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A Letter to Momo – Review

by Olivia Saperstein

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Following a young girl whose father has recently perished. Before moving to the island of Shio with her mother, Iku, Momo finds a letter her father has begun to write her as a result of an argument they had before he died. Momo spends her days pondering the letter in misery, until she meets some strange new friends in the attic of her grandparents’ home on the island.

His third anime directorial feature, Kiroyuki Okiura’s A Letter to Momo, like many other anime meant for children, yet secretly coveted by adults, has a magical quality to it. Like Miyazaki’s Spirited Away (2001), Okiura relies on supernatural forces to create an entrancing world for viewers. Whereas the latter is filled with Fantasia like spirits, hop-bopping down village streets, the former monsters or yokai, are of a mythological tradition, and are downright annoying to say the least, and surprisingly colloquial.

Mame, is a Golom-like creature, that acts like a baby and has the hippocampus the size of a fish. Kawa is a round-bellied lizard, with agitated screeches and squawks, “Why did you just explain everything, dude?!” he says. Iwa, the more likable of the bunch, a friendly ogre, who leads the clan, yet has a voice fracture your eardrums. Surrounding them is a swirl of miniature dancing creatures, which appear and disappear throughout the film, reminding us that we have left the natural world for one slightly more illusory.

And while the yokai, can sometimes serve as mere annoyance, we are still engaged as viewers, as Okiura’s story kidnaps us from the onset. The introduction of an unfinished letter is a surefire way to keep the audience’s eyes open, for better or worse. For Momo is a character we can all relate to in some way. Whether in child or adulthood, most of us have experienced loss, and even more, most of us have felt like locking ourselves in our rooms now and then. Whereas Momo could be mistaken for a wet-blanket, it would be more perceptive to chalk her silence up to sorrow. Mina Kubota’s sentient flute soundtrack dancing in the background is our emotional emphasis.

The movie’s magical cosmos hovers over a theme of taking action. When Momo’s new friends are jumping off a bridge into the water, her efforts are stymied by her own fear and sadness. We know that this girl needs closure before she can begin her new life with the island kids. Koichi, the cowardly mailman, must muster up the courage to help Iku when sick, and the Yokai, must overcome their selfishness in order to help Iku and Momo as well.

This underlying lesson is a good one, yet I’m not sure how much it truly connects to the initial story of Momo’s loss. Sometimes with narratives such as these, their mere mystical nature and subtlety is what yields so much pathos. These insertions of the cut and dry bring us back to reality, and one that we didn’t necessarily want to return to in the first place.

Momo drags on a few fragments too long, as a slow sulking pace hasn’t a long shelf life. Lingering landscape shots with piano riffs dancing on the glimmering ocean (modest yet detailed animation reminiscent of the early millennium). Momo’s expressionless stares, her walks, her eyes fixed on the floor. Yet what this does do successfully is reveal her slow transformation, perhaps a more realistic portrayal of grief than other films, despite its animation (like Departures (2008) for kids!).

This acceptance of death as normative contemplation in life is always an impressive facet of Japanese cinema. If children watching this film can be introduced to such issues in a healthy way, perhaps fear of fate will be quelled, and perhaps not. Either way, they can surely enjoy a fanciful world of mischievous beasts, even if its mystery does start to crumble.

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Author: Olivia Saperstein

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