A Letter to Momo (PG) 120mins

Cinema |
24th March 2015

Imagine you discover a letter, addressed to you, from someone you will never see again. What would you want it to say?

Eleven year old Momo Miyaura and her mother leave Tokyo for the remote island of Shio after the sudden death of her father. Momo's mother grew up on the island so it's natural that she should return home at such a difficult time; but for city child Momo the change is difficult. The last time she saw her dad they had an argument. His last letter to her is unfinished. What did he want to say to her?

The beauty of the landscape and the majesty of the Seto Inland Sea offer little comfort to a child coping with the baffling mystery of loss. Her father's last letter poses many more questions than it answers. Her mother, an asthma sufferer, copes with her own grief by returning to the tranquil community she knew in childhood. Then strange events disrupt the normally peaceful island, and shy, imaginative Momo begins to see and hear things she always thought were simply fairytales.

One of the functions of fairytales is to open a passage from childhood into adulthood, to enable us to imagine our fears and terrors on a grand scale and show us ways to develop control over them. For a child facing the uncontrollable, incomprehensible agony of loss, the legends of the island offer a bridge between the harsh reality of everyday life and the nuanced complexities of emotion.

The film, director Hiroyuki Okiura's second feature and his first in eleven years, is an intensely personal project. Okiura spent seven years developing the script and storyboard, and the care and attention to detail of those years in development pay rich dividends. The wonderfully nuanced movement and expression of the characters and the ravishingly beautiful, painterly backgrounds blend with the mixture of deeply held emotion and slapstick comedy found in so much folklore to create an entrancing picture of rural Japan as a cocoon from which Momo emerges changed, a butterfly finally able to accept her new reality and spread her wings.

Okiura insisted on drawing his characters by hand, saying in one interview “I believe that if I'm telling a story about human feelings, the pictures should be coming from a pencil held by a human hand and not from a machine.” His team blends computer effects with traditional animation smoothly, helped by the wonderful backgrounds that re-create the world of the Inland Sea as convincingly and enticingly as any travelogue.

The film premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival in September 2011, and toured a number of international festivals before and after its Japanese opening in April 2012, winning several awards. Its reception in the English-speaking market has been mixed, with a number of American critics entranced by its visual beauty and emotional sensitivity while some find it overlong and over-sentimental. Okiura's understanding of the language of gesture, his ability to convey meaning in a simple movement, is widely and deservedly praised; but his delicate colour palette and sensitive facial expressions are perhaps a little too refined for those expecting the exuberance of a late-era Hayao Miyazaki movie such as Spirited Away.

Production I.G animate the film beautifully, capturing both the slapstick comedy and the deeper poetic significance of the yokai, the goblins of Japanese folklore that still inhabit the imaginative landscape of rural Japan. The climax of the film is a wonderful flight of fantasy that recalls the tanuki parade in Isao Takahata's PomPoko or the stormwaves in Ponyo morphing into a bridge of fishes.

Comparisons with the work of the titans of Studio Ghibli are inevitable, but unjust; Okiura is very much his own film-maker. Some of the darkness her brought to his first feature, Jin-roh: The Wolf Brigade, can be found in this very different setting. Momo's battles may be easier for us to envisage than the brooding futuristic drama of Jin-Roh, but in many ways they are more threatening because they are battles we all share: battles with time, with loss, with change with our own powerlessness. In this beautiful film, Okiura assures us that help is always at hand – even though it can come in some very strange forms.


24th March 2015

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