Directed by: Hiroyuki Okiura.
Written by: Hiroyuki Okiura.
Starring: Karen Miyama (Momo Miyaura), Yuka Yuka (Ikuko Miyaura), Daizaburo Arakawa (Kazuo Miyaura), Toshiyuki Nishida (Iwa), Kôichi Yamadera (Kawa), Cho (Mame), Yoshisada Sakaguchi (Great Grandfather), Ikuko Tani (Great Grandmother), Takeo Ogawa (Koichi), Kota Fuji (Yota), Katsuki Hashimoto (Umi).
A Letter to Momo shares some similarities with Hayao Miyazaki’s My Neighbor Tortoro – and suffers by comparison. That gentle film by the Japanese master is one of his enduring classics – so simple and straightforward, but also beautiful to look at. A Letter to Momo is also a beautiful film in many ways – but it is also needlessly long to tell such a simple story. I admired the visuals of the film, but ultimately, I was rather bored by the film.
The film is about Momo, a young girl of about 12, who gets angry with her father and tells her she hates him. Little does she know it is the last time she will see him – as he dies in an accident. She finds a letter in his office with two words – Dear Momo – and it haunts her, because she wanted to know what her father was going to tell her. Her mother packs her up, quits her job, sells their Tokyo condo to move back to her small, island hometown – right next door to her parents. Momo tries exploring the island, and meeting the local children – there are not many, as most of the inhabitants are old. But then strange things start happening – food is disappearing, and there are strange noises in the attic. Soon Momo will find out who is making those noises – three spirits – Kawa, who is somewhat cynical, Mame who is like a small child, and the massive Iwa – a gentle giant. But they are not there to harm Momo and her family – but protect it.
If you’ve seen My Neighbor Tortoro you can spot the similarities between the two films. While the mother in Tortoro is not dead, just really sick, both films deal with an absent parent and its effect on children – as well as moving the children to a remote, countryside location, and have mystical creatures there to protect them. In Tortoro, I think it’s a little more clear that the creatures are merely invented by the children as a way of dealing with fear, whereas in A Letter to Momo, I’m not sure if that’s the case, or whether the creatures in the film truly exist.
So the film shares a lot in common with one of the great anime movies of all time. By itself, that wouldn’t really be a problem – what is a problem is that writer/director Hiroyuki Okiura doesn’t really do much with the premise other than just simply let it play out in the most obvious way imaginable. A Letter to Momo is certainly a pleasant film – it looks great from start to finish, and the character design on the three creatures is impressive, making them into individual creatures, rather than interchangeable entities. But the film also clouds its simple narrative with too many complications – the neighborhood kids, and the pressure on Momo to jump off a bridge into the river below, the strange disappearances, etc. The film is two hours long, and after about an hour, it really starts to feel as if it is too long.
I appreciated the visual look of A Letter to Momo from beginning to end – and I liked that the film didn’t talk down to children, like so much American animation does. However, if you’re going to make something that so deliberately references one of the greatest films the medium has ever produced, you should try to do something different with it. My Neighbor Tortoro is simple perfection. A Letter to Momo is not.