By Pete Barell
Arts and Entertainment Editor
Hiroyuki Okiura is a veteran in the animated film community. He and his team for his latest, “A Letter to Momo,” have a combined resume of work on hi-fidelity projects, from the ultra-violent “Akira,” to quirky “Cowboy Bebop: The Movie,” to Oscar-winning “Spirited Away,” by master-animator Hayao Miyazaki. Using traditional animation, where the cells are painstakingly, but beautifully, hand-drawn,Okiura’s “Letter to Momo” is a children’s film that adheres to traditional Japanese folk-lore in a vibrant spectacle.
After the death of her oceanographer father, pre-teen Momo Miyaura (Karen Miyama) moves with her mother Ikuko (Yuka) to the Island of Shio – a stark contrast to her urban Tokyo life. This change of pace is apparent as she shyly meets some townies, avoiding eye-contact, and appearing to retreat into herself. Her mother becomes distant too, physically and emotionally, as she searches for a job during the day, leaving Momo to (attempt to) make friends and take care of the house. The young girl is still in the grieving process, in a complex way. Her father left an unfinished letter (saying “Dear Momo”) written shortly after she last saw him, which also happened to be a fight. Echoes of their relationship are felt in the film, becoming more apparent as supernatural elements seep into the story.
Momo notices strange things in the house – items missing, food eaten, scurrying from the attic. She goes up to investigate, finding an Edo era illustration book depicting three yokai (goblins) who escape the prison of the page into the real world. Invisible to adults and outsiders beside her, Momo is startled to find them casually stealing food from the locals. These yokai fell from the sky as rain, hitting her on the way down and giving her the ability to see them.
The de-facto yokai leader is Iwa (Toshiyuki Nishida), a large, bearded ogre with sharp golden teeth. He forms their plans and communicates the most with Momo, even if that gets his group into further trouble. Mame (Chō), whose name roughly translates to “Bean,” is the smallest and newest member of the group, soft-spoken and innocently dim-minded. With his large tongue hanging out of his mouth and very sunken eyes, Mame is equal parts cute and creepy. Kawa (Kōichi Yamadera) is the gawky, frog-like goblin whose arrogance is rivaled only by his flatulence.
With her mother away most of the day, Momo is left to deal with these bumbling intruders. She becomes a babysitter to them, enforcing her rule after stealing their “travel pass” to the earthly realm. In their naivety, they seem to do more harm than help, as it is revealed that they were sent from the “Above” to keep an eye on Momo and her mother during their grieving period. That mission doesn’t stop their mischief, though, as one hilarious scene has them run away from a group of wild boars after they steal their babies. Half of the time the goblins are seeking food, the other half doing lackluster spy-work for the heavens.
“A Letter to Momo” benefits from the sky-is-the-limit aspect of animation, the finale incorporating what seems like thousands of creatures in every frame, while more subtle nuances of the location create a fluid “world” for the story. Shio Island is an idyllic Japanese landscape, set on the Seto Inland Sea, and showcasing terrace-farms, shrines and one very large bridge. The town is populated mostly by couldn’t-be-bothered old folk, but some goofy characters, like a friendly mailman, and local children, who add even more personality to the story.
Momo slowly emerges from her tightly-closed shell, the film merging coming-of-age themes the over-coming of death. She meets a young boy named Yota (Kota Fuji), who introduces her to the other children in the town, as well as their traditions. As her own grieving starts to subside, the struggles of Momo’s mother come to the forefront -when she falls violently ill during a tumultuous storm. The film balances its quirky milieu with darker themes of death, and sickness.This is a feat not easily accomplished, proving that well-made Japanese films can be produced outside of Miyazaki’s Studio Ghibli.
“A Letter to Momo,” is distributed by GKIDS Films and opens July 23 at NYC’s IFC Center, before expanding further in the United States. The film is the grand prize winner of the New York International Children’s FIlm Festival.