machine gun dandy, the masked rider and a blimp disaster:
STUDIO GHIBLI AT THE JBFC: PART 2.
MY NEIGHBORS THE YAMADAS (continued)
Fortunately, all four of the longer anchor sequences are great and give it a real grounding and complexity that allowed me to forgive the rank garbage that washes up on its shore throughout. A sequence early in the film follows what counts as an extended story for the film, when Nonoko gets left at the mall by accident and the family does a really pathetic job of handling the situation. Young Nonoko, on the other hand, assumes her whole family has gotten lost and comforts another child in the same situation. Her self-possession and craftiness keeps gently subverting expectations and the sequence generates real anxiety (especially if you are familiar with Takahata's fearlessness in devising bummer plots.) Similarly, towards the end of the film, Mr. Yamada gets guilted by his wife and mother into confronting a biker gang* idling outside their house late at night. When he steps outside to confront them, the animation style switches to a roto-scope style realism. In this moment, we see Mr. Yamada for what he is: a tubby, unimpressive suburban dad. There's real menace in the "realistic" version of the hooligans and their humiliation of Mr. Yamada generates genuine tension. Again, the radical shift in style paired with Takahata's tendencies for downer endings gives this sequence real weight. After his mother and wife save the day (by annoying the bikers with a speech about how they should use their intimidating qualities not to harass suburban dads but to stop people from littering and being rude on the subway), the style shifts back to line-drawn and Mr. Yamada has fantasy of being the masked rider and shooting two goons in the face to save his wife and mother. It's a fun, funny bit, but it also has a deeply sad undercurrent exploring Mr. Yamada's sense of emasculation and the frustrations of his humiliating day-to-day life. Takahata's portrait of these characters has a bit of his signature cynicism, although it should be made clear that Takahata always has a deep affection for his characters be they lusty magical raccoons or borderline pathetic middle-aged office drones or lazy housewives or dullard kids. These two sequences (lost Nonoko and biker-gang confrontation) demonstrate the existential heaviness to be found in even the most mundane, unexamined lives. Takahata splits the difference on comedy and danger in both miniature stories and comes up with something like insight into how silly our lives can appear and how that silliness can cause an ache deep down in our souls. The Yamada's illogical, goofy, selfish and even sanctimonious reactions to their lost little girl reveal the complexity of such an average crisis - complexity from own our inability to judge and react to potentially serious situations that just as easily could be nothing to worry about and forgotten tomorrow. The sequence ends with laughter, celebration and an acknowledgement of its embarrassing qualities, but Takahata has pressed the darkness of its implications just enough that there's some bitter seed left behind. Watching the rest of the film, it would occasionally pop into my head that they nearly lost her, that their shared existence could have gone from commonplace to tragic in a blink of an eye, their daughter lost forever in a moment of bickering at a mall. These two sequences are bit of reflection on the whole, an observation of true emotions that refract off of the smaller gags about lost socks.
