'A Letter to Momo': Film Review
The director of "Jin-Roh: The Wolf Brigade" finds his gentle side
More than a decade after his violent, politically themed debut Jin-Roh: The Wolf Brigade, Hiroyuki Okiura shifts course dramatically in A Letter to Momo, a sophomore anime that could easily pass for a new Studio Ghibli release. Quiet and slow-paced, this film about a girl struggling after her father's death may challenge the attention spans of Western kids who aren't well versed in the idiom; but those who are, and of course older anime fans, will appreciate the seriousness with which it handles sadness and guilt — in between diverting appearances by a trio of trouble-making spirits.
After her father dies, Momo's mother decides to move from the city to a family house far away; traditional Japanese architecture and a picturesque island setting will entrance Western viewers, but is a recipe for teenage misery. While she's nursing secret guilt, regretting a nasty thing she said to Dad the last time she saw him (his unfinished letter in response gives the film its name), Momo struggles to adjust to being alone all day while Mom works. But soon she realizes she's not the only inhabitant of this big old house. Three goblins are living in the attic, and after some inital shrieking and fleeing she gets to know them: Iwa is hulking, with a giant mouth that never closes and an expression that recalls Ghibli's famous character Totoro; Kawa has a fishlike head atop a spindly body; mute, babyish Mame might be Gollum's long-lost, non-malicious twin.
The creatures have a secret agenda we intuit early on, but to Momo they're just a constant hassle, strangers whose insatiable hunger leads them to steal food from all over the village. Though her efforts to curb their thefts lead to occasional action, hijinks aren't the film's main concern; Okiura devotes long, score-free scenes to watching the girl decide how involved she wants to be with the strangers around her, how much to invest in a life she hasn't chosen.
Even in her mourning, Momo is self-centered without understanding it. The movie gently steers her toward self-awareness, then drops a tremondous crisis in her lap that is echoed by a fearsome, island-threatening storm. She rises to the occasion heroically, of course, with a determination that is unusually persuasive; and the film matches her, using its supernatural elements to great effect in a climactic rescue that's pure joy to watch. This sequence and a note-perfect epilogue will have anime fans praying it doesn't take Okiura 10 years to make a third film.
Production company: Bandai Visual Company
Cast: Karen Miyama, Yuka, Toshiyuki Nishida, Koichi Yamadera, Cho
Director-Screenwriter: Hiroyuki Okiura
Producers: Keiko Matsushita, Motoki Mukaichi, Mariko Noguchi, Arimasa Okada
Executive producers: Kazuya Hamana, Hiroyuki Ikeda, Mitsuhisa Ishikawa, Shigeru Watanabe
Director of photography: Koji Tanaka
Editor: Junichi Uematsu
Music: Mina Kubota
No rating, 120 minutes