HIFF Review: ‘A Letter to Momo’

Oct. 15, 2011 | 0 Comments

"A Letter to Momo" showcases the simple charm and emotion that anime can carry. (Photo courtesy HIFF)

REVIEW BY JASON YADAO / jyadao@staradvertiser.com

Having been in the anime-reviewing game for more than eight years now, I’ve noticed certain traits common to many of the movies I’ve loved. They’re often set in rural Japanese villages and celebrate some aspect of that lifestyle; the hero is usually a child or teen who has an imperfect family life, and yokai, supernatural creatures of all shapes and sizes that frequently pop up in Japanese folklore, are prominent factors in the plot.

‘A Letter to Momo’

Halekulani Golden Orchid Award: Narrative Feature Nominee

Screens at 11:30 a.m. Sunday, Oct. 16 and 5:30 p.m. Monday, Oct. 17

“Spirited Away,” “My Neighbor Totoro” and “Summer Days With Coo” are three movies that immediately pop to mind. Now you can add to that list “A Letter to Momo.”

“Momo” is somewhat unconventional fare for animation studio Production I.G., which in recent years has made its name with mature sci-fi/fantasy productions including the “Ghost in the Shell” franchise, “Blood: The Last Vampire,” “The Sky Crawlers” and the blood-filled O-Ren Ishii sequence in “Kill Bill.” For director Hiroyuki Okiura, “Momo” is about as diametrically opposite as one can get from his previous directorial project for the studio, “Jin-Roh: The Wolf Brigade.” “Jin-Roh” was packed with political intrigue, wartime violence, and a screenplay by Mamoru Oshii that required a doctorate in Proper Oshii Script Interpretation to decipher. “Momo,” by contrast, is much simpler fare.

Don’t take “simpler” to mean “dumbed down,” though. “Momo” is a smart, family-friendly film, a hand-animated production seven years in the making that showcases the simple charm and emotion that anime can carry.

The Momo of “Momo” is a girl who is struggling to adjust to her new life on a remote island. If it isn’t bad enough that she’s trying to come to grips with the sudden death of her father — a death that came soon after she had gotten into an argument with him — she also has to deal with new living quarters after her mom decides to move them both back to her childhood home on the island. As a result, Momo’s rather quiet and keeps to herself at the outset, not saying much to relatives, shying away from other neighborhood kids when she’s introduced.

She can’t stay quiet for long, though. Through a series of circumstances, she ends up meeting a trio of goblins intent on keeping tabs on her and her mom. Or at least, that’s what they SHOULD be doing, if not for all the creature comforts — free TV and snacks in the house, orchards and fields in the hills bearing all kinds of fruits and veggies — keeping them more than happy. Momo spends much of her time dealing with their mischief and trying to explain to other people why she can see them and they can’t.

Where the film turns particularly poignant, though, is when it focuses on Momo’s most cherished possession: an unfinished letter from her dad, a sheet of paper with only the words “Momo e” (“Dear Momo”) written on it. Those of you who got teary-eyed watching the opening montage of the Disney/Pixar movie “Up” that poignantly depicted Carl and Ellie’s relationship will want to keep a few tissues handy as “Momo’s” plot line reaches its climax.

One trivia note: Eagle-eyed viewers may catch a quick nod to Hawaii sitting on a bookcase around the film’s 14-minute mark: a book on which the title “Humu Humu Nuku / Fishes of Hawaii” — in English! — and a picture of the state fish are clearly visible. The book, listed with an author of “Suzanne Matsusita” and illustrator “James Kirk,” apparently doesn’t exist in real life. So if there’s any significance in the production staff’s giving that image that much prominence, it either is a complete mystery, or the explanation has yet to be translated from Japanese to English.
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