But the most impressive sequence in the film comes right up front, a mind-blowing delirious fantasia that metaphorically portrays the marriage of Mr. and Mrs. Yamada while an old woman delivers a wise, but downbeat toast at their wedding ceremony. The couple hops on a bobsled together which tears down an icy white track the walls of which become the spires of a towering wedding cake; from there, the bobsled flies off the cake, turns into a boat and lands in the ocean where it proceeds to weather all manner of tidal waves and storms all the while changing forms including a rickety houseboat which must be rebuilt as it sails along. In this seuqnce there are continuous visual inventions and allegorical depictions of married life; the amazing pace and versatility of imagination on display in this prologue - done in a richer, fuller style than the rest of the film - would alone make Yamadas worth seeing as well as one of the most stunning films in the Ghibli catalog. A similar sequence caps the film - it begins in the prevalent line-drawn minimalist style and follows several short martial mix-ups up culminating in Mrs. Yamada giving her husband the grocery list instead of the notes for his toast at a wedding. Put on the spot, he improvises an angry almost offensive speech that by its end has gained a strange power and poignancy for the perverse way in which it reveals his love and dedication to his own family. After the wedding crowd bursts into applause, the film cuts immediately to Mr. and Mrs. Yamada performing an adorable karaoke version of "Que Sera Sera" that morphs in a blow-out musical numbers complete with fireworks, luscious back-ground animation and the whole family of Yamadas (including their perpetually bored dog) soaring across the sky holding on to umbrellas. Bang. Silence. The family is crammed into a photo booth. They're back in the normal style. As everyone huddles around to get a look at the photo, Mr. Yamada lights a cigarette and declares it's time to go home. They walk together to their house as the sun sets. It's perfect. Throughout the film, Takahata's portrayal of the Yamadas lacks sentimentality: the father is tightly wound and pointlessly quick to anger, the mother borders on incompetency in her housework, the dull son struggles at his schoolwork, the grandmother never has a nice word for anyone. They are on more than one occasion quite unpleasant company, so the climactic sense of sentimentality and joy during the musical number springs forth from seemingly nowhere and it's irresistible. These bookend pieces have the strange effect of giving weight to all the small, comic strip style gags of which the film is primarily made. The small domestic moments somehow culminate in a life. It's the forgotten umbrellas and nagging to do homework that become a family. If the meanings of "love" or "family" remain elusive and ironic throughout the film, by the end you certainly understand "devotion" and its wonderful, dispiriting definition.
* The "biker gang" consists of a guy on a yamaha and two guys on mopeds.
If the case is to be made that Takahata's genius matches Miyazaki's step for step (and I think it should be), Only Yesterday provides ample evidence. It might be the coup de grace against any argument to the contrary. Takahata's wild variety of styles in the four films he made with Ghibli* make it impossible to label any one of them "his masterpiece" or "his most essential" but I do think without this film on his resume, there's something lacking in his filmography - it's in many ways the key to understanding the dude and his intentions as an artist. Certainly, it feels like the clearest, cleanest expression of his talents and philosophy. I can't imagine it's not the closest to his heart of his films. Another set of loosely-connected episodes that eventually builds to a coherent story, the plot focuses on a young female office worker leaving for vacation and how her summer break is suddenly invaded by childhood memories and anxieties. The memories dominate her thoughts in the form of flashbacks before making literal appearances during the train-ride, popping up beside her or, in the case of the glorious climax, as a gaggle of spritely creatures who have an affect on the world around them, even if they're not visible to human eyes. In the invasion of memory creatures, Takahata finds a novel way to emphasize the concrete qualities our memories have down inside of us - how the nostalgia we carry within us is a significant part of us, a real thing. And just to get etymological for a moment, I think Takahata as a filmmaker displays the greatest talent of any filmmaker which I am aware for grasping the literal meaning of the word "nostalgia" - that is, "the pain of remembering." Obviously, our heroine Takeo's complicated relationship to her past provides an excellent example of what I'm talking about, but Grave of the Fire's origins as an autobiographical novel (in which the protagonist's sister dies of malnutrition brought on by starvation) serves as an even more extreme example. My Neighbor the Yamadas' frequently cynical and primarily unsentimental take on domestic life has that same quality of poignantly recalling the miseries and anxieties of youth. I think if you had to force me to describe what makes Miyazaki and Takahata essential filmmakers, I would say that the former explores and discovers new cinematic landscapes and beings - he's an artistic astronaut (who happens to have his feet on the ground in many ways) - while the latter is performing precise artistic experiments in the field of nostalgia. Takahata defines and redefines the relationship of not only youth to adulthood, but the ways in which our memories themselves twist and distort reality, but also inform our adult pysche. Our youth makes us who we are, our memories of youth cause that identity to shift once again. For example, when Taeko's father refuses to let her pursue a promising acting career as a child, her subsequent failures at school-work** cause her to doubt her abilities and worth. Despite having displayed a vibrancy and talent for drama as a l'il show-stealing thespian, she leaves childhood with a distinct anxiousness about her vlaue and the possibilities for her life and career. When as an adult she recalls her talents and the wretched decision-making process that caused her to neglect them, she feels a strange liberation concerning the options for her life and from heaviness that plagues her. Takahata is smart enough a dramatist not to play the revelations of the films as coherent epiphanies (life doesn't work like that), but rather uses his episodic structure to accumulate a biography of tiny, evocative details that when re-examined come together to influence her decisions in some imprecise, mysterious way (which is exactly how life works.) The changes that take place within Taeko as she spends a week and a half helping her extended family pick flower petals used for rouge on their farm as she tenuously grows emotionally close to a goofy young organic farmer happen on a subtle, purely psychological level. As within our own lives, even with reflection, she's never quite sure how she became who she is or who she will become.
