Reviewby Theron Martin,
A Letter to Momo
A few months ago 11-year-old Momo lost her father (implied to be a marine biologist or oceanographer) to some kind of boating mishap. Ever since she has regretted something horrible she said to him during their last conversation and wondered about an unfinished letter addressed to her that she thereafter found in his desk. Her mother Ikuko moves them from Tokyo to her old family home on Shio Island in the Seto Inland sea, where she tries to encourage Momo to make friends with the local kids that are around her age, but the setting change and lingering sorrow has left Momo in a funk. She gets rudely shaken out of it when a trio of goblins whom only she and another young girl can see appear on the scene and cause all manner of trouble for her (especially with their ravenous appetites!) even though they are ostensibly supposed to be observing her and her mother on order from higher powers. Their actions, however, do (partly unwittingly) force Momo to finish coming to terms with her loss and new home, and when a crisis arises concerning Ikuko's health they even prove adept at bending the rules they are supposed to operate under and find a creative way to help out.
Essentially, a description of this 2011 production could be boiled down to one sentence: three mostly-incompetent supernatural visitors (partly by accident) help a preteen girl reach resolution over the loss of her father. Supernatural entities helping to ease a loss is not an uncommon storytelling concept in literature and movies, but part of what makes A Letter to Momo remarkable is that the story takes a full 120 minutes to play out and yet hardly ever seems to be stretching or dragging. The result is a carefully measured tale which plays out surprisingly seriously given the somewhat goofy nature of the three goblins which form most of its primary supporting cast.
That the movie is a long-time labor of love by creator/director Hiroyuki Okiura (whose other lead directorial effort was Jin-Roh – The Wolf Brigade) is evident in practically every shot. As the included “behind the scenes” piece details, this was a movie seven years in the making from initial concept to final production. Inspiration came partly from someone Okiura knew who had experienced a loss similar to Momo's and partly from a fascination with old picture books depicting goblins and demons; the three heavenly entities taking the form of goblins from an old picture book Momo finds is merely the mechanic needed to combine the two. Though Shio Island is fictional, it is heavily based on actual villages and islands that do exist in the real Seto Island Sea; the sense that Okiura is trying to show off how much time he spent meticulously recreating those settings is inescapable in some scenes, especially one where Momo runs through the city after being terrified by her first encounter with the goblins. Although the movie can drag just a little bit in these scenes, the detail work on things like terraced fields, the motorized rail carts used to ascend and descend them, and the bridges linking various small islands can also be fascinating. References to the recent completion of one such bridge suggest that the movie is set in 1998 or 1999, when major bridge construction projects in the Inland Sea were finished, though some conflicting details on the technology present (no cell/smart phones are shown, but a laptop with a detached mouse is) make pinpointing the timing of the story difficult. Still, advanced technology has such a low visible presence in this setting and the events that transpire that its timing is largely irrelevant.
What matters much more is how the movie handles Momo and her interactions with her parents and the people she meets, and in that regard the movie shines. Everything about how she is portrayed is believable for an 11 year old girl in her situation, down to the finest nuances of how she moves, acts, interacts, and emotes. She is not an extraordinary girl, either; she does not have unusual pluck or abilities. (Though the movie implies that the ability to see supernatural creatures might run in Momo's family, one of the goblins also provides an alternate explanation.) That makes her easy to relate to and sympathize with, especially when she is reflecting back on the more thoughtless things she says to her parents. That attention to detail also extends to most of the supporting characters; Momo's great-aunt and great-uncle certainly interact like a long-time married couple for instance, and nothing about Ikuko's behavior or the man who knew her as a kid and still carries a torch for her feels wrong. The one downside to all of this realism is that it makes some of the supernatural elements fit awkwardly, especially when spirits besides the three goblins show up.
