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Year: 2011
Country:
Japan
Language: Japanese
Director: Okiura Hiroyuki
Animation Studio: Production I.G.
Screenplay:
Okiura Hiroyuki
Art Direction: Ohno Hiroshi
Animation Direction: 
Ando Masashi
Soundscore: Kubota Mina
Theme Song: 
ウルワシマホロバ~美しき場所~ (Uruwashimahoroba ~ Utsukushiki Basho ~) by Hara Yūko
Voice Cast: Miyama Karen, Yuka, Nishida Toshiyuki, Cho, Yamadera Kouichi, Ogawa Takeo, Fujii Kota
Runtime: 120 min
Trailer: teaser (subtitled) and full trailer (not subtitled, somewhat spoilerish)
Film’s official website: momo-letter.jp (日本語)

Seen at the BFI’s biennial weekend Showcase for AnimeMomo e no Tegami previously screened at Scotland Loves Anime but has not been released in the UK otherwise. Update 5/6/2013: a Winter 2013 release is planned for UK cinemas via All The Anime.

Momo e no Tegami is the sort of animated film that Disney, Dreamsworks and Co.1 are unlikely to ever make as it is, certainly in its first hour, much more reflective than children-oriented Western animation tends to be. As we are introduced to the titular Momo (Miyama Karen), an 13-year old girl who moves from bustling Tokyo to the remote island of Shio after her father’s death in a work-related accident a few months prior, the camera lingers on her. In quiet opening scenes Momo stands on the deck of the ferry carrying her over to the island, glancing, lost in thought, at a piece of paper, staring into the distance, and giving monosyllabic answers (「ええ」, which roughly translates as “Uh.” but becomes, in English, functionally almost non-communicative).

On the ferry to Shio Island.

The reflectiveness of these scenes reveals much about Momo, in particular how profoundly she has been affected by her father’s death. Her grief is, we soon learn, magnified by the final words exchanged in anger between father and daughter, “Don’t come back”. Unsurprisingly, their unfortunate way of parting weighs heavily on the young girl and the letter she found in her father’s desk after his passing does not help the matter. 「ももへ」(“Dear Momo”), it says, and nothing more, leaving her to wonder what he wanted to write as Okiura serves us with unfilled silences.

This pensive Momo is established in contrast to her surroundings, especially her unexpectedly cheerful mother, Miyaura Ikuko (Yuka), who chatters away as if nothing had ever happened, acknowledging at most – and only when prompted – that she has become used to her husband’s death. Ikuko’s conversations with relatives on the island are animated, she jokes with the local postman Koichi (Ogawa Takeo) – an old childhood friend that has long since had a crush on her – and is constantly rushing to seminars on a nearby island, leaving Momo alone at home, stuck in a place where the girl knows no one and, in the midst of summer, has nothing to do. Although Ikuko asks Youta (Fujii Kota), a boy Momo’s age randomly encountered in the street, to take her daughter under his wing and introduce her to his circle of friends in a gloriously embarrassing scene and although Youta, even if a little unsure of himself, is happy to comply, Momo feels out of place.

First introductions can be deceptive… or maybe not.

Not quite ready to face the local children Momo seeks refuge in her empty house, only to hear strange noises emanating from somewhere (the ceiling? the walls?). And it’s not just noises, but rather voices in mumbled conversation mentioning her name! Then, a three-pack of caramel custard pudding disappears off the kitchen table and Momo catches glimpses of shadows waving at her. The culprits turn out to be three yōkai Iwa, Kawa and Mame by name – that are plagued by insatiable hunger and wreak havoc not just in Momo’s house but all over town, ravaging orchards for food. Although Momo is terrified of the impish creatures, much to her distress she cannot get rid of them. They stick to her like gum to a shoe sole as their job, they soon reveal, is to watch over the girl and her mother during her father’s transition period to heaven. Protective guards though they might be, their stomach-before-brain antics cause trouble for Momo as their misdeeds are blamed on her – no one else can see the yōkai.

Not quite so cuddly yōkai. Insatiable. Rowdy. Troublesome. Forgetful. Very childish. But somehow lovable.