Takahata's psychological insights alone would be enough to make him stand out as a director of animated films, but what clinches his greatness are his talents as a stylist. The aforementioned concrete manifestations of Taeko's memories in the form of a gaggle of kids is a brilliant touch. Interestingly, when I was writing about Ocean Waves, I mentioned the climatic romantic reconciliation at a train station disabused me of my erroneous notion that Ocean Waves might have been directed by Takahata. Ironically,*** Only Yesterday's climactic romantic reconciliation at a train station confirmed his adventurousness and relentless pursuit of originality as a filmmaker. In Ocean Waves, the rote ruled: after a year of separation, a young man catches a glimpse of his young love on a platform across the tracks. But her train is arriving! He runs to catch her, desperate to see her again. He reaches her platform just as her train departs. His heart sinks. But what's this? She has seen him, too, and decided not to board the train! Cue 360 degree swirling camera shot and romantic music. Voice-over: "That's when I realized that I had always been crazy about her." Then I puked all over the entire theater. Literally buckets worth of vomit. This one little kid was crying because of all the puke all over the place but mainly because of the puke that had gotten all over him but I couldn't hold it in and puked on him again. His mouth was open from the crying and… well, it was a pretty brutal scene. That night ended with 5 dead and my beloved JBFC burned to the ground.**** Anyhoo, Takahata's film ends with less vomit on the part of the audience (unless it is the vomit of reverence and joy) and more fanciful artistic invention on the part of the filmmaker. Takahata's film at first seems to end with the Taeko boarding the train and the young farmer returning to the farm. The credits roll, even. But the train Taeko has boarded is filled with the children from her 10th grade class - they don't appear to be visible to Taeko, but they can open windows, play around and affect the physical world. Suddenly, Taeko hops off the train at the next stop and boards the train back to the small farming town, even as the credits continue to fade in and out. She hops off the train and runs to the phone - dhe's calling the farmer to come get her, but just to be safe, the kids block a bus from leaving the station by sitting in the road playing cards, doing somersaults and general behaving like rambunctious ragamuffins. The farmer arrives and locks eyes with Taeko. Until this point, they haven't spoken their true feelings and certainly haven't consummated their romance with a kiss. As he approaches her tentatively, one of the kids rolls under his feet, causing him to stumble forward into her arms. Both Taeko and the farmer are stunned to be in physical, even intimate contact. They walk back to his car, no voice-over required. Takahata annihilates every cliche lurking around this scenario through not only his clever use of the memories as concrete characters, but eschewing played out camera moves, The Big Kiss and an out-pouring of emotional declarations. His most egregious move is the use of a Japanese version of "The Rose" but I'll allow it - in Japan it probably felt surprising to audience for him to use a Western ballad. When Takahat had Taeko hop off the train to go back to the farm, I grimaced - because of its clear-eyed nature and deft handling of nostalgia, botching the ending could undermine the entire film. Takahata, fortunately, made all the right moves and allowed his heroine a happy ending (for once) but one that felt true and earned, an ending suggesting a further story and more room for growth and development for all the characters. That's the rarest kind of ending, the open-ended happy ending. That the film does not end with a kiss might be its greatest virtue - Only Yesterday is not a film about a lost woman saved by a country romance and I'd hate to have a romantic gesture complete the plot. Only Yesterday is a film about a woman coming to terms with her life; the decision to reject an office job and reconcile her childhood with her adult life are what matter. Takahata pointedly complete his story on that note, the right note.
