The Other Side of Animation 32: Japanese Animation Month: A Letter to Momo Review

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For me, I always like to see what kind of project a director is working on, and see how it will differ from his or her last film. For example, today’s review is of a film directed by an individual named Hiroyuki Okiura. This Japanese director has been in the industry since the early 1980s. If you are into the big anime film scene, you would know his work as the director of the dark and gritty Jin-Roh: The Wolf Brigade. He is also credited for other anime, like Record of the Lodoss War, Hashire Melos!, Venus Wars, Patlabor: The Movie, Roujin Z, Memories, Blood: The Last Vampire, Metropolis, and Paprika. Today’s review will focus on his most recent movie, A Letter to Momo. This movie was released back in 2012, created by Production I.G, and was brought over here to the states by GKIDS in 2014. Compared to Okiura’s last movie, A Letter to Momo is different in tone and is the polar opposite of Jin-Roh. So, is it good? Well, you had better read on to find out.

The story revolves around a young girl named Momo, voiced by Amanda Pace. She is moving to a new town with her mother after the passing of her father. It’s funny, no matter what country these animated films come out of, there will always be a Disney-ish “one parent has to be dead” story element. Anyway, after moving into her new house with her mother’s grandparents, weird things start happening. How weird? Well, Momo can see spirits that are, for some reason, following her and staying in her family’s house. These three spirits are named Iwa, voiced by Fred Tatasciore, Kawa, voiced by Dana Snyder, and Mame, voiced by Bob Bergen. Will Momo find a way to deal with these spirits, and maybe find out why they are there for her? Will she also find out what her father wanted to say to her in an unfinished letter from him before he died?

So, what is so good about this new film from someone who directed something so dark and mature like Jin-Roh: The Wolf Brigade? Well, like I said at the end of the REDLINE review I wrote last time, the film is really charming. It’s a more down-to-earth kind of story about dealing with the emotional trauma of losing a loved one, and I know that sounds weird, since this film has talking spirits, and one of them is voiced by Master Shake from Aqua Teen Hunger Force. However, it all just works. It has that Mamoru Hosoda vibe not only in its animation, but how its story is executed, with its mix of themes including fantasy and family. I think a lot of people have had regrets with the last thing they have said to a family member or friend who has passed, and regret the last words or arguments where they can’t resolve the situation. It’s definitely a touching story, and one that good number of people could understand.

I really love the animation for the film. It’s the good fluid movements that you see in all good 2D animation, but in this film, they add this slightly more realistic vibe to everything, and isn’t the super hyper-expressive movements that you see for the most part. Another fantastic element to the animation is the comedy in the film. They pinpoint the best execution of movements for the comedy to hit it right out of the park. It’s some of the best comedic animation I have seen since Ernest & Celestine. The speed of it all makes the punchlines work perfectly. It also all works because the characters work well off each other, and they got some great English voice talent to make it all come together, with the three demons being played by Fred Tatasciore, Dana Snyder, and the current voice actor for Porky Pig, Bob Bergen. Even on top of the great physical comedy, the film gets it right, in terms of quiet and dramatic moments. Yes, there is one occasion of a fart joke, but it didn’t feel like a juvenile or lazy joke just thrown in because that’s what the suits think kids find funny. A Letter to Momo has a comedic style that is very easy to cross cultural barriers, and that is pretty tough to do, since the comedy culture in different countries can be vastly different, depending on where you live. I know there are fantasy elements in this film, but think of it like My Neighbor Totoro or Wolf Children, where it’s laid back and more slice-of-life than say Spirited Away or The Boy and the Beast. The mystical element doesn’t even play a huge part until the final act. The film also does a good job in terms of balancing out the drama, the laid-back, and comedic moments, so you can get some good interactions between Momo and her family and neighbors.

I sat down for a while, trying to find something to criticize about this movie, even if it was small since no film is perfect. Some of the jokes did feel like padding, and the film did take a bit to get going. However, these were minor nitpicks.

A Letter to Momo is a fantastic movie, and another classic that you should purchase from GKIDS. It hits a lot of the elements of the films I listed above with its slice-of-life comedy, connection to family, and the challenge of moving on after the passing of a loved one. It could have done some elements better, but the overall movie-going experience was aces. If you want to find a movie that can be on point with Studio Ghibli or Satoshi Kon’s work, then you should definitely pick this film up. Well, how about next time, we take a look at Katsuhiro Otomo’s most recent offerings in terms of short films? That’s right, we will be looking at Short Peace. Thanks for reading, and see you all next time!

Rating: Criterion/Essentials

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