Features Patrick Gamble

BFI Anime Season: ‘A Letter to Momo’

★★★☆☆

Marking a phenomenal shift in tone and style from his testosterone-charged, extremely violent 1999 debut Jin-Roh: The Wolf Brigade, director Hiroyuki Okiura returns with A Letter to Momo (2011), a much softer, family orientated drama about paternal loss and adolescent grief.

After the death of her husband, Momo’s mother decides to move herself and her daughter out of Tokyo and into the rural island community she grew up in. Incredibly underwhelmed at having to leave behind her city lifestyle, Momo (Karen Miyama) struggles to integrate into this sleepy society – that is until she’s visited by three mischievous goblins which only she can see.

Comparisons with Hayao Miyazaki’s Spirited Away (2001) are sadly unavoidable, with both film’s centring on a young female protagonist struggling with relocating to a new area and starting afresh. However, whilst both films indulge in viscerally frivolous and magical flights of the imagination, A Letter to Momo is far more grounded in reality, focusing closely on the agonising effects of grief on a child rather than the inventive journey undertaken to come to terms with such a monumental adjustment. That said the Shinto inspired creature design of A Letter to Momo’s guardian goblins will no doubt transfix younger audiences, allowing them a window into Mom’s incredibly insular world and adding some much need comic relief to what is fundamentally an incredibly poignant tale of bereavement.

A Letter to Momo features some rather impressive and picturesque animation which often leads the audience’s eye away from the action and towards the film’s sumptuous sculptured surroundings. Indeed the main reason it’s taken over 10 years for Okiura to finish his highly anticipated sophomore effort is his decision to wait for the very best animators to become available. Often working in-between other projects, the animation team have successfully helped Okiura create the visual spectacle he was hoping for with the remarkable aesthetic the audience witness on the screen immersing them further into this delightful story.

Despite some jarring Japanese comedy which feels mildly misguided and somewhat sadly dilutes the film’s overriding sentiment, A Letter to Momo is a heartwarming and touching family tale which finds the perfect balance between its reality based themes and its imaginative excursions into the mythical – a beautifully rendered and charming examination of adolescent confusion with a delightfully lighthearted pace and tone.

Patrick Gamble