Combustible Celluloid
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With: (voices) Karen Miyama, Yuka, Toshiyuki Nishida, Koichi Yamadera, Cho
Written by: Hiroyuki Okiura
Directed by: Hiroyuki Okiura
MPAA Rating: NR
Language: Japanese with English subtitles
Running Time: 120
Date: 09/05/2014

A Letter to Momo (2014)

3 1/2 Stars (out of 4)

Moving Spirits

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

The new anime A Letter to Momo feels like the movie that Hayao Miyazaki's final film should have been. It's a vague mix of elements from My Neighbor Totoro and Spirited Away, with a sweet, lost girl and a few scary, but helpful monsters. But it doesn't feel like a copy; it feels like a totally earnest and heartfelt bit of storytelling.

Following the death of her father, eleven year-old Momo (voiced by Karen Miyama) and her mother (voiced by Yuka) move from Tokyo back to her mother's childhood home on a remote island. Momo is aching from an argument that she had with her father before he died, and clutches desperately to a letter he started writing to her, but did not finish. Her mother begins trying to rebuild their lives, leaving Momo on her own for long stretches during the day. Before long, Momo begins hearing voices and seeing strange things.

After a while, the voices become shadowy figures, and then finally turn solid, although only Momo (and a younger village girl) can see them. They are the enormous Iwa (voiced by Toshiyuki Nishida), with his humongous jaw always open and ready to eat; the amphibian-like Kawa (voiced by Koichi Yamadera), and the small, childlike, forgetful Mame (voiced by Cho) with black-ringed eyes and a very long tongue. At first, these figures are fairly creepy, but we, along with Momo, slowly warm to them. They are vague about their jobs -- there are a lot of rules to follow and secrets to keep -- but we do know that they're always hungry, giving Momo plenty of headaches as she tries to keep them from stealing food while keeping them fed.

Like the best anime, A Letter to Momo makes lovely use of weather, space, and movement, seamlessly melding fantasy and reality. Characters, also, come with many little oddball traits that make them seem more human and more endearing. It's not frenetic and contains many moments of rest, although the pace can get a bit too languid as the movie covers its 120 minutes.

Writer and director Hiroyuki Okiura is practically a walking history of anime. His last time at the helm was on Jin-Roh: The Wolf Brigade. He also worked as an animator or in other capacities on Akira, Ghost in the Shell, Cowboy Bebop: The Movie, Metropolis, Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence, Paprika, and others. He definitely knows his stuff, and A Letter to Momo is a high point in his resume.

It was released back in 2011 in Japan, and is belatedly coming to America, without even the excuse of an English dub to slow it down (it's being presented in Japanese with English subtitles). It's also a movie that's technically acceptable for children, although I'd skew a little bit older, given the way the movie deals with death and the creepy monster factor. But either way it's a lovely little movie. Don't let it slip away.

Cinedigm has released A Letter to Momo in a beautiful double-disc DVD/Blu-ray edition. It includes both the English-language and Japanese-language versions (with English subtitles). Extras include a modest 20-minute making of featurette, and trailers for this and other kid-related videos from Cinedigm. Inside the box there are three paper "faces" for the three monsters.

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