Of course, the ending isn't the only sharp stylistic gesture Takahata includes in his film. The best sequence in the movie comes fairly early on during one of the flashbacks to 10th grade. The episode follows a burgeoning romance between Taeko and the best baseball player in school, a sky kid from another class. Taeko doesn't even know the kid before she learns of his affections. Takahata renders the majority of the sequence with the realism that characterizes the film - and I suppose I should take a moment to discuss what I mean by realism in terms of an animated movie. Since the strongest sub-genre in animation is the "cartoon" style, most people associate animation with Looney Tunes and Disney or Saturday morning product showcases. When a film eschews elastic caricatures and improbable physics, the reaction tends to be "it didn't even need to be animated!" This frequent assessment of an animated artwork's value lands somewhere between moronic and sad. The purpose of art doesn't have to be to push the boundaries of the medium or to aspire to a somewhat arbitrary ideal of the medium's form. Animation has every right to be as realistic as its creator decides it needs to be and it's frankly stupid to criticize an animated film for doing something that could just as easy done in live action - as if the Mona Lisa has no value because photographs now exist. That's to say nothing of CGI's invasion of "real" films - something created by Michael Bay or Len Wiseman contains as much animation as it does "reality." The border between the forms is meaningless and if Takahata wants to produce only slightly caricatured human forms & faces as well as more or less diligent reproductions of physical reality to tell his stories, that's his right as an artist. Animated film has no obligation to make its characters walk away in the form of an accordion after from getting hit by a falling safe. Of course, even a "realistic" animated film like Only Yesterday has a certain amount of stylization in even its non-fantasy sequences - or at least I hope so and that school-girls in Japan don't have legs as skinny and weird-looking as the ones the kids have in Only Yesterday. So, when I say this "first crush" sequences mixes the prevalent realism into a climax that morphs into in a fantastical representation of emotional exhilaration, what I mean is that the characters and settings are meant look and feel like reality to a large extent before our heroine climbs an invisible staircase and floats away in the sky. That's the key difference between Only Yesterday and the cartoonish My Neighbors the Yamadas. The realism they share is that their emotions and characters are intended to have authenticity and resonance on a meaningful psychological level. Their conflicts are picking thorny flowers and dealing with lost umbrellas, not fighting sky pirates and getting trapped in spirit-world bath-houses. So, the sequence I'm trying to focus on (and failing), employs realism to depict a young girl unsure who to root for at a school baseball game - her own class' team or the stud pitcher who has a crush on her and plays for the other team. Her response is to keep running to the bathroom and blushing. Only when coerced by the class' brown-noser does she fall in line and cheer for "her" team. Everything about her budding romance feels minor and intimate, like reading someone's diary - but as with a diary, you can also feel the depth and intensity of an emotional conflict that probably would look trivial from the outside. That's how deeply Takahata pulls us into his story - like in the decidedly less impressive Ocean Waves, the conflicts worked through in Only Yesterday are small; the difference is that Takahata has a knack for nailing the details combined with an inviting warmth and generous sense of humor in his tales of growing up at ages 10 and 27. When Taeko shares a brief, seemingly absurd exchange with the ball-player on the way home after school, her stunning ascent to the heavens has an exhilarating, joyous quality because of Takahata's insightful realism in the set-up. Everyone knows how she's feeling in that moment, every human being over the age of 11 can identify with Taeko's ethereal satisfaction.
