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A Letter to Momo Review (Momo e no Tegami)

After roughly a ten year gap, Hiroyuki Okiura, the man responsible for the critically well-recieved but generally little-known Jin-Roh, returns with Momo e no Tegami.  Though the film won’t be released even in Japan until 2012, a very early premier was, surprisingly, held at the Toronto International Film Festival (which I gleefully attended).  While Jin-Roh was a dark and adult character drama, Momo is a completely different kind of story, one that is friendly to all ages and treads territory closer to Pixar than what is typical of Okiura’s former collaborator, Mamoru Oshii.  The story centres around a young girl, Momo, who has recently left Tokyo to settle in the seaside town of Shio Island.  Due to the recent passing of her father, Momo and her mother have decided to move closer to their grandparents for support until they can get back on their feet.  Momo carries with her a sheet of paper that is nearly blank except for the phrase “Momo e(Dear Momo)  – an unfinished letter begun by her father after their final conversation – a quarrel.  If Momo’s initial reluctance to adapt to her new home wasn’t enough, there seems to be an strange string of supernatural occurrences in her dilapidated new home – events which seem connected to her father’s letter.

The film runs at about two hours, and it would be fairly accurate – without revealing too much – to split it into two sections.  The first revolves around Momo adapting to her new surroundings while becoming increasingly frightened at the supernatural occurrences around her.  In the latter half, the supernatural element is no longer a mystery nor a threat, and this is combined with scenes of introspection from Momo about her father and mother.  At an initial glance, there are several elements to Momo that seem to hark back to certain films of Studio Ghibli (I will warn you upfront that there will be a lot of references to Ghibli films in this article), and I wouldn’t doubt that at least some of premise was influenced by those films.  The aspect of young girl moving to a rural town and encountering relatively benign supernatural beings may remind you of Totoro (as is the element of a missing parent), while Momo herself – particularly the contrast between her very reserved behaviour towards strangers versus a more carefree attitude to her parent(s) – is reminiscent of Chihiro from Spirited Away.

 The basic premise behind the film’s supernatural component, which I will refrain from discussing in detail, is quite endearing as well, in a very simple but heart-warming sort of way, though the actual plot trajectory follows a more or less predictable path, as does the sentimental aspect of the story – that of Momo and her father.  In the end, however, it’s the execution that matters.

With that being said, I must say that the film didn’t quite meet my (admittedly very high) expectations for two primary reasons.  The first is that much of the film occasionally seems to show more influence from the modern Hollywood approach to animated films than that of Takahata or Miyazaki.  The portrayal of the supernatural beings, for example, is more in line with the archetypal comedic sidekicks from a recent Disney film than with the mysticism of Spirited Away or the benign curiosity of Totoro.  And whereas Roger Ebert once praised Totoro for never touching the idea of a parent not believing in their children’s “adventure” as an easy source of tension and conflict, that very scenario actually plays a rather significant part in Momo (though, to be fair, in a more reserved way than what Ebert was presumably criticizing).

The other primary issue, the pacing, is one that may be changed before the film makes it’s domestic release next spring, so I will not linger on it too much.  A few examples of slightly off-kilter pacing include a chase scene that continues even when the tension has long dissolved, or the ending of the film itself, which fades to black two or three times – where each fade could have been a reasonable conclusion (and certainly, the audience tends to mentally prepare for it), to the point that the actual conclusion has less of an impact (and perhaps this particular fault owes to the natural instinct for a director to tie up every loose plot thread).

I imagine that at this point, this review has begun to give off a negative vibe, which was not entirely my intention.  Momo is, overall, an earnest, sincere film that was made with care, and there is no doubt that this film will be successful with children.  However, considering the seven years it has spent in production, as well as the legacy of Jin Roh hanging over it, it fell short of the brilliance I had expected from it, and ended up being a somewhat enjoyable, but typical, film that seems to combine the traditional influences of anime film-making along with a more grating style adopted from some of the more subpar Hollywood animation factories.  The latter fact is what keeps it from having the substance to be truly enjoyed and relished by audiences of all ages.


3 responses so far

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3 Responses to “A Letter to Momo Review (Momo e no Tegami)”

  1. Vinion Oct 20th 2011

    I was wondering if you could arrange Setsuko to Seita, from Grave of the Fireflies.

    Thanks in advance

  2. aluaon Jan 2nd 2012

    This is another film on my want-to-see list – unfortunately I missed the UK premiere at Scotland Loves Anime in October (purely for reasons of not being aware of the festival).

    I only skimmed your reviewed (I generally prefer to read reviews after seeing a film), but judging from other reviews on your side, I’ll probably end up agreeing with you on most parts.

  3. Kerry Lourashon Dec 26th 2013

    Aaah… I had to bail after about a half hour. It seemed based on physical comedy and much too Disney-like for me. So I can’t really give a fair judgement, not having seen it all. I was hoping for much more.

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