A Letter to Momo feels like an homage to the classics of animation, like Studio Ghibli’s “My Neighbour Totoro”, released 23 years prior. It doesn’t stray far from the “spirits interacting with uprooted kids with parental issues on their journey to adulthood” plot. Which is funny, because when I look back at that sentence, it seems incredibly specific. If you’re a great director, you can think of something completely new. If you’re a phenomenal director, you can take a well-worn trope and turn into something fresh. What makes this film enticing to viewers is its unique qualities; a beautiful new setting, vibrant characters and an intriguing mystery resting in the title. Unfortunately, the film’s execution can be inconsistent at times, replacing compelling storytelling for cliche appeals to emotion. Without plot for support, particularly towards the end, the film collapses under a large portion of unanswered questions in badly paced sequences.
From my introduction you may think that I didn’t enjoy “A Letter to Momo”. Which could not be more wrong. In fact, in my first watch-through I was hooked. Director Hiroyuki Okiura had me in the palm of his hand from the first minute, and for the next two hours he was able to squeeze every ounce of emotion out of me in the sequence he wanted. The film follows 11 year old Momo Miyaura, as she moves with her mother to and island in the Seto inland Sea, a response to the unexpected death of her father. Gone are the bustling streets of Tokyo, replaced instead with rolling fields and empty streets. Momo feels as though she doesn’t have the closure she needs with her father; she possesses an unfinished letter addressed to her from him, the only contents being “Dear Momo,”. While on the island, she begins to suspect that her house is haunted. Her interaction with these “trespassers”, and their ultimate reasons for being there make up the bulk of this film.
An interesting decision made by the director was pacing. As I’ve mentioned, the storyline of this piece isn’t particularly unique, and in order to create a fresh experience for the viewer, every other aspect has to compensate. Despite being a focal point of the film, Momo doesn’t interact with the spirits inhabiting her house, Iwa, Kawe and Mame, until 30 minutes into the film. I actually enjoyed this, and it was one of the few pacing techniques I believed paid off in this film. A lot of these types of animations focus on the relationship between the spirits and humans as opposed to them as standalone characters. The majority of the film then relies on the adventures they go on together, which ultimately aid the child in their development and eventual departure into adulthood. Once you’ve introduced elements of the fantastic, it becomes more about utilising these abilities as opposed to going back and developing boring traits. In this film, we are given time to know Momo herself, instead of how she comes to befriend these spirits. We see her as an individual. How she acts with others, how she acts alone, how she deals with grief.
I always felt that it would be interesting, using My Neighbour Totoro as an example, to remove all creatures from the film and see how that changes it. Obviously it would be drastic, and some scenes wouldn’t work, but others would encapsulate reality to a T; young children exploring the world and using companionship as a coping mechanism. We see aspects of this in “A Letter to Momo”. The audience is given the complete slice-of-life experience. It was enjoyable watching Momo develop without the intervention of spirits before their inevitable meeting, as it made her seem independent. While they may provide guidance when needed, Momo is ultimately the enforcer of her own destiny.
In this sense, the purpose of the spirits also diverges from their stereotypical role. Despite being all powerful, they are not necessarily moral. These flawed beings mirror normal humans. The way in which Momo interacts with them, after becoming accustomed to their presence, seems similar to how she interacts with the real children in the town. In this sense, the director reveals the true purpose of the creature’s visit. It isn’t for divine intervention or protection, but companionship. A support group to help Momo deal with the death of her father, an absent mother on her own quest for consolation, and a town unfamiliar to the one she longs for. While not a unique conclusion, they way in which “A Letter to Momo” depicts the importance of friendship, family and morality still seeps into the minds and hearts of the viewers.
I’ve discussed it before in my writing, but I’ll say it again now:
Banter = Believability
Characters aren’t authentic based on physical presence alone. They become real to the viewer when they can emulate aspects of reality that, ironically, are sometimes only picked up on when they are portrayed in animation. Whether it be small twitches, shifting positions or extra detail in movement, what I believed to be awkward at the start turned into exceptional animation. It’s also rare to find such fluid dialogue in animation, particularly in English Dubs, but our goblin spirits truly felt like they had known each other for hundreds of years. Their were no bizarre translations or cringey dialogue, everything felt grounded in reality, which made the transpiring events all the more engrossing.
While the art was great, what it depicted felt underused. Through the eyes of the protagonist, we are taken to this new island, isolated, yet pulsating with culture and companionship. Unfortunately, I never felt like I was able to explore the island. The audience was given glimpses of it. In one scene, Momo and the goblin gang are being chased by wild pigs up the side of a mountain. This scene provides many beautiful views of the island, all of which felt meaningful. Unfortunately though, for most of the film the audience is restricted to one house, one supermarket and a bridge. Now, that’s not to say that these landmarks weren’t good, but they lacked substance. I’m not asking for completely new interpretations of what a bridge or house needs to look like, but just something that sets these landscapes apart from the ones present in other films. A summer festival was mentioned throughout the entire film, and yet it was limited (due to poor pacing) to a montage at the end of the movie. This setting had everything it needed to be a standalone environment remembered for itself, like in “Summer Wars” or “Your Name”. Unfortunately though the life of the island is always somewhere in the background, and never brought into the forefront of this film.
All in all, I was both pleased and disappointed with ‘A Letter to Momo’. What it set out to do it achieved; a compelling story with a case of likeable characters who deal with very real issues that each audience member will be able to relate to. However, the aspects that were underdeveloped, like the location or additions to a re-used story actually hurt the film at times, and on further watches clashed with the unadulterated emotions it was trying to convey and evoke. It just needed one or two of its predictable scenes to be altered to leave a truly memorable impact on the viewer. The film is without a doubt enjoyable, and it wouldn’t have warranted a whole piece on it if it wasn’t above average. The critical element of this video comes from a deep frustration. With a few tweaks and a refinement in structure, A Letter to Momo could have been one of the my favourite movies ever. In saying that, if you enjoy these types of films, you will enjoy this one too.