Review: Letter to Momo
When Momo and her mother in A Letter to Momo move to the picturesque island of Shio to live with her grandparents, the city kid immediately comes off as a typically apathetic youth. Momo is unimpressed by natural beauty and unable to relate to her widowed mother's enthusiasm about returning to her childhood home. But her behavior, in Hiroyuki Okiura’s new film, has an understandable source. She’s felt a numbing sense of guilt since the death of her father, their final moments together marred by a major fight. Soon, however, the grieving Momo finds distraction in the form of three yokai (spirits of Japanese folklore) who live in the attic, sent to watch her and her mother “from above.”
Momo’s coming-of-age story is a magical experience in many senses. Through its small-town setting and sense of supernatural whimsy, A Letter to Momo confidently invites comparison with its Studio Ghibli forebearers as it sends Momo on fantastical adventures reminiscent of My Neighbor Totoro. But it’s produced by renowned studio Production I.G., known for the influential sci-fi anime Ghost in the Shell. The scenic island landscapes are so richly and busily detailed that Momo’s initial withdrawal from these overwhelming new surroundings in fact makes sense. And it’s beautiful: the nuanced portrayal of natural light makes the presence of this lively exterior world felt even when the characters are indoors. In one lovely scene, a heart-to-heart between Momo and her mother during a power outage, Momo gazes upon a portrait of her father as the waning sunlight is suppressed by a window.
Momo’s relationship with the yokai provides an emotional outlet, as well as the chance to finally make peace with her father's passing. These yokai sidekicks, in contrast to the comparatively simplistic designs of the main characters with their muted colors and flat feel, possess a kinetic energy that radiates with every movement. Though humanoid creatures, they’re not what one would call aesthetically pleasing, eyes bulging out of wan, oversized heads. But Letter’s animators, whose credits include Spirited Away (another influence) and Paprika, demonstrate their skill at seamlessly integrating such fantastical elements into the mundane world. In one montage, when the yokai wreak comical havoc on the family house—eating Momo’s food, using her bathroom, and making her do an embarrassing dance with them—they’re a pleasure to watch.
Momo’s search for solace from grief becomes moving as the dynamics between her and her family grows and deepens in complexity. The yokai build a friendship with Momo that grants her a needed space for levity. Around them, she becomes expressive in a way that she rarely is with her mother, grandparents, or the neighbors who attempt to befriend her. Even at their first encounter, her static face blooms with expression, and her arms finally become unstuck from her sides to flail with abandon. At the same time, the excitement introduced by the yokai produces a strain on Momo’s relationship with her mother and a stronger desire to find the words to finish writing to her father, who left behind an unfinished letter to her.
Still, Momo's displays of emotion belie an otherwise flat characterization. Despite the amount of time spent with her, both in and out of flashbacks, she never becomes a truly compelling or inspiring protagonist, as nearly all of the Miyazaki heroines do. Considering that she is in some serious psychological pain, it's not totally surprising that Momo spends at least half of the film with her shoulders slumped and head down; it's just a bit disappointing that she rarely reveals herself to be more than what she appears on the surface, exhibiting a plot arc more than a full-fledged personality.
Yet the stunning animation, from the energy of its characters’ faces and bodies to those entrancing backgrounds—it’s as if the island is taking quiet, deep breaths—securely rank the film alongside other worthy entries in post-Miyazaki anime. Mamoru Hosoda’s superlative The Girl Who Leapt Through Time, for example, is definitely one cinematic cousin. Okiura’s film also joins two other GKIDS releases this summer, Wrinkles and Patema Inverted, as reminders of the unique vigor and resilience of traditional animation (alongside one other reminder, for New Yorkers: the Museum of the Moving Image’s Chuck Jones exhibition). And like other superior excursions into fantasy, A Letter to Momo gives life to spaces we have never been but now need to visit.