A Letter to Momo has yet to be released in Japanese theaters nationwide, and so I am quite privileged and lucky to have seen the film at this year’s New York International Children’s Film Festival. A letter to Momo is Hiroyuki Okiura’s first film since Jin-Roh: The Wolf Brigade; a stark contrast to the simpler and brighter themes of Momo. But this is only because Jin-Roh was an adaptation of Mamoru Oshii’s graphic novel series while A Letter to Momo was written by Okiura himself. He has directed a film that explores the theme of death quite heavily and delves deep to show us a struggling teenage girl’s heart. Her name is Momo, and the day her father died he left a letter in his desk that only said “Dear Momo.” Imagine if this happened to you. Wouldn’t you want to know what your parent was going to write to you just before they passed on unexpectedly?
The film opens with Momo and her mother moving to the small Japanese island of Shio. Momo’s mom grew up on the island, and so they live with the grandparents of the family. As Momo steps off the boat a drop of water accidentally hits her on the head. This water droplet and two others are actually spirits from up above, and because they landed on Momo she can see and hear them. They each have their own distinct behavior: Kawa is tall and lizard-like and has a never ending appetite, Mame who is short, tiny, and innocently playful, and the broad shouldered giant Iwa. Momo is at first terrified of these spiritual creatures, but she soon adapts to their ridiculous antics on the island.
Momo is young and seems to act her age, but at the same time she shines with moments of maturity. She is a character that adults can relate to in that she is dealing with the death of someone very special in her life. Children will see Momo as a girl who likes to have fun exploring the island and hanging out with trouble-causing spirits, likely only briefly recognizing some of the major themes in the film. The last thing Momo said to her dad was that she hated him. Kids will naturally see this differently from their parents, and so Okiura has crafted a rare film that can truly speak to an audience of different ages.
The story is strong, but the artwork and animation are even stronger. Production I.G. has done an excellent job at creating an atmosphere that is quiet and relaxing on the island. The water is beautiful, the characters are consistently drawn well, and scenes in the middle and ending of the film go through a grand amount of detail to show us a large rain storm in Japan. The film takes on a fairly natural and realistic color atmosphere that is well-adapted to the themes of death, life, forgiveness, persistence, and youth that are seen throughout A Letter to Momo.
But the best part of A Letter to Momo is how it ends. The final act reveals a number of truths to Momo and it opens her eyes to see more of the world around her. I will admit that some of the narrative may feel cliché at times, but the ending uniquely solidifies it as a film that’s not afraid to take that extra step and tell a story in whatever way it wants. Okiura could have gone for something generic but instead he aims ever so higher than that, and in effect you may shed a tear. I know this because I looked around the theater and some were teary-eyed. The emotional connection that you feel with Momo and her mother is unique and strong, and there’s no avoiding the acknowledgement of their bond.
A Letter to Momo has only currently played at a number of festivals throughout the world, and so it is currently fairly difficult to catch a screening of it. But next month on April 22nd the film will be opening to over 300 theaters in Japan and will likely receive some form of home release after that. It’s a wonder if any American distributors would attempt to pick it up for home release or possibly even a few screenings. If the word is strong enough then maybe a company like Sony will come along and add Momo to its small collection of anime releases. Whatever may happen, I hope you find a way to watch a film that was seven years in the making.
A Letter to Momo is a unique project that is ultimately helmed by Okiura. He devoted a chunk of his life to writing the screenplay, drawing storyboards, and directing a project that comes straight from his creative mind. The narrative he has crafted will teach you about your own life and you will think about the ones you love. Maybe this was Okiura’s goal all along, to have the audience think about their families and loved ones in their lives and to be reminded that, well, our loved ones can leave us unexpectedly.