There are so many great bits in this film I want to mention. At one point, Taeko's mother buys her a rare delicacy: a pineapple. The family sits down to eat it, but no one can figure out how it's supposed to be served. Grandma remarks "they sure have some strange fruit in the West." A couple days later, big sis' has looked up how to prepare the foreign food-esque object and Taeko - who requested the pineapple by special request - beams with anticipation. When no one in the family particularly likes the hard, not-as-sweet-as-expected treat, it crushes Taeko in a strange way. She tries to talk herself into liking it, but the family slowly gets up from the table one by one, unanimous in their distaste for the object of Taeko's interest. She tries to will herself into finishing her piece and the scene plays like a personal defeat - but why? What does she care if it's good or not? Why are her feelings hurt? There's something very true and mysterious about this scene, the way in which we can all take things personally for no reason, the way in which our self-esteem can get tied to utter nonsense. Pineapple being not to her family's taste isn't a personal failing, but Taeko taking it as such has an authenticity that resonates. In a brief gesture, Takahata reveals a girl bounced out of herself by a failure of expectation, a girl with a proneness to regret, a regret that stuns her into inaction. All she can do is sit alone at the table munching fruitlessly on fruit. Crazy Western fruit. Similarly, early in the film, her family bullshits her into going to a small spa town where their grandmother has a house. She's the only girl in school with nowhere to go for the summer and a couple sad scenes of her exercising alone in the schoolyard to a tape-recording provided by the gym teacher really drive home just how lonely her life can be. When her sisters convince her of the beauty and awe to be found in the "violet spa" and "Roman spa" it's sad because you know they're cowardly setting her up for future disappointment just to alleviate her current whining. She's suddenly transfixed by the idea of the spas and Takahata has their background bleed into her reality, surrounding her as she imagines their majesty while sitting at dinner listening to her sisters. When mom suggest they join her for the trip, they naturally balk. Only Yesterday is a catalogue of a childhood anxieties and disappointments, stuff like the puerile insanity that occurs when the boys find out what a "period" is and Taeko's fear that her legitimate illness that causes her to miss gym class will make her the target of teasing - as girls only sit out gym class because of their menstruation. There's nothing special or earth-shattering about these flashbacks (apart from Takahata's astounding virtuosity) but in combination they begin to amass weight - by the end of the film you can feel their existential heaviness. We all unerstand. That's what childhood is. If I haven't written as much about the parallel story of adult Taeko that dominates the second half of the film, it's only because it isn't as fraught with meaning and humor as the flashbacks. Taeko as an adult has a rigid quality, a woman trapped in herself, seemingly caught in a frozen emotional state. Her trip to country and budding romance allow her to work through all of the seemingly minor traumas that created her decisively indecisive qualities - reminiscing with the organic farmer and sinking into her thoughts during endless physical labor help her understand how trapped she is. She realizes she's a woman incapable of making decisions or pursuing happiness. By the end of the film, only change that has taken place in her comes in the form of deciding to stay in a place she loves with a man for whom she feels real affection. To surround herself in tradition and natural beauty, to be near a good man she is coming to love. It should be an easy decision. The rightness of it feels obvious. Only a master like Takahata could make us feel how monumental and terrifying her pursuit of that decision truly is. Only Yesterday is a small film built on trivial incidents. It proves Takahata is a Giant of Cinema.
* I haven't touched on this, but yes I understand that Grave of the Fireflies isn't technically a Ghibli Film. They only animated it when Takahata was working for them. It's totally different, you see? Come on, guys, get it together!
** Specifically math, where her scores are so bad it causes her older to screech upon seeing them and question their mother if the little girl is retarded. Taeko's subsequent attempts to figure out the problem of "fractions divided by fractions" by drawing pies is adorable and incredibly frustrating.
*** I'm telling you, this will defy your expectations by providing a surprising counterpoint in direct opposition to my original concept!
**** This passage demonstrates the advantage of being my own editor. No one will ask me to trim my terrible ideas. Anyway, this will probably get cut because of its truly unintentional similarities to Chunk's monologue from The Goonies. In college, I was required to take an acting class and I couldn't decide whether to deliver that speech or Mouth's "I'm taking it back, I'm taking 'em all back!" monologue for my final exam. It turns out the teacher got fired before we could take the exam and instead of doing any real work in acting class, I just went out for drinks at the Cobblestone Inn every week with our new teacher, the great Lazslo Szabo of Pierrot Le Fou garbage truck revolutionary fame. Dammit, these anecdotes are too enjoyable to cut. I guess this whole bit stays in.
TWO UNRELATED ARTICLES & PART I of the GHIBLI series
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