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Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Review: A Letter to Momo

Director Hiroyuki Okiura has supposedly been working on A Letter to Momo for seven years, working on the script, storyboards, and then finally directing the film. It's been out in Japan for quite a while, but hit U.S. theaters this past weekend. There has been a fair amount of hype around the film, and I'm glad to say that it's well deserved.

Momo is an 11-year old girl who's father has recently died in a sudden accident, which causes Momo and her mother to move to an island where her mother grew up. Momo is very shy and isolated, and we soon learn why: just before her father passed away, she had an argument with him and told him she hated him. After the funeral, she found a half-written letter from her father, which only says, "Dear Momo".

The film takes a more fantastical turn with the slow appearance of three goblin creatures, which begin to cause trouble and playfully terrorize Momo. After a while, she decides to help them, which leads them on several fun adventures. We slowly learn just what these goblins are and what their purpose is over the course of the film, which leads into a dramatic third act in which Momo's mother desperately needs medical attention, but the doctor is on another island and a powerful storm is preventing any travel.

Anime often gets a bad rap for being overly hyperbolic and wacky, but on the other side of the coin are films like A Letter to Momo, which take a more serious, but still playful, look at domestic life. The film takes a very simple concept and draws a lot out of it, using recurring motifs to create a very compelling story about family tragedy. It is a pleasure to see a movie that can really dramatize the personal life of a child without looking down on them. While it is melodramatic at times, it never loses its sense of wonder, and the three trouble-making goblins are each silly and comedic in their own way.

Much of the wonder of the film is owed to the beautiful animation, which mostly highlights the natural beauty of coastal Japan without relying too heavily on wildly fantastical elements to bring life to the film. Just as Momo is learning to love her new home and cope with the changing relationship with her mother, we too are falling in love with the setting and story through fluid and fun cartooning. That isn't to say that there aren't some great supernatural moments particularly in the climax of the movie that are imaginative and pretty unique, and it's worth noting that the animators did an admirable job blending some CGI animation with more traditional animation.

Most of all, A Letter to Momo is easy to find yourself sucked into because it is so endearing. While Momo's situation is perhaps unique, the sense of loss and regret coupled with the anxiety of moving to a new town is something that anyone can sympathize with. Using magical elements to portray a childhood struggle to understand adult problems will no doubt draw comparisons to the masterful classic My Neighbor Totoro, and the comparison holds water.

A Letter to Momo is a pretty wonderful film, and it's hard to imagine many people not really enjoying it. Between the emotionally gripping and subtle character development and the gorgeous animation, there's a lot to like. I can believe that Okiura worked on the film for seven years, as the script has clearly been given a lot of love and has a natural flow that really makes for a pleasurable movie going experience.

A Letter to Momo is playing in select theaters now!
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