My Neighbours the Yamadas (1999)

Nonoka is the youngest child of the Yamadas, an ordinary family living in Japan. She lives with her older brother, her mother and father, and her grandmother. The film is a series of vignettes showing their everyday interactions. In one of the early segments we see Nonoka being left at a supermarket by her family after she falls asleep, and their panicked attempts to find her again. Another shows attempts by the father to bond with his son. While they are not tied together by theme or an overarching plot, these segments give a full picture of family life that is sure to resonate with many people.

The film is based on a manga by Hisaichi Ishii with a screenplay by director Isao Takahata. The story feels very much like a serialised comic strip, with some scenes being no more than a single joke or reflection on family life. They  are punctuated by haiku which give a wry reflection on the behaviours of the characters, by creating a poetic image to symbolise the commonplace experiences. The animation is done in digital watercolours, that give the sense of a moving picture book. Similarly, the chaptered approach keeps things interesting. There is no real structure and the film is more akin to watching a series of shorts than a single narrative. The humour in the film is well-observed, relying on the family dynamics and characters. In particular, the bickering between husband and wife, the grandmother’s nonchalant rudeness, or Nonoka’s stoic acceptance of the bizarre situations she encounters. The script in this regard is excellent in reflecting everyday conversations between family members and different generations. There is also great use of fantasy sequences that are perhaps a reference to Nonoka’s understanding of events. The melodic piano score and bright visuals create a peaceful atmosphere that gives levity to any threat, such as the parents losing their daughter, or confronting a biker gang.

“My Neighbours the Yamadas” is a film that has a timeless quality, with eternally relevant subject matter, and an art style that is sure to be enjoyed for years to come. There is a poignancy to several scenes that manages to compliment the humour without becoming overbearing. This is a film that can be appreciated by different generations, with different experiences and perspectives colouring their response to the film. Children are sure to find humorous parallels to their own lives, while adults may share the parents’ frustrations at older relatives. Overall, the film is a joyful experience that manages to perfectly capture the family experience.

Tokyo Godfathers (2003)

Set in Tokyo, in the lead up to New Year, the film follows three unlikely companions, Gin (Toru Emori), an alcoholic who has lost his wife and daughter, Hana (Yoshiaki Umegaki), a transvestite, and Miyuki (Aya Okamoto), a young girl who has run-away from her parents. These three homeless individuals become part of a bizarre tale when they find a baby left in a pile of rubbish. Full of unlikely coincidences, hilarity and tragedy, the film follows the trio as they attempt, by following clues left with the baby, to locate her parents.

Satoshi Kon’s third film and a departure from his other work in that this film has very few mind-bending sequences (there are a couple of surreal moments, reserved for flashbacks or dreams). The story could be described as straightforward, however the film is far from boring. Each character has their own demons to fight, or salvation to seek, and the film manages to perfectly weave the central plot through these various private stories, concluding them all satisfactorily. The animation is good throughout, but truly stunning in places with scenes of Tokyo at night, the snowfall that is present throughout, and an almost transcendental moment towards the end of the film of a sunrise. This blend of the everyday and the sublime, is replicated in the short haiku performed by Hana at times. It seems as though the film is asking you to take a look at the world, and see the beauty that is often missed when you are focused on your own life, or street level concerns; also to appreciate fortuitous occurrences rather that focus on misfortune.

This is at heart a feel-good New Year’s movie, centring on a common theme of family (and family reunions), with plenty of tear-jerking moments and lots of laughs throughout. However, the film also deals with some difficult societal problems, such as homelessness, the breakdown of family units, gambling, alcoholism, featuring characters such as transvestites, yakuza and gangs of unruly children. I found that the film had a cumulative effect. The opening scene shows the three protagonists at a Christian ceremony, which Gin seems particularly unmoved by, while Hana is willing to believe in ‘Christmas Miracles’. Throughout the film hope is always a faint glimmer in the distance (the hope that they’ll find the baby’s parents, and the hope they’ll find forgiveness, redemption or salvation). Each unbelievable lucky break might make you shake your head, but you find yourself slowly becoming more involved with these characters, and really willing them to succeed. When the film reaches its finale you are completely prepared to believe in some kind of divine providence.