The way the three goblins fit into the picture is also interesting. While they are clearly the comedic relief, they do not come across as pure comedy characters in the sense of their more light-hearted equivalents in, say, most Miyazaki and Disney films. This is not always to the movie's benefit, as only occasionally (such as in the scene with the boars or the scene where two of them have to do a goofy dance to send a message) do their antics come across as purely fun. Presumably this aspect was not played up more because the movie was aiming for a more emotional appeal in the end, and so did not want to get too light-hearted, but if so then that was a mistake; Western-animated films have shown on multiple occasions an ability to generate emotional resonance despite slapstick antics, after all. Besides, when the movie does emphasize the potentially comedic aspects, they work well.
Some unevenness also shows up in the technical aspects. The animation is beautiful; the sense of movement is nearly flawless, characters (especially Momo) have widely expressive faces, and attention to detail is very fine. Character designs are also handled very well and realistically, with no stooping to caricatures even for old characters and no use of non-Japanese features. Momo in particular is drawn attractively; she can easily be extrapolated into being a great beauty when she gets older, yet she is still portrayed purely as a girl, with no hint of sexualization. (That these characters were designed by the same person who designed the characters for Jin-Roh is undeniable.) Despite the wealth of detail in the background art, however, it is far less refined, and the lesser spirits who occasionally pop up are curiously left looking raggedy, as if to suggest that they are ill-defined entities in the physical world. A lack of graphic content keeps it at a PG rating.
The soundtrack is also used effectively, including a good understanding of when it doesn't need to be used. It employs both light-hearted and more cinematic dramatic sounds well, though better examples could be found. The closing theme is solid but unremarkable.
The English dub, provided by NYAV Post, makes one curious casting decision: Stephanie Sheh, who almost never voices characters older than young adults, is the 30-something Ikuko. She is not a bad fit (and she did cast herself, as she is also the casting director), but hearing her as the mother figure may take some getting used to for long-time anime dub fans. The critical role of Momo instead went to Amanda Pace, a 14-year-old who makes her anime debut with this role but has been acting since a toddler (she and her twin sister can be seen in the soap opera The Bold and the Beautiful at a young age as well as later seasons of the Showtime series Weeds, amongst other roles) and has done some voice work previously. Though she seems a little uncertain at first, she soon slips into the performance quite nicely, especially with scenes where she must scream, and ultimately gives a better performance than the original Japanese actress (who was also only 14 and had only one previous anime role). The minor role of little girl Umi went to an 8-year-old stage actress in the English dub and sounds like she was performed by a very young actress in Japanese, too. Bob Bergen is dead-on to the original Japanese performance of the small goblin Mame, while other roles may sound slightly different but fit the parts well. The only clear disappointment is the boy Yota, but that was an underwhelming performance in Japanese, too. The script takes great liberties, to the point of saying entirely different things at times, though not to the point of changing any important details. (Its one true gaffe is having Momo refer to herself as a “teenager” at one point.)
The U.S. production comes courtesy of GKids; it's available in both DVD-only and Blu-Ray/DVD combo pack forms. The latter has both disks in the same case, which comes inside a paper slipcover and contains picture inserts featuring all three goblins. Both versions offer both subtitles and dubtitles, a collection of foreign and domestic trailers for the movie, and a 38 minute “making of” featurette which primarily focuses on director Ogiura, in particular on the painstaking effort he went to in taking reference shots for all the angles he wanted to use.
The scene towards the end which gives the movie its name is hit-or-miss on whether it achieves the emotional resonance it aims for, it part because it is the distant-trailing second part of the two part climax. In fact, aside from the running scene earlier on, the end of the movie is the other place where it takes its time a little too much. In fact, the overall languid pace of the movie may try the patience of younger viewers used to more active fare even though it was clearly designed to accommodate them. However, it is still a strong, well-produced anime movie worthy of an addition to any anime collection and accessible enough that it could be shown to non-fans.
Overall (dub) : A-
Overall (sub) : A-
Story : B+
Animation : A
Art : B+
Music : A-
+ Excellent animation, well-portrayed lead character and character interactions.
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