A Letter to Momo (Momo e no tegami, 2011)

Poster for A Letter to Momo

A Letter to Momo is an anime that’s reminiscent of Miyazaki. More specifically it reminded me a lot of Miyazaki’s My Neighbor Totoro (1988): a young girl and her mother move to the countryside (actually an island, in this case) in the wake of a family tragedy. In this case, the tragedy is the death of Momo’s father. As in Totoro supernatural creatures — in this case yokai, which are traditional Japanese goblins — act as guardian spirits for a troubled child. The film also shares Miyazaki’s reverence for traditional Japanese culture, the nurturing countryside, and wilderness.

That said, this film has little of the mystery or sublimity of Miyazaki’s film. The yokai are bumbling goofballs who are mostly played for laughs. They don’t have the weirdness of Miyazaki’s creatures. What we get here feels a little bit more like some of Studio Ghibli’s other coming-of-age melodramas, with Momo gradually pulled out of her guilt-ridden mourning by a growing awareness of the pain her mother is suffering. The portrait of Momo is topnotch, and the movie is full of sweet details of pre-teen ennui and playfulness and wary inarticulateness. The animation is really quite beautiful  as well, reflecting director Hiroyuki Okiura’s experience as an animator on some of the greatest anime’s of the past couple of decades, including Akira (1988), Ghost in the Shell (1995), and Paprika (2006). Some of the renderings of figures in shifting perspectives are astounding in their beauty. It mostly looks hand-drawn, too, although perhaps computer-assisted at times.

As a melodrama it hits all the right notes cleanly, although maybe too patly at times. The other characters — most crucially the mother — aren’t as compelling as Momo herself.  But Momo is the reason for the visit, and she’s fun to hang out with, particularly in settings as spectacularly designed and drawn as these. It’s good, clean fun that people the age of Momo would probably enjoy quite a bit.

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