Cocolors (2017)

Fuyu and Aki are friends living in an underground community following an unknown catastrophe. All of the denizens of this subterranean city wear large helmets obscuring their faces, adding to a feeling of mystery that continues throughout the film. “Cocolors” raises a number of questions. What are they doing down here? What happened to the outside world? Will they ever return to the surface? Fuyu carries round a picture of the outside world, something he has never seen. This black and white line drawing comes to symbolise a hope that there is a better, brighter world above. Seven years later, Aki is sent to the surface and returns with coloured crayons for Fuyu to finish his drawing. As the film progresses, we slowly learn a little about their society and what happened to the world

“Cocolors” uses computer animation with a hand-drawn aesthetic that is engaging and interesting. There are a lot of little details in the backgrounds, pipes and machinery, along with the character design that add to a sense of realism. The film spends little time on explaining the world, but immerses you in the details and makes everything seem believable, drawing on elements of steam-punk and post-apocalypse fiction.

The film has a strong anti-war message about the devastation that would be caused following a nuclear holocaust. One of the great strengths is the subtlety and mystery that are sustained throughout. Especially the mystery of who or what is beneath the helmets, how they came to be underground, and what they are working towards. The film understands that most of these things are of secondary importance to the central theme of hope in hopeless situations. It certainly has a couple of head-scratching moments where reality begins to break down, something that works well with the animation style. By creating a slight sense of unreality, and keeping the characters faces obscured, the film is able to contemplate its themes without the need for the typical clichés of heroes and villains.

Your Name (2016)

Mitsuha is a highschool girl living in a remote rural community. A conscientious girl, she takes part in the villages cultural event as a shrine-maiden along with her younger sister and grandmother. But Mitsuha dreams of moving to Tokyo away from the monotony of rural life. Taki is a highschool boy living in Tokyo, the very life that Mitsuha dreams of and the two find themselves inexplicably living each other’s lives. At first they believe that this second life is simply a dream that they struggle to remember on waking, but as the pair’s friends explain to them their bizarre behaviour they begin to understand that what is happening is real. Without knowing each other they have somehow become bound together. As the film progresses there are several twists and turns that take the story in unexpected directions as a disaster threatens Mitsuha’s hometown.

Makoto Shinkai (5 Centimeters per Second) has once again directed a stunningly beautiful animation. The world of the film, both rural and urban, is recreated with exceptional skill and an eye for incidental details that help bring it to life. Many of the scenes are works of art, the lakes and mountains of Mitsuha’s home are exquisitely depicted. Shinkai certainly has developed a recognizable style of his own and that is present here, in particular the use of light, with dazzling sunbeams, starlight, dawn and dusk captured brilliantly, though occasionally it becomes excessive and a more restrained approach may have worked better. You can feel the mountain air and the bustle of the city and it is a world that you could happily step right into. RADWIMPS provide several songs for the film and this seems to indicate a step to a more commercial direction for Shinkai. The piano score more reminiscent of earlier works is still here, but there are a number of up-tempo montage sequences, a focus on comedy, and more traditional relationships developed in the subplots that make this a more easily accessible work. The story does a good job of keeping you guessing. Unlike other body-swap movies where the plot is explained in the beginning, the film keeps its secrets until it is ready to reveal them. In the end everything is wrapped up more neatly than some might like, but the way it builds to that moment is so full of emotion that it is forgivable. Both Mitsuha and Taki have entertaining subplots in their own stories and characters that are enjoyable to watch.

As with Shinkai’s earlier works (Voices of a Distant Star, The Place Promised in our Early Days, 5 Centimeters per Second), “Your Name” deals with a theme of love and a couple sundered by an impossible distance. The characters are always reaching for something that is just out of grasp. In particular when their attempts to call one another fail to connect. The film also contemplates the nature of fate and the inter-connectedness of humanity. Doors opening and closing throughout the film offer a perfect visual metaphor for the choices that guide our lives. The film largely shies away from discussing the transgender themes implied in its premise. These are largely played for laughs with the characters becoming used to each other’s bodies or acting out of character. Nevertheless, that aspect of the film is somewhat unavoidable given the story. There is so much to enjoy about the film, from the incredible animation, deep themes, humour, and a thrilling story that it is definitely worthy of the praise it has garnered.