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A Letter to Momo (2011)

All great fairy tales, in fact I would say all great tales for children perfectly blend and deftly balance sadness, tragedy, strife and joy. When you look at the classic Disney tales it's right there on and off the screen. With a tragedy in the family, a journey to a new home, talking raindrops, forest and mischievous yokai Letter to Momo sets itself up as a modern day fairy tale.

Following the death of her father Momo and her mother (Ikuko) are returning to where her mother grew up on Shio Island. They'll be living on Ikuko's estate with her remaining relatives. After the funeral Momo finds a letter to her with only the words "Dear Momo..."She plays these words and in her mind desperate to find what he wanted to say. On the ferry ride across the Seto Island Sea Momo is struck by three raindrops - nothing that unusual about that except it was a beautiful clear sunny day. As they settle into life Momo is left on her own as Ikuko is studying nursing. A bit shy and withdrawn she starts to see and hear things. Odd events starts to occur in the local area. Before she realises it Momo's life has just got a lot more interesting. How if at all does the letter play into this and will she ever be able to resolve the enigma of the letter her father was writing to her.?

Given its subject and the fantastical elements of A Letter to Momo from the off you can't help but make comparisons with Studio Ghibli. The comparisons are unfair but still inevitable. A Letter to Momo is brought to us by Production I.G. who (in my experience anyway) always deliver high quality productions, especially when they're theatrical releases. Hiroyuki Okiura is on directing duties. The only other piece of work directed by him I have seen Jin Roh: The Wolf Brigade. I was therefore *very* interested to see what he was going to deliver in this feature which he also wrote.

Okiura and his team have developed and created a beautifully realised world. It feels very real and naturalistic. Nothing about the town feels wrong or out of place. It feels lived in and as if a lot of research was done to get the setting right even down to the people we meet and how they behave. As is typical of me, I'm getting ahead of myself. Let me put that in context.

A Letter to Momo is a story set in two timeframes. The main story takes place in Momo's present (which although there is nothing to obviously date it I would go with somewhere between 2005 and 2010) and events around the sudden death of her father. We see what their relationship was like before and events afterward before Momo and Ikuko move. Whilst we keep coming back to this in her new home Momo has to build a whole new life for herself whilst Ikuko is studying and away from home during the day.

We see the cringe-inducing attempts of Momo's mother try to kick-start friendships followed by the socially awkward meets and crippling shyness in social situations. It is clear that Momo is someone comfortable with her own company but as the yokai Iwa (the one with the big head and the group leader), Kawa (always hungry wtith pointy ears) and Mame (a bit like ET, forgetful and full of heart) are revealed a strange double life begins to emerge. It's almost as if the yokai are guiding her on a path to making a new home ... whilst stealing food and giving Momo a massive fright from the off.

That massive fright gives rise to a wonderful sequence where Momo runs through the town. It was both carefree and panicked. It is this human stuff that Okiura and his team get so right in A Letter to Momo. The character animation is excellent from the way they move to the expressions on their faces. For these moments I forgot I was watching animation. Even our three yokai have a physicality and presence that feels real in a town which felt lived in.

Similarly the human emotion contained within the story is pitched perfectly.  It captures that sense of ... tension and perhaps conflict that exists in the relationships for those who remain when a family member or close friend dies. It encapsulates the judgement you put on yourself, the second guessing of the response or motivations of others. The question of "How can they move on so quickly?!" is handled with tact and ease without a hint of melodrama. You know it is going to feature and you know how it will end but it has a natural, un-contrived feeling and appropriate conclusion. Even the physical impact of grief and how that stress or trauma can affect us physically is well handled.

Much like Iwa, Kawa and Mame A Letter to Momo is a film that is of two worlds - part human drama and part fantasy. Within those moments (still in many respects character driven) where the yokai Iwa, Kawa and Mame drive the story it is fun, dynamic and lively. Momo is roped into a dance number with Iwa and Mame - not something I would have expected. Some of the more farcical almost sibling-like scenes emerge with them. Here we also get that other staple of animation where gestures and facial expressions tend to the extremes.

But there is also a gentler freer side as we get to see "the other world" around Momo. Playful forest spirits dancing, moving as if like water and Mame just staring off into space. It does all come together but the mix of human drama and the fantastical don't quite gel. On their own these bits work but when they came together they felt unsatisfactory.

It is in these scenes where the comparisons with Ghibli films cannot be avoided. Even with my take-it-or-leave-it feelings towards many of the Miyazaki-helmed features I have watched there is a seamless integration of the real and fantastical that drives to a central idea, theme or mood. Perhaps their real-worlds still retain an element of the fairy tale, they're not so "real" so the fantastical bits just seem like an extension of the world.

A Letter to Momo also clocks in at 2 hours. It does take a while to get going and even though the final set piece is deftly executed and gorgeous to look at feels a bit too long. Trimming 20 minutes or so from the whole feature it might have helped but I can't think of any individual scene I would be happy to cut or shorten. Whilst I enjoyed watching the film I am left with this sense of some great individual moments of animation and character development but that the different threads running though didn't quite knit together as hoped.

There is a lot to like and very little to dislike about Letter to Momo. Production I.G. have produced a great piece of animation in a setting that feels real and, which at times, reminded me of Ghibli's Only Yesterday. Hiroyuki Okiura and his team deliver a well animated, engaging production. Its subject matter is handled sensitively and I think almost anyone watching it can relate to, especially if someone in your life has passed away very suddenly. Letter to Momo handles that tricky subject of how those left behind find ways to cope with their grief and still function in a way I could identify with. When the real and magical worlds collide in the final set-piece it is hard not to compare it to what Studio Ghibli could have done. Whilst it not as fantastical or visually impactful,its understatedness fits with the rest of the production. Coming in at 2 hours it feels a bit long with a slow initial act. It could have done with a bit of an edit which I think would have elevated the film and integrated its elements a bit more. That said it is still well worth a watch.



IN A NUTSHELL:  Glorious character animation tells a difficult story that anyone watching can relate to.