Thoughts On: My Neighbours The Yamadas - Cartoon Expressionism, Subdued Impressionism & Innocent Surrealism


My Neighbours The Yamadas - Cartoon Expressionism, Subdued Impressionism & Innocent Surrealism

Thoughts On: My Neighbours The Yamadas (ホーホケキョとなりの山田くん, 1999)

Episodes of family life via the Yamadas.

My Neighbours The Yamadas is a beautifully self-contained film. Considering that this had to follow the behemoth that is Princess Mononoke and was to be proceeded by one of Ghilbi's most iconic films, Spirited Away, it is both unsurprising and fitting that this film is one of Ghibli's most unconventional and subdued. We see this on a technical - this is the first fully digital Ghibli film - and a narrative level. In essence, this is a comedic montage that pulls episodes from lives of the Yamadas to paint a portrait of the chaos and trouble that is family life. With optimistic overtones, My Neighbours The Yamadas is ultimately, as it, itself, suggests, a film about acceptance keeping families together. With this basic truth projected quite directly, this is a film that does not need much analysis at a narrative level, but is nonetheless an easily overlooked gem that any Ghibli fan should see.

Though the content of this film's narrative doesn't inspire an essay, its form on the other hand evokes some interesting avenues of thought. Within My Neighbours The Yamadas, we have a spectrum of impressionism, expressionism and surrealism encapsulated by comedy. This spectrum is easily recognised as stories are, in essence, all about perspective and space. This is crucial in terms of cinema because a camera itself becomes an eye of sorts, an eye that sees a story unfold as well as constructs specific spaces in which a story is framed. A story, as simultaneously seen and constructed by a camera, will then be presented as a reflection of either the world or the perceiver.

Cinema's eye, the camera, can attempt to effect the space that it presents to an audience to as minor a degree as possible. Instead of creating a space, a camera attempting to project realism then attempts to preserve a space. Thus, a realist aesthetic is one that views the world without inflection; the presence of the perceiver is masked by the presence of latent space.

The eye of cinema can see a space constructed. What we thus see with expressionism is the world around the perceiver - the camera - being used to project inner psychology. An expressionist aesthetic is then one in which the world is manipulated through set-design, lighting, make-up, costumes, etc.

Still embracing the fact that cinema is a perceived construction, a cinematic eye can focus its attention on the act of perceiving as opposed to construction. We now then step into the realm of impressionism where inner psychology isn't projected by a space, rather it is implied through the manipulation of perspective. The impressionist aesthetic is then defined by the emphasis of, and the search of meaning in, the perceiver through formal techniques: montage, double exposure, lens covers, shutter speed manipulation, etc.

Combining cinema's ability to manipulate its constructions and its own eye, we find surrealism. Surrealism is impressionism in that it plays with form to give a sense of what it means to be a perciever as well as expressionism in that spaces are constructed to emphasise that you are in the domain of the constructed. With surrealism we then step into the body of cinema; we step beyond its constructing hands and beyond its perceiving eye and into its mind that simultaneously imagines and effects, that simultaneously perceives and builds a world. The surrealist aesthetic is then a subconscious one.

From realism to expressionism to impressionism to surrealism we a spectrum that forms the basic boundaries of cinema's abilities to work with the world it captures before a camera and the imagination it projects from behind the camera; space fully defines realism and perception fully defines surrealism whilst expressionism and impressionism deal with inflections of both.

Whilst narrative cinematic spaces function in specific pockets of this spectrum, animation is slightly removed from this mode of thought. Animation, because it does not have the same access to reality that motion picture photography does, cannot reach the same extremes of realism that we see in traditional cinema. However, because the fundamental basis of cinema and animation are different, we see an equal expression of this on the other extreme of the spectrum. Animation can, aesthetically, push far deeper into the subconscious through surrealism than live action because it does not have a basis in material reality. Let us then take a moment to recognise this with a set of comparisons.

