TIFF 2011 World Premiere: A Letter To Momo Review
It has been more than 10 years since Hiroyuki Okiura made his mark on the world of anime with the film adaptation of Jin Roh: The Wolf Brigade. Will he be able to strike lightning once more with a drastically different film in A Letter To Momo? Was the seven year production worth it? The answer is overwhelming yes.
Warning, as this is based on the world premiere screening, very few people will have seen this film. As such, the plot will be spoiled if you continue to read on. If you’d like to read on without spoilers, I suggest skipping the next 6 paragraphs, which deal with the plot.
Momo Miyamura’s a reserved young girl who’s forced to move to a rural village with her mother near Hiroshima after her father’s unexpected passing. Kokkiko and her daughter move from the bustling skylines of Tokyo to the quiet island village where the family house is. But something’s following Momo there. You see, three water droplets fell from the sky and rolled off Momo while on the boat to the island. Water dripping off of people is normal, but this wasn’t normal water, as the skies were completely clear and these water droplets didn’t burst, they stayed together!
At the island home Momo meets her grandparents for the first time in her young life. Momo’s a bit shy and reserved, so she tries not to make any noise, but her grandmother wants to get to know her. She invites Momo to help her pack things in the attic while Kokkiko reminisces with her father and unpacks. Momo’s grandmother gives the young girl a welcoming gift – a family heirloom. It’s an Edo-era picture book following the adventures of various goblins and ghouls. Momo doesn’t think much of it, but unbeknownst to her those three water droplets from the boat followed her, and found a new home.
Momo’s reserved, and there’s a reason for that. Her father was a researcher, and on the anniversary of his marriage with Tokkiko, Momo as a surprise, managed to get tickets to the same choir that they saw on their first date. However, her father’s called away to an expedition that day and can’t make it. Momo cries, all she wanted was for her parents to have a nice time together, but no her father’s got to work. She’s mad, slams the tickets on the desk and storms out of his office with the declaration that her father never comes back. That’s when tragedy strikes. A few weeks later, Tokkiko gets a phone call from the research firm. Her husband is dead. Momo and Tokkiko look over his possessions, and that’s when Momo discovers and unfinished letter. It simply reads: “Dear Momo”. She’s haunted by the thoughts of what her father wanted to say, and by the sadness that the last time she saw her father was in a fight.
On the island, the villagers start noticing weird things happening. Village crops are disappearing, and the food has been picked clean rather than ravaged so it couldn’t be the wild boars. Momo’s noticing it too. She’s hearing weird voices in the attic, and her food’s been eaten. These ghastly sounds, and vanishing acts leave Momo terrified to be home alone so she bolts out of the house.
But these things are following her. These 3 opaque creatures follow Momo as she tries to evade her would-be stalkers. However, a thunderstorm reveals what these creatures really are. They’re goblins. Specifically goblins from the Edo picture books Momo’s grandmother gave her. The largest of the creatures, Iwa lies to Momo, telling her they’re some long lost powerful demons who were locked away in that book for thousands of years, and her reading it unsealed the spell. But during this scheme, partially devised by the slender green goblin Kawa doesn’t go so well, as the smallest of the bunch, Mame, isn’t in on the scheme. Despite this, Momo believes them, and tries to get them to stop stealing from the village. Of course that only ends up causing more trouble.
They eventually reveal themselves to be Guardians from Above. They were sent to protect Momo in the time span where her father’s soul lingers the Earth before he can watch his daughter and wife. They tell Momo that their journeys together will end soon. But not before Momo’s mother falls gravely ill, and she needs her guardians to get serious, and pull it together.
Both Production I.G. and director Hiroyuki Okiura wanted to expand their horizons past adult-oriented animation, and wanted to do something more charming, and family friendly. Momo is the result of that. Over the past couple of years, Japan had made a triumphant return to the theatrical animation scene with the likes of The Girl Who Leapt Through Time, Sword of the Stranger, Redline, Summer Wars, and more. In fact, some of those films were seen as missed opportunities for family film maker Studio Ghibli, as talented directors were creating Ghibli-esque films elsewhere. Well, Momo is probably the biggest missed opportunity. Unlike the works of Hosoda, this film has the charm. It’s not afraid to be both funny, and dramatic. As such, this film screams Miyazaki from the imagery that reminds you of My Neighbour Totoro, and Spirited Away to the young female protagonist who grows from a weak young girl into a confident and strong one. Yet it also blends the companionship, and comedy of Takahata’s My Neighbors the Yamadas.
The animation for this film is absolutely beautiful. Mitsuhisa Ishikawa, studio head at Production I.G. stated in the Q&A that the reason this film took seven years to be completed was due to the animation staff. I.G. wanted the best there was in Japan, and sadly that talent isn’t around all the time. As such, 5 years of the production was actually spent towards animation, and it shows in spades. There isn’t a moment where the goblin trio, Momo, or her family and friends are off model. This is one of those films where the animation wraps everything in such a nice package. Everyone’s so emotive that Momo’s deadpan stare, to the look of terror in Kawa’s eyes as their would be dinner’s parents seek their revenge all suck viewers into believing what they’re seeing. The colours are bright and vivid and there isn’t any shots where you feel like they cheapened out. Ishikawa (or rather, his translator) did say the entire film was drawn by hand without the aid of computer imagery, though I do recall seeing a CG director credit, and an obvious CG ship at one point in the film. But that’s basically all the CG imagery in the film.
The voice acting is not only fitting, but very well done. I don’t understand Japanese, so I had to rely on the actors emoting to put a feeling behind the subtitles. Casting for the goblins in particular pulled off an almost Three Stooges type chemistry, with Momo legitimately making the audience laugh, and emphasize with every moment. I can’t get anymore into specifics due to Production I.G. kindly asking patrons to not mention the vocal cast (as they’ll be announced closer to the Japanese premiere), but I will say everyone did deliver their parts, and fans of the studio will hear some familiar voices in this film.
Mina Kubota’s score is equally great as it highlights every emotional pivot from the sense of wonder, to the dread of potentially losing someone you love in the film. Perhaps, the only fault of score is a lack of a single iconic theme. I was so enthralled with Momo’s journey that I forgot about the score, and that’s both a good, and bad thing.
Perhaps the only major fault in Momo is that there isn’t much for the side characters to do. In the film there’s 2 subplots I neglected to mention, and I won’t spoil them here (they revolve around 2 non-Miyamura island residents). But suffice to say, the characters introduced don’t impact the plot in a huge way other than to serve as a vehicle to move to the next scene and some brief motivation, which is a bit disappointing given the film’s beefy 2 hour run-time. I felt like they were disposable characters, like if you removed half of their scenes from the film, nothing of value would have been lost.
1500 words later, and I can tell you that A Letter To Momo is a movie worth the wait. Hiroyuki Okiura returns as both the writer, and director for a film I.G.’s producers said he always wanted to make. It shows, a from every part of the production the film leaves you filled with the joy we once thought only Ghibli could provide. You’ll fall in love with both Momo, and the world she lives in, and it’s one of the few films that truly keeps you entertained for 2 hours. Be sure to catch this film when you can.
A Letter To Momo will premiere Spring 2012 in Japan, with festival screenings around the world following afterwards. The film made its world premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival on September 10, and will have one more screening on the 18th.