From the characters to the humour, there is much that delights in Momo e no Tegami. Beyond the reflection on what it means for a child to lose a parent, it is the three yōkai  – who are as hilarious as they are endearing (in particular little Mame) – that are at the heart of this film. Although they unmistakably form a trio, each one of them is delineated with surprising meticulousness, creating characters that are not only visually different but have distinct personalities. Big Iwa (Nishida Toshiyuki) leads the way with his permanently gaping mouth, followed closely by Kawa (Yamadera Kouichi), whose ‘special skill’ provoked unrestrained laughter in the audience at the BFI. Mame (Cho), the most childlike of the three, meanwhile, frequently wanders off on his own, and, in a sort of sweet innocence, acts in complete disregard of any- and everything, jumping into Momo’s lap when she is frozen in fright at her first sight of the yōkai or sneaking into the bathtub when she is bathing.

Like the films of Studio Ghibli, Okiura’s Momo e no Tegami also demonstrates magnificent observational skills of the ordinary that is often forgotten but wonderfully true to life. The estival feel in the animation is intensely tangible as the sounds and heat of summer are conveyed through score (wind, waves, insect chirping) and tiny moments that, though irrelevant to plot, are comfortingly familiar: scenes of Momo lying sprawling on the bed (or tatami in this case) with covers thrown off, or half-rolling up her T-shirt and seating herself in front of the fan so that it may blow cool air onto her exposed belly evoke the unbearably hot summers of the tropics.

Momo e no Tegami is, after 人狼 (Jinrō/Jin-Roh: The Wolf Brigade, 1999), only the second film directed by Okiura. Seven years in the making, the painstaking work and care put into the story, character design and so forth, are evident, but do not just yet result in a flawless masterpiece. The pacing, for one, can feel a little slow (although I must concede, that after a weekend of watching three animes, all over 100 minutes in length, this may have been a cumulative effect). What left me wanting, however, was the film’s moment of climax and the action sequences surrounding it, for they felt formulaic and thus predictable, even more so with some not-so-subtle foreshadowing employed in earlier scenes. Similarly, resolutions offered felt just a little too neat. <Slight spoiler warning> With elements of the fantastic embedded in Momo e no Tegami, a response to the paternal letter is possible, but is it really necessary? Especially since in real life such an option does not exist?</spoiler> Momo’s final scene with the island children (as beautiful as the underwater shot was) also felt unneeded, demonstrating somewhat of a lack of audacity in the director’s concluding narrative choices.

For most viewers, in particular the younger audience, none of this will matter much as they will find, predictable and too neatly tied ending or not, Momo e no Tegami a sublime ride throughout.

Dancing, yōkai style. And yōkai fashion.


1I am deliberately not including Pixar here as with Wall-e (2008) being nearly dialogueless and entirely lacking words for the first 20 minutes or so, we have at least one animation that does not fit the usual mould either.

Overall Verdict: Reflective, humorous, imaginative and occasionally predictable, Momo e no Tegami charms in equal measure to Studio Ghibli films, providing both new and seasoned viewers of Japanese animations with yet another director to keep a close eye on for future cinematic delights.

Rating: 8.5/10

Bonus Bits:

  • Intro and Q&A (with executive producer) from Momo e no Tegami’s world premiere at TIFF Kids (22:44 min video) in Canada.
  • Release details: Momo e no Tegami has only screened at a handful of film festivals so far. It is set to show in cinemas in South Korea this summer, and in Taiwan and Hong Kong later this year. GKids plans to release the film in US theatres by the end of 2012 (source: animenewsnetwork.co.uk). No details for UK release dates (whether theatrical or on DVD) are available. Update 5/6/2013: a Winter 2013 release is planned for UK cinemas via All The Anime. Still nothing on the home release.
  • I was unable to identify the voice actor for Youta. He is not listed in the multiple resources I checked (animenewsnetwork.co.uk, animecharactersdatabase.com, asianwiki.com and so forth). Youta is voiced by Fujii Kota – thanks to blauereiter for that bit of info!
  • Blauereiter has also done a review of Momo e no Tegami’s art book, which you can read here. Seeing how those wonderful visuals were created makes me want to watch the film all over again!
  • One more thought on the concluding scenes: As reflective as Momo no e Tegami started out, the final scenes make it, for me, more of a conventional children’s film, even if still much superior to most of Western animation.

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