A Letter to Momo does things its own way. A striking example of Japanese hand-drawn animation, it casually combines things you wouldn’t expect in one place. Physical beauty and fearless adventure, silly comedy and sensitive emotions — filmmaker Hiroyuki Okiura brings a facility for all of them to the table.
Though his previous work as a director was 1999’s very different Jin-Roh: The Wolf Brigade, Okiura and the key members of his creative team have connections to many classic anime, including Ghost in the Shell, Spirited Away and Paprika. But Okiura, who worked on this film for seven years, can claim Momo’s offbeat, inclusive sensibility as very much his own.
The key duality here is the classic Japanese one of the interconnectedness of the physical world we live in with the rich spirit world that surrounds us, a universe that we are too busy, or too adult, to ever see.
Yet one of the first things we notice about Momo is the beauty of its landscapes, the poetic reality of the Shinto shrines and carefully terraced mountainside fields on the imaginary island of Shio on Japan’s Inland Sea, all rendered in a way that is both painterly and photorealistic.
Heading toward that remote island is a young girl named Momo (voiced by Karen Miyama) and her mother, Ikuko (Yuka). The family’s husband and father has died, and Ikuko is returning with her daughter to the place where she herself grew up to escape the ache and start a new life.
Standing on the deck of the ferry, Momo is introduced holding a piece of paper that says nothing but Dear Momo in her father’s handwriting. The night before her father died, Momo had an argument with him, and not only did she not have a chance to apologize, she will never know what he planned to tell her in that unfinished note. That pain as well as the despair of losing a parent are key themes handled with quiet sensitivity.
Though Momo feels the universe is indifferent to her plight, this turns out to be not quite true. But if she is expecting anything like sensitive handling, she is in for quite a shock in the trio of Three Stooges types who show up.
First manifesting themselves as three droplets of water sent from the heavens and later taking the form of goblin-type beings depicted in Edo-era illustrated books, the three yokai, or spirit creatures, nominally assigned to look after Momo and her mother are not business as usual. The largest of the trio, though not the brightest, is the massive Iwa (Toshiyuki Nishida), an ogre type with enormous teeth. There is the lizard-like Kawa (Koichi Yamadera), whose weapon of choice is, well, flatulence. Finally comes tiny Mame (Cho), a wacky infant with huge eyes and an enormous tongue.
The creatures’ time on Earth is supposed to be quite focused, but staying on message is not this trio’s strength. They may be powerful beings, but they act like impulsive, unruly children who have agendas of their own, which mostly means eating everything in sight up and down the island.
These broad comic-relief moments, which include a disco-type dance apparently necessary to contact the next world, don’t seem like they could be in the same film with Momo’s very real sadness, but there it is.
Though all this wackiness, plus exciting moments during a typhoon, might indicate otherwise, A Letter to Momo is a very leisurely film, drawing us slowly into its very particular, very human world in which Momo learns, grows and becomes more self-reliant.
Which is why, though there are CG effects, Momo and her family and friends are hand-drawn in the traditional 2-D manner. As filmmaker Okiura put it, “I believe that if I’m telling a story about human feelings, the pictures should be coming from a pencil held by a human hand and not from a machine.”
Cast: Karen Miyama, Yuka, Daizaburo Arakawa, Toshiyuki Nishida, Koichi Yamadera.
Writer-director: Hiroyuki Okiura.
A GKids release. Running time: 120 minutes. No offensive material. In Japanese with English subtitles. In Miami-Dade only: O Cinema Wynwood.