A Letter to Momo, the new animated feature from Hiroyuki Okiura (Jin-roh: The Wolf Brigade), fittingly begins on a boat. While the movie is ostensibly for children, it is mostly a coming-of-age drama—or, rather, a coming-to-terms. The film follows 11-year-old Momo as she begins life in a new town after the death of her father. She clutches the titular letter, a single page with two words—"Dear Momo"—that she found in her father’s desk after his death. Haunted by the fight they had before he left, she is consumed by speculation as to the letter’s intent. Clearly, this bright movie has a dark center.
Director: Hiroyuki Okiura
Producers: Keiko Matsushita, Motoki Mukaichi, Mariko Noguchi, Arimasa Okada
Writer: Hiroyuki Okiura
Cinematographer: Kôji Tanaka
Editor: Junichi Uematsu
Music: Mina Kubota
Cast: Karen Miyama, Yuka, Daizaburo Arakawa, Toshiyuki Nishida, Kôichi Yamadera, Cho, Takeo Ogawa, Kota Fuji, Katsuki Hashimoto
Premiere: September 10, 2011 – Toronto International Film Festival
US Theatrical Release: July 23, 2014
US Distributor: GKids
Okiura renders Momo’s new home, the island of Shio, both quaint and terrifying, either a beacon of intimacy or a labyrinth of isolation, depending on your mood. For Momo, the new town resembles mostly the latter. She confines herself to her house alternately by her own choice and by her mother’s, and when she does leave to explore she is too scared to play with the cheery group of kids her own age. So instead, as one does, she contents herself to spend time with a trio of selfish, bumbling imps who have taken up residence in her attic. While the creaks and groans above her head—not to mention the monsters’ grotesque figures—first terrify her, she learns they are a link to “the Above,” sent to monitor her and her mother’s activity until her father’s spirit can do it himself.
The imps act as physical embodiments of Momo’s myriad emotions, their monstrous expressions so exaggerated that Momo eventually learns to express her own complicated feelings, despite how confusing they feel. The film gains much of its power through that message: learn to accept your emotions much as they may frighten you, learn to address or correct the ones you don’t want. It’s a heavy lesson for the children who may be more drawn to the adorable imp Mame, but it’s an important and often overlooked one.
The somber narrative gains buoyancy from the colorful, clever animation. A Letter to Momo joins the canon of gorgeous Japanese animated films. It is a trove of frames so lovely and inventive they could be in museums. I was tempted to watch the film with no audio track, the colors being so rich and the figures so full of expression (plus the score, by Mina Kubota, was a bit treacly for my taste).
A Letter to Momo is a bit long with some redundant scenes and an uneven sprinkling of kid humor (fart jokes, goblins in little girl hats doing a silly dance, etc.), and the story could use a tighter pace. In having such sprawl, though, Okiura also captures the fullness of being young: the limitless imagination, the promise of long days, the encroaching dread and anxiety. Okiura has made an aesthetically perfect film, and an emotionally resonant one.