NYICFF 2012: A Letter to Momo, Letters to No One

The New York International Children’s Film Festival in a unique opportunity to see translated animated films from around the world. This means they often play anime films even before they appear on the fan sub circuit giving the festival a unique appeal to anime fans. It is one of the few times you can still go in cold to an anime. I certainly had no knowledge about A Letter to Momo other than the blurb on the website. That is just a feeling you don’t get as much any more. Just the ability to see something and judge for yourself if it is a gem is a fun little treat. That sometimes means you sit through some mediocre material as well but the chance to get a relatively clean movie watching experience free from hype or prejudice is worth it by itself.

Two anime were being shown at the festival this year, A Letter to Momo and Children Who Chase Voices From Deep Below. A Letter to Momo is one I had only read about being in production, but little else after it premiered. I was pretty much going in blind other than knowing Production I.G worked on it. But a lot of times I put myself in the hands of the festival, if for nothing else this may be the only chance I’d have at seeing these films. A Letter to Momo brings brightness to the subject of grief but over stays its welcome to a degree.

Momo is a taciturn 13-year-old girl who has recently moved to her grandparents house after the death of her father. As she tries to fit in she discovers that three mischievous spirits are also living in the house and are making trouble in the neighborhood. But only Momo can see these three troublemakers. But how is this trio of spirits linked to a letter that Momo’s father never finished before he died?

This is a quiet story, Momo talks rarely unless it is screaming at the top of her lungs when she encounters spirits. It is an emotional journey for her to begin again after her loss. It is quite literally about moving on, from Tokyo to Shio, from earth to heaven. The spice in all that are these loud, boorish spirits looking after her.

Momo is a very reserved young lady. I got the feeling she was hardly talkative before the move but after the death of her father and being brought to a strange new town she seems to close herself off even more. She seems to be very reluctant to open herself to anyone. It does not help that she is both trapped in a strange in environment externally and by her father’s death internally.So when the spirits enter her life it forces her to get involved with them despite her usual manner. When she realizes that she cannot easily chase them away she at least tries to minimize the damage they do to the area as they steal food and accessories from the island. At the same time despite the fact that the three spirits have a job to do they mostly just raid the local fields for food. The biggest imp seems to be the leader and while he is a gentle giant he also seems the closest to being the brains of the operation. The tall skinny imp is clearly the lazier and sneakiest of the three who is more content to throw out a snarky quip than lend a hand. The smallest imp is the innocent of the group. He is a bit of a space cadet but he seems the most genuine of the group. This trio is not the greatest at the their jobs and the fact that Momo can see them only complicates their assignment more. Momo spends the first part of the movie running scared from them but when she gets the upper hand on them she almost becomes their patrol officer as she tries to keep them in line. But in the end they form an odd friendship from their misadventures letting Momo open up a bit after all the circumstances closed her off from the world.

Momo is struggling but she isn’t a caricature of a grieving teenager. Because we never know Momo before this lose it could be easy to overemphasize her emotions, but this film is generally subtle. In fact, the ones acting out most are the spirits, for which she gets blamed heartily. Still she has her moments, as is natural to her, though I will say, her final argument with her mother does come off as a too perfect storm though necessary for growth. Speaking of her mother, I think we all visibly cringed at her attempts to get Momo to be more social. Momo is able to get there on her own as she learns to open up with the spirits. And my those spirits contrast with her wonderfully. Each one embodying a sort of selfish recklessness. But they do have the commonality of learning to see another perspective. Just as Momo at first doesn’t understand her mother’s plight so to do the spirits not see their actions.

Momo’s mother is a strong woman who is obviously holding in a tremendous amount of pain.  She want to move on. She knows that being upset won’t help anyone but both Momo and her mother have both retreated into themselves. It is just that Momo wears a mask of eternal sorrow  to cope whereas her mother wears one of seemingly endless optimism. They carry their sorrow singularly and therefore cannot move on. At she same time I get the feel no one in that family is great at social interactions. When Momo’s mom basically begs the children of the island to be Momo’s friend it is amazingly awkward for everyone involved. The kids from the island seem to genuine wish to make friends with Momo with the leader of the gang being interested in the attractive new girl but Momo seem unwilling to take the leap both literally and metaphorically.

I have to say that family movies all get the most delightful budgets and when you team up that money with a studio like Production IG you get same amazing visuals. Any given scene has amazingly beautiful backgrounds. From the rustic charm of the village, to the majesty of the forest, to the captivating vistas created by the archipelago every scene is just wonderful eye candy. With a movie with as many scenes that just live in a mood this is a necessity. At the same time the fluid animation of the chase on the hills and storm at the climax is breath-taking. I feel A Letter to Momo was going for a Studio Ghibli level of pomp and circumstance as a visual treat and in the respect they succeeded.

Despite the praise to give this film on its characters and setting, I really found it too long making my enjoyment falter considerably. It has moments of repetition that are necessary and some sagging moments as well. It is a slow, quiet film but that doesn’t mean it needs to be stretched out. I liked many things I saw, but wish a good editor would go in with some scissors. That being said, it is still a nice addition to the family film genre and something to build on. Children will and did surely love the antics of the spirits and Momo herself remained a relatable figure throughout.

I enjoyed the movie but it really needed to be at least a half an hour shorter. As we get to the end I knew they were going to do what too many overly long movies do and have several ending points. And soon enough I was proven right a the movie basically has three endings in a row. Each of them resolved something about a character relationship with either with Momo and her family, Momo and the spirits, or Momo and the other children on the island.  Each was important but it only made the movie feel longer than it already was. I know the movie wanted show and not tell you about these characters which was important but they needed condense a few scenes. It has a strong characters, beautiful visuals, a touching story all which could have been amazing if they just trimmed the fat a bit. Like Welcome to the Space Show this was clearly meant to be a family movie but I wonder how much the movie will be able to keep the attentions of kids for 2 hours. There are some funny scenes and even some action and suspense but when the plots slows down to drink in a feeling it often holds that feeling for too long.  Then again the children in the audience at the film festival seemed engaged for most of the movie so maybe I am underestimating a younger audience. Still I hope to see more from Hiroyuki Okiura. He showed a good deal of promise with this movie as long as he learns to condense the stories he tries to tell a bit.

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