By Brian Lafferty
September 10, 2014 (San Diego) – Hayao Miyazaki’s retirement has left a void in the realm of anime. His monopoly on the genre was such that it’s difficult to divorce his films from those of other anime filmmakers. Hiroyuki Okiura’s A Letter to Momo is a serviceable piece of anime filmmaking that pushes the right emotional buttons. Maybe it’s because I’ve been spoiled with such Miyazaki masterpieces as Castle in the Sky (1986), My Neighbor Totoro (1988), and Princess Mononoke (1997), but at Momo’s finish, I felt like it should have been something more.
The movie opens with Momo and her mother relocating from Tokyo to an island where her grandparents live. Her father died when the research vessel he was on capsized in a storm. Momo is racked with guilt; her last conversation with him ended with her saying mean things and wishing he would never come back. Homesick and lonely, she also has to deal with three mischievous, gluttonous goblins that only she can see. Initially annoyed with them, she learns over time that their appearance and her father’s death may not be coincidence.
The only thing worse than losing a loved one is losing one right after having a conversation not unlike that between Momo and her father, never having a chance to apologize. There is nothing in this world more final than death. Even when we don't mean the bad things we say to each other, and even when the person on the receiving end knows that what was said wasn't meant, it doesn't allay the sadness. Death is the cruelest form of robbery of the opportunity to make amends.
Having established this emotional backbone, Okiura eloquently explores and expresses the themes of anguish, guilt, and regret. Momo's grief runs deep, almost to the point of emotional paralysis. So deep, in fact, that it incapacitates her ability to express her feelings. What's worse, being forced to deal with the always-famished goblins, which ransack markets and gardens to feed their ugly faces, leaves her no time for herself to grieve. Her frustration is justified: every person who loses a family member deserves the right to grieve on their own time and in their own way.
Although Momo consistently strikes the right emotional chords, the lackluster animation keeps it from reaching its full potential. From a far distance, as seen in the opening credits, the island appears lush and has a certain unquantifiable quality that would easily convince a city-dweller such as Momo’s mother to relocate there. Once they get off the boat, the island takes on a slightly unattractive appearance that leaves much to be desired. Fortunately, the murky browns, greens, and blues threaten to, but ultimately don't, counteract the film's emotional grasp. A story as beautifully moving as this deserves better images.
A Letter to Momo is playing today and tomorrow at the Landmark Ken Cinema.