A Letter to Momo | Anime Nonsense
The world of modern anime feature films seems to be in line with the world of Indie Productions and Film festivals: they’re all about the family drama and story of adolescence. Makoto Shinkai did it with 5 Centimeters Per Second. Mamoru Hosoda did it with both Summer Wars and Wolf Children, and even Studio Ghibli did it with From Up On Poppy Hill. The order of the day seems to be human drama much more than it is just spectacle. And that’s a stark change from what it used to be back in the day.
Falling in line with the rest of them, A Letter To Momo aims to be a coming-of-age drama with a super-natural twist. Momo Miyaura has recently lost her dad, after she had stubbornly told him off for not keeping a promise to be free for a particularly special day. And because she left things on such bad terms she has a hard time adjusting after the death. To make matters more awkward, her mother decided to get a job out on a smaller island, far away from Tokyo, which forces Momo into a brand-new environment that she is not ready to adjust to. Furthermore, Momo also found a letter her dad had begun writing, inside his desk, just after the funeral. And all it said on it was, “Dear Momo,” So she now keeps the lined page with her as a keepsake. Perhaps in hopes that she can find a way to send a message to him.
Of course, on top of all this, Momo soon discovers that there are goblins afoot: following her around, talking loudly behind the doors and the walls, and stealing food and refreshments, among other things. At first Momo is scared stiff by the odd looking things. The big guy who looks like a wrestler with a golden grill and his mouth open is Iwa. The skinny looking frog-man is Kawa. And the little creeper who looks like a burgundy Golum is Mame. However, Momo soon warms up to the three oddballs, and learns that they aren’t quite what they appear to be.
There is some charm and wit to be found in this film. The initial thing that strikes you is how believable Momo is as an unhappy and coping young teenager. She just has this special way that she carries herself: head often turned down, the lowered and off-looking gaze, the way that she twists her body and lays around on the floor. You can feel all of the weight that she puts on herself.
And the animation does a strikingly good job at capturing all of these facets and movements. I can’t be quite sure whether the animation was rotoscoped or not. Usually there’s telltale signs, and they certain are present: such as the unnaturally fluid movement and camera-accurate parallax-shifts. But of course the Japanese are extremely well trained and gifted at rendering complex three-dimensional objects and people. So it wouldn’t surprise me at all if there was no rotoscoping done for this film.
The second thing that strikes you is the level of detail and the approach to the cinematography. The detail is rich and yet the lighting and atmosphere is surprisingly soft and dim. It’s a very accurate representation of real colors and real environments and presents much less vibrant colors than most animated features, especially in the clothing. Just like with any live-action film, everyone has a few changes of outfits here, and all are extremely subtle. But because the animation puts so much effort and detail into it all, you may tend to not even notice. Or perhaps those are the very reasons that you would.
The third thing that you notice, once the goblins come fully into the picture, are their personalities and particular dialogue. Now I always review an anime based on its English dub, unless I’ve already seen the original Japanese, or if there was never an English dub to begin with. So I can’t be sure how accurate the dialogue for the goblins was here. But judging by the facts of their visual personalities and body language, and by the fact that regionalizing was almost completely wiped out by the mid-2000s, I’d have to say their dialogue must be accurate. In which case I found it rather hilarious. It was such a stark contrast to how everyone else in the film, or in fact any modern Japanese anime drama, was carrying themselves. They were loose, they were brutally honest, they were slobs and incredibly lazy. And not only that, they were loud, they were vain, and they were creepers. But unsurprisingly it was precisely because of all of these things, plus their fervent complaining and insatiable hunger that made them eventually likable.
The rest of the film pretty much carries itself the same way other films like it do. You get into the potential young relationship, meeting the other folks on the island, getting to know the aunt and uncle. All the sorts of stuff you get in My Neighbor Totoro or Wolf Children. In fact, the idea of moving to a new town or a new place is pretty common in anime films: despite the fact that Japan seems like such a small country. The side characters are likable in their own general kind of way. Although they never really get fleshed out as much as you’d probably like. I think even the grandmother from Summer Wars had more character than the aunt and uncle do here, and she didn’t live all that long.
The film does have one major fault, however, and it seems to lie in the broad spectrum of engagement. At times or at specific moments, neither the characters nor the audience are extremely well engaged. The characters may act like their “engaged” in something important, or that the particular moment has some dramatic tension to it, but it doesn’t come off that way, and it sometimes falls flat after a bit. The film’s overall pace is visibly slow, and may take some getting used to if you don’t tend to watch slow movies. Sometimes even the pacing of the action when the scenes and shots become dynamic becomes a tad slow, and it quickly starts to lose its initial momentum. Then the tension becomes lost, and then the engagement is lost.
But in the end, it might not a huge deal. It’s a much more quiet super-natural film than most. Totoro, in its way, is more of a charming and grand fantasy: it causes you to see nature in a new light and find the charm and wonder in the world. A Letter To Momo, on the other hand, makes you see nature as a bit of a joke, with strange logic and a sense of humor. So it’s a completely different breed of animal, but within the same species.
To round things up, I would confidently recommend A Letter To Momo to both seasoned anime fans, and fans of good drama and good fantasy. You certainly don’t have to be familiar with anime to like this. Although it may be good to be open minded to a new culture and a uniquely strange theology.