Hiroyuki Okiura’s last film was Jin-Roh: The Wolf Brigade in 1999, a bleak war film set in an alternate 1950s Japan. Nothing in it suggested his follow-up would be a charming and poignant coming-of-age story involving magical spirits, but Okiura is clearly versatile.
After her father dies suddenly, 11-year old Momo moves with her mother to the island community of Shio for a fresh start. While she struggles to make friends and cope with her loss, Momo realises she’s being watched by three bizarre but benevolent creatures from Japanese folklore who seem to be connected to her father, except no-one else can see them.
Although too long at two hours, A Letter to Momo is so gorgeously animated that it’s hard to complain. The level of detail in the scenery and the town is extraordinary, so meticulously recreated from life that the film feels like distilled but heightened reality. The slow slap of the first drops of rain on the ground is captured with uncanny accuracy, and you can almost feel the wind gusting around you. Today, no other films come close to theatrical anime for sheer beauty of animation: every room, street, and mountain in this film is so precisely rendered that they seem tangible, similar to Makoto Shinkai’s work in The Garden of Words.
Okirura’s realism goes further, however, as the characters are more painstakingly life-like. As in Jin-Roh, faces are more recognisably Japanese, although the main characters’ eyes still have the less detailed, cartoonish quality that keeps the characters relatable and out of the uncanny valley. The frame-rate for character movement is higher too, so their gestures are more subtle and true to life. This film is wondrous to watch.
Momo is the shy but plucky young hero typical of Studio Ghibli and other less stylised theatrical anime, but she’s endearing enough that her familiarity doesn’t get in the way. The supporting human characters are low-key rather than colourfully eccentric, which helps the town feel like a real-life community, albeit an idealised one.
The three demons stand out even more as a result, and fortunately they’re a bit sinister rather than constantly cute. Skinny little Mame is pretty creepy, with a high-pitched monotone voice and bulbous eyes, as if he’s modelled on a traumatised Peter Lorre. They steal baby boars with the intention of eating them. Cheery anime family films usually have a dark undercurrent (think Chihiro’s forced labour in the bathhouse in Spirited Away and her parents transforming into enormous pigs), and A Letter to Momo leaves you in doubt for a while as to whether the demons have Momo’s best interests in mind.
The pleasantly ambling story climaxes with a typhoon hitting the island as Momo’s mother needs urgent medical treatment. It plays out as you expect, but predictability has rarely undermined anime like this, and the solution is thrilling and spectacular. The beauty, charm, and uplifting ideas are why we watch Studio Ghibli films and those cut from the same cloth. With Miyazaki retiring, possibly for good this time, more films from talents like Okiura and Mamoru Hosoda, whose films evoke Ghibli without copying them, are even more crucial. A Letter to Momo was in development for seven years, but hopefully Okiura’s follow-up won’t take as long. With some more restraint in the running time and a dash more ambition, he could become one of the titans of big-budget anime.