Here we have live action realism vs. animated (CGI) realism:

The difference between these two modes often concerns content; animated realism allows you to tell fantasy or sci-fi stories with strong verisimilitude whilst live action realism allows you to project drama that is almost indistinguishable from real life; instead of telling a story about a Nazi invasion with non-professional actors who would have lived through occupation mere months ago, using animated realism stories about the possible rise of apes and fall of humanity can be told.

Live action expressionism vs. animated expressionism:

Animated expressionism is far closer to surrealism than live action expressionism for the fact that the animated space is completely free. With reference to Linklater's Waking Life, this couldn't be more obvious: he shoots a live action film and digitally paints over the near-realism to project bold emotions and themes through every major element of the frame. In noirs like The Third Man, which are heavily expressionistic, we rarely see subjects being manipulated to great degrees (this is often reserved for expressionist horror films). Instead, through lighting - the manipulation of how subjects and sets appear - drama is imbued into the frame.

Live action impressionism vs. animated impressionism:

Again, the freedom of animation distinguishes it greatly from live action. Whilst live action impressionism is heavily dependent on technical effects, animators often work impressionism into a frame. In Bambi, for instance, mark making is used to give the sense and atmosphere of the woods. In Napoleon, impressionism is used psychologically and manifested with a plethora of boundary-pushing techniques. It is in fact quite rare to see impressionism projected in any other way than formally and psychologically in live action. Live action impressionism is heavily bound to the perceiving eye of cinema whilst animated impressionism can prove a crucial, much-used technique in capturing a setting--a background--without unsettling the frame; for example, the most detailed figures will be centralised by un-detailed backgrounds or figures.

Live action surrealism vs. animated impressionism:

A key difference between animated surrealism and live action surrealism is the function of metamorphosis. Animated surrealism is often very fluid and bound to the animator's line, as in the tremendous dream sequence from Dumbo. In such, we see figures shift shape and so capture the immaterialism of the subconscious within a stable frame. On the other hand, live action surrealism can be very dependent on montage. This is of course because it is incredibly difficult to simulate metamorphosis like that seen in Dumbo in a physical space without assistance from some form of animation: stop-motion, cel animation or GGI. Because of the limitations of live action surrealism, time is often made a key motif; we move through space in accordance to a question of when? and how? Conversely, animated surrealism asks where? and how? by projecting impossible change in one block of time, often abstract of quantification; whilst there is a distinct chronology to the scene from Spellbound - this happens, then this, then this - Dumbo is driven by music and so the sequence moves through time irrespective of segmentation - a lot just happens, there are no truly distinguished sequences or sets of time as everything flows.

Having explored some of the characteristics of the perception-construction spectrum of moving imagery, we can turn to My Neighbours The Yamadas to not only see some great examples of expressionism, surrealism and impressionism, but further complicate our classification system.

The majority of My Neighbours The Yamadas is stylised expressionistically. We see this above with the character design; the focus of animation is on the manipulation of space and bodies to evoke emotion. Thus, all of the figures within this film are often portrayed as caricatures with their design connoting personality and describing their emotions. The expression put on display here is then almost a form of melodrama in that it is bound to rhythm and flow - there is a sense of visual music in watching characters emote - and the purpose of this is, of course, to emphatically project subtext (and, notably, to a degree that subtext becomes mere text by virtue of its clarity).

Because the expressionism of this film is so often tied to character design - to caricature - there emerges a specific cartoon expressionism. The cartoon often revels in the fact that it is nonsensical, but uses human emotion and its audience's perception to cry out that these are alive figures. Cartoon animation is then a melodramatic approach to creating a subject; not only is contrivance accepted, but so is the need for musical emphasis that forces us to consider drawings as conscious beings.

