Production I.G is one of the great animation studios in Japan, with some of the most critically acclaimed films in the industry. But look at these acclaimed films and you’ll notice a pattern. All of them would scare a younger audience or at least leave them baffled. This is why, seven years ago, Hiroyuki Okiura decided to make A Letter to Momo. This film is one of Production I.G’s best, and aside from a few minor flaws, A Letter to Momo proves that those were seven years well spent.
A Letter to Momo is about a self-centred girl who moves to Hiroshima after her father’s death. She is haunted by a letter her father wrote to her but never finished beyond the words “Dear Momo.” In her new home, Momo finds an ancient book about demons. Soon these spirits come to life, though they’re not as scary as Momo expected.
In broad strokes A Letter to Momo has a similar premise to Ghibli’s Spirited Away. They both have introverted girls forced to face a new environment with Shinto-themed underpinnings. However, A Letter to Momo differentiates itself through its down-to-earth setting. The story traces Momo’srelationship to her family and overcoming her fear of rejection. It is also far more willing to deal with death. Momo occasionally reminisces about life with her father while sickness loams over one other character.
Don’t let death get you down though. It’s an uplifting story with a lot of humour with great characters. Momo and the spirits go on a few chuckle worthy adventures, though the most impressive part is her relationship with her mother. There’s a struggle between those two, as it’s clear Momo’s developed some animosity towards her.
Put bluntly, A Letter to Momo has some of the best animation in the industry. The backgrounds look like they were pulled from a watercolour painting and the characters move with a fluidity and detailrarely seen outside of Ghibli films. There are one or two moments that use CG, which looks cheap by comparison to the rest of the film. Luckily this only happens twice, and only within the first five minutes.
A Letter to Momo’s style and attention to detail has a lot to do with the fact that it is mostly hand animated. The climax involves a gargantuan creature that makes a barrier around Momo that is absolutely fascinating to watch. Parts shift and move in the beast that makes it look organic, a creature that is growing before our very eyes. The hand animation makes it appear scratchier, and adds to the organic effect.
However, to get to the thrilling climax or the mother-daughter dynamic, you have to endure the first act. Momo spends most of her time in the initial thirty minutes or so moping about her home or runningaway from challenges. Spirited Away was a gripping movie because it immediately forced the lead to deal with her issues. By comparison, Momo is given far too much time to meander.
This is a problem with the conclusion as well, as it lasts a few minutes too long. A Letter to Momo appears to end three times, fading to darkness after each segment. While the first two are touching moments, the third is entirely unnecessary. It’s as if the director was desperate to ensure that every
possible plot thread was resolved and the result is an ending that goes on longer than it needs to.
Production I.G and director Okiura have made a valiant first attempt at making a child-friendly film that can be enjoyed all audiences. Despite its fixation on her father’s death, A Letter to Momo neither talks down to its audience nor will scare a younger audience. Its story does needs to be tightened, although, even with its flaws, it is a heart-warming tale that deserves to be seen. If the world has to wait for another seven years for a movie this good, it will be worth the wait.
A Letter to Momo screens at TIFF on Sunday, September 18 at 6 p.m. at the AMC.
Directed by: Hiroyuki Okiura
Top image: A scene from A Letter to Momo. Courtesy TIFF.