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Director: Hiroyuki Okiura
Release date:
September 10, 2011
Rating:
 
★★★★★
Review:

To me the Japanese Production I.G. studio is a company hard to grasp what it’s about. Since 1987 the studio produces television series, OVAs, feature films, video games and even music. With its vast production quantity seems more important than quality, and production more important than vision or style. For example, of its fifty plus feature films only a very few created a stir in the West, and these are as diverse as ‘Ghost in the Shell’ (1995), ‘Jin-Roh: The Wolf Brigade’ (2000), ‘Giovanni’s Island’ (2014) and ‘Miss Hokusai’ (2015).

Of all these ‘A Letter to Momo’ comes closest to an author film. The film was conceived, written and directed by Hiroyuki Okiura, after he had directed the widely acclaimed ‘Jin-Roh: The Wolf Brigade’. The whole film took a staggering seven years to make, but the amount of work visibly pays off, because ‘A Letter to Momo’ can be placed among the best films ever to come out of Japan, being on the same level as the best from Ghibli, Momaru Hosoda or Makoto Shinkai. It’s therefore highly incomprehensible that the film remains Okiura’s only own creation.

‘A Letter to Momo’ takes place in one hot summer on the island, and tells about Momo, an eleven year old girl whose father has unexpectedly died, and who moves with her mother Ikuko from buzzling Tokyo to the place of her mother’s roots: a quiet rural town on the remote Osaki Shimojima island, somewhere Southeast of Hiroshima in the Seto inland sea. Both events are clearly traumatic experiences to the young teenager, who remains shy, stubborn, withdrawn, and taciturn, despite her mother’s efforts to befriend her with the local children, who surely are willing enough to let her join their group. These early scenes are shown on a leisurely speed, depicting Momo’s boredom, isolation, and loneliness very well.

But things get worse, Momo’s new home turns out to be haunted: there are voices in the attic, and some vague creature seems to follow her mom when she’s off to work. Soon, a trio of goblins manifest themselves to the young girl, and she has a hard time getting used to their presence. During the movie she must learn to live with them, and she finally figures out why they are there in the first place.

The fantasy sequences with the three dimwitted goblins are fun, but throughout the movie Momo’s emotions remain central to the story, especially the loss Momo experiences after her father’s death, her relationship with her mother, who’s also grief-stricken, and her slow opening to the island children. A recurring metaphor of Momo’s transition from being shy, miserable, and scared to a teenager capable of enjoying life once again is shown in a few swimming scenes, in which the island children jump from a high bridge into the sea.

The human drama and the fantasy finally come together in a breathtaking finale when a typhoon visits the island. This sequence is the most Ghibli-like of the whole film. This is the dramatic highlight of a film that otherwise remains modest in how it tells its sweet and moving tale.

The looks of ‘A Letter to Momo’ are no less than gorgeous. The film boasts a rather unique style, with a very high level of realism. The drawings are exceptional for their surprisingly attractive and very thin line work, and the animation, supervised by Masashi Ando, is no less than excellent. Especially, the command of the human form is breathtaking. It apparently took four years to animate the complete film, but every animation drawing of Momo and her mother is a beauty to look at, and absolutely conveys a wide range of emotions and expressions, rarely resorting to anime cliches, if ever. For example, it’s startling to watch someone cough as realistically as Ikuko does in this film. ‘A Letter to Momo’ is also one of those rare Japanese animation film in which the characters actually do look Japanese, with black hair, porcelain to yellow-brown skins and eyes of more realistic proportions than usually encountered in anime.

The background art, supervised by Hiroshi Ôno (who previously worked on ‘Kiki’s Delivery Service’) is gorgeous, too. It does not deviate from artwork of other Japanese animation films, but again, its level of realism is staggering. The documentary on the Blu-Ray I have of this film shows pictures of the real thing, and the film makers have captured the island of Osaki Shimojima astonishingly well. Moreover, they’ve managed to do so, while keeping the background paintings very attractive and always in service of the animated action. There’s a small dose of computer animation, which always remains modest and functional (a boat, a fan, some moving background art), and which doesn’t disrupt the graphic quality of the film.

In all, ‘A Letter to Momo’ is a heart-warming tale on loss and grief, very well made and one of the most gorgeous animation films to come out of Japan to look at. Highly recommended.

Watch the trailer for ‘A Letter to Momo’ yourself and tell me what you think:

‘A Letter to Momo’ is available on Blu-Ray and DVD

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