It must be noted that the cartoon expressionism of My Neighbours The Yamadas is often tied to the impressionism of the backgrounds. As with Only Yesterday, Takahata designs frames that are restricted by negative space - white emptiness on the edge of the frame. This centralises the eye onto characters, but also impresses an idea of a city with short hand details. In the shot above, for example, it does not matter where in town the family is; it does not matter if they are next to a busy road, if there are passerbys, if its a hot day, a windy day, etc. All that matters is that they are behind or in front of a store with a photo booth. We then get an impression of what it is like to be the Yamadas in this moment in time: the photo in their hands is all that matters; they aren't thinking of the weather, the specific store they are at, etc. Interestingly, the father is most removed from this sequence with his back to the focal points of details: he's thinking about food. Thus, he is not only bound to the nothingness of the scene through his position of the frame, but the streaming light further de-colourises him, emphasising his distance from the family and attraction to something else - anything else - outside of the frame. This is in fact a motif of the film, and so the father is often bound to isolated spaces. We see this in this scene here:

In this scene where he has just be rejected by his son, we see that he is entranced in a world made up of only he and a wall - the wall subtly symbolic of his son who he can't get through to. His mother recognises his frustration and so sees him throwing the ball into a void. Impressionistically, we are then told, via mise en scène, that the father is frustrated and trapped in pointlessness here.

With much of that said, the expressionism of this film is bound to the line - which is what 'cartoon expressionism' should connote. Thus, colour rarely comes to be significant player in expressing or impressing the subtext of a scene. This is almost always done through what a line represents. And so, in a way, the expressionism on display is tied to surrealism ever so slightly in that metamorphosis - the changing of solid teeth from straight to curvy, for example - is bound to the expression of character.

There are only a handful of distinctly impressionistic sequences in this film. Most commonly, we get wide exterior shots like this. However, this signifies the very light use of impressionism in this film that primarily dilutes the expressionism. Impressionism throughout My Neighbours The Yamadas is often used to fill negative space, it very rarely projects subtext positively; it doesn't strike you. The subdued nature of impressionism in this film is largely signified by the lack of colour and, more importantly, the lack of texture. Without colour and texture, the form of a scene is implied, but not its content. As a result, we get the slight impression of an environment, but we're rarely visually signalled what it feels like to be within it; the rain in the scene above is a somewhat uncommon example of being informed what it is like to be in a situation - both in a market on a rainy day and emerging from demoralisation as the father, having been met by his family, is.

Here, we have a more striking example of impression in which we see reality portrayed through visual implication: impressionism. There is then no attempt to fully detail figures - to capture a realist style - only the motion and caricatures that suggest that this is a baseball game.

The best example of impressionism in this film, however, is certainly this scene where we see figures drawn with greater realism and the setting made heavier by a stronger detailing of texture. All of this combined with shading and higher contrast lighting imbues this sequence with greater intensity, giving the impression of danger and fear in the suddenly humanised father; we feel the potential for consequence and the real world as an encroaching threat.

My favourite stylistic approach of My Neighbours The Yamadas has to be the surrealism. This is a kind of surrealism that functions much like that in Dumbo, but it has one core difference: it is innocent. Surrealism is often utilised to show the dark depths of human sexuality, fear, weakness and brutality. And this is often how we think of the subconscious; a dark and dubious place. But, embodying the subconscious of a child, My Neighbours The Yamadas grants us access to a world of free association imagination; a harmless world without darkness, instead, innocence. And as simplistic as this approach is, I began to appreciate it ever more as this narrative maintains a positive tone; never does this become a dark drama. And this is something that Ghibli often manage quite well. Even in Grave Of The Fireflies, one of the darkest and most grim Ghibli films, there is an innocence that the animators manage to hold on to. And that innocence feels incredibly genuine to me as children, both in this and Grave Of The Fireflies, are accepted as children. So, whether naturally or with encouragement, children often manage to stay children in Ghibli films, and without grand narrative arcs certainly comes a genuity embedded in realism. So, the final complication that I'll pick up on is that the surrealism of My Neighbours The Yamadas is actually grounded in some sense of psychological realism; surrealism projects truth in character, and such is its power.

There is certainly much more to be debated and said about the stylistics of My Neighbours The Yamadas. For instance, we could ask how comedy as a genre impacts the functionality of impressionism, surrealism, etc. However, having delved into some detail on the classification and description of stylistic approaches in this film, I'll leave things with you. So, have you seen this film? What are your thoughts on its approaches and styles?

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