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Japanese anime “A Letter to Momo” sees the return of acclaimed director Okiura Hiroyuki, some 11 years after his cult favourite “Jin-Roh: The Wolf Brigade”. Working again with Production I.G., this new offering, apparently 7 years in the making, is a very different kind of film compared to those usually associated with the famous studio, eschewing futuristic darkness for something far more family friendly. Perhaps unsurprisingly, since it saw Okiura working with illustrator Ando Masashi (“Spirited Away”) and art director Ono Hiroshi (“Kiki’s Delivery Service”), the highly accomplished film has a very Ghibli feel, though aiming for a slightly different feel and emotional style.
The plot follows a 13 year old girl called Momo, who after the death of her father moves from Tokyo to her mother’s old family home on the peaceful Shio Island. Blaming herself for arguing with her father before his passing, the young girl carries with her an unfinished letter from him with just a few words on it, trying to work out its meaning. With her mother away at work most of the time, Momo is surprised to find that they share the house with three goblins, who only she can see and who cause trouble by stealing food and getting up to mischief. Although at first terrified of the creatures, she gradually gets used to their presence, and their growing friendship helps her to face up to the past.
With its idyllic, sunny small town rural setting and young protagonist on a voyage of self-discovery, “A Letter to Momo” definitely has the feel of Ghibli outings like “Totoro” and Miyazaki Goro’s “From up on Poppy Hill”, as well as Hosoda Mamoru’s superb “Wolf Children”. In visual terms, it’s easily the equal of any of them, the 7 years Okiura Hiroyuki having spent working on the script and storyboard having really paid off. The film is a truly gorgeous piece of modern, though distinctly traditional animation, with little in the way of distracting CGI and showing amazing craftsmanship throughout. This is in terms of both the beautiful, evocative scenery and the character work, which is wonderfully expressive and lifelike in a way not often seen in anime, Momo and the goblins all showing an incredible amount of attention to detail in their design and movement.
This really pulls the viewer into the story, and “A Letter to Momo” is every bit the kind of so-called ‘proper’ film which many sadly still don’t associate with anime. Though filled with fantasy elements, it’s underpinned with grounded and recognisable real life drama, and as a result there’s plenty here to be enjoyed by both adults and children. As well as gently charting the beginnings of Momo’s transition to adulthood, the film also deals with themes of reconciliation, with family, oneself, and with the past, and though it does have some melodramatic elements, it’s generally quiet and restrained. There’s also a spiritual aspect, dealing with Shinto religion and the afterlife, and though Okiura keeps it mainly in the background it fits in well and adds another layer of interest.
At two hours, there’s no denying that it’s a fairly long film, and indeed it might well prove challenging for younger viewers. However, Okiura combines the more serious themes with plenty of light comedy and charm, Momo’s interactions with the goblins making for some funny scenes and genuinely quite delightful moments. An incompetent and lazy, though basically likeable bunch, the three imps and their constant mischief help to keep things fun, and with Okiura throwing in a few raucous set pieces here and there, the generally thoughtful pace is never allowed to drag.
“A Letter to Momo” is very much a superior piece of Japanese animation, and is up there with the best of the Studio Ghibli offerings of recent years. It’s really a shame that Okiura Hiroyuki doesn’t make more films, as though the incredible 7 years of work he’s put in here have undoubtedly paid off and are all there on screen to see, more outings from such a talented director and craftsman would be welcome indeed.
Hiroyuki Okiura (director) / Hiroyuki Okiura (screenplay)
CAST: Karen Miyama … Momo Miyaura (voice)
Yuka … Ikuko Miyaura (voice)
Daizaburo Arakawa … Kazuo Miyaura (voice)
Toshiyuki Nishida … Iwa (voice)
Kôichi Yamadera … Kawa (voice)
Cho … Mame (voice)