.The best gag manga have a pinch of comic acid that often gets leached away in the transition from the page to the screen, leaving only harmless whimsy.

The reasons are various, top-flight animators would usually rather tackle the weighty themes and technical challenges of SF than animate the childishly drawn characters of a gag manga. The ones who take on the assignment tend to be literal-minded sorts with low budgets and tight production schedules, who think that simple drawings equal simple animation and that family manga equals bland sitcom for the masses. Thus "Sazae-san."

Studio Ghibli co-founder Isao Takahata, whose directing credits include the incredibly sad "Hotaru no Haka" and the incredibly inventive "Heisei Tanuki Gassen Pompoko," had his own doubts: "Tonari no Yamada-kun" didn't fit the Ghibli image. Also, he knew it would be difficult to string Ishii's strip to feature length.

Nonetheless, Takahata and his Studio Ghibli staff decided to make a movie from Ishii's strip and, I am glad to say, it is a sheer delight -- not only laugh-out-loud funny from beginning to end but a dazzling expression of Ghibli's craft and creativity. No one else in Japan -- or the world for that matter -- makes feature animation with such lyricism, originality and mastery of technique and content. Instead of imposing their highly distinctive house style on Ishii's work, Ghibli animators have brought his characters to hilariously -- and at times touchingly -- individual life. They have brilliantly expanded the manga beyond its four-frame format, without sacrificing its down-home appeal.

There is no story to speak of. Instead the film follows the misadventures of the Yamada family through their daily and yearly round, organized by theme and interspersed with haiku that provide ironic counterpoint. This approach gives shape and flow to the material without forcing it to follow the twists and turns of the standard plot.

Instead of the conventional animation approach of TV cartoon shows, which use the minimal number of cels needed to set the characters into clunky motion, Ghibli has opted for full-digital animation -- a studio first -- while using nearly 160,000 drawings to achieve fluid, realistic motion.

Also, instead of the bright, primary colors usually used for sitcom animation, Takahata has chosen a watercolor palette that is warm but delicate, that evokes atmosphere without being overbearing. Also, rather than slather color everywhere, Takahata and his staff have used it sparingly and expressively, to focus the eye on the center of action, while suggesting the scene's key emotion. There is nothing austere about this understatement -- rather it reinforces the film's relaxed, let-it-hang-out mood and its take-it-easy message.

Does anyone need an introduction to the characters? There is Matsuko, the mother (Yukiji Asaoka), who is lazy, lumpish and addicted to rice crackers, but has an easy-going nature impossible to dislike. There is Takashi, the father (Toru Masuoka), a stolid salaryman whose macho pretensions are constantly being punctured by his less-than-reverent family. There is Shige, the grandmother (Masako Araki), a sharp-tongued type who is afraid of no one and nothing. There is Noboru, the teenage son (Hayato Isohata), an average student with oversized dreams, who looks like a junior edition of his father. Finally there is Nonoko, the cute kid sister (Naomi Uno), who may be in the third grade, but has the appetite of a sumo wrestler.

Did I forget anyone? Yes, the dog, Pochi, who never opens his mouth, but takes a dim view of his human family's idiocies.

Many of the scenes follow the four-frame format, including a duel between Matsuko and Takashi over the TV remote control that had me laughing until my sides hurt. The film also presents extended segments that venture farther into both fantasy and realism than the manga. In one, Noboru's musings about the shape his life would have taken if he'd been born to more interesting parents take literal shape -- and provide Ghibli animators a pretext for treating us to a wonderfully inventive journey that features their trademark flying sequences.

In another, the Yamadas confront a motorcycle gang that invades their neighborhood. When Takashi, wearing a hard hat and wielding a ball bat, fails to route the bikers -- Shige is the one who finally shames them into leaving -- he suffers a loss of face that injects a moment of pathos (amusingly undercut when he begins imagining himself a scooter-riding superhero).

The score, by singer-songwriter Akiko Yano, blends classical standards, pop novelties and other musical flavors in ways that accentuate the gags without stepping on them.

Any complaints? At 104 minutes the movie runs a bit long, but given the affection Takahata has for his creations, we understand why he is reluctant to leave them. For the rest of us, "Tonari no Yamada-kun" is an ideal remedy for the recessionary blahs. As long as Japan has its Yamadas, who know how to enjoy life while bumbling through it, there's still hope for the place.

"Hohokekyo Tonari no Yamada-kun" is playing at Togeki and other theaters.


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