After the unexpected death of her father, Momo and her mother leave their home in Tokyo and move to the small community on the island of Shiojima to be closer to their relatives. While everyone is out of the house during the day, Momo hears strange voices and noises coming from the attic, which turn out to be caused by three gluttonous yokai – Kawa, Mame and Iwa – who keep stealing food from the house and pinching all the crops from the family’s field.
The letter of the title refers to a note that Momo found in the aftermath of her father’s passing that just says, “Dear Momo.” Given that they had parted on bad terms, she is haunted by not knowing what he wanted to tell her, but right now she is too busy trying to keep the three yokai troublemakers in line.
A Letter To Momo is the latest film from Hiroyuki Okiura, who directed the gut-wrenching Jin-Roh: The Wolf Brigade way back in 1999. Where Jin-Roh was dark and disturbing, Okiura brings a lighter touch to Momo, even as the film centres around a daughter and mother struggling to come to terms with their grief. Momo starts the film quiet and withdrawn, resisting the attempts of the local kids, particularly Yota and his little sister Umi, to make friends.
It falls to the yokai, referred to as goblins in the English dub, to bring her out of her shell. Kawa, Mame and Iwa are not the sort of cute, cuddly critters found in most Hollywood family films; they look really weird and at times can seem threatening. Iwa is enormous, with a massive, permanently gaping mouth full of teeth; Kawa looks a bit like a frog (and acts a bit like Roger from American Dad), while little Mame looks not unlike Gollum. Despite that, they provide most of the laughs in the film – the scene where Kawa flattens a boar with a fart may be the broadest of humour, but it’s sure to crack up younger viewers. And they have a more profound purpose too – since they were sent to Earth from ‘Above’, they open up the possibility of an afterlife where Momo’s father may be looking down on his daughter, offering her the chance to begin the healing process.
The script, with a strong-willed teen heroine and supernatural critters, will inevitably invite comparisons with Studio Ghibli, although aesthetically speaking, A Letter To Momo feels closer to Mamoru Hosoda. The hand-drawn animation from Production IG is lovely and renders both sunny days and a furious hurricane with evocative skill. The script is good, but many of the plot beats are very easy to predict and what A Letter To Momo lacks most is any surprises in the storytelling. Momo’s arc is engaging and moving, but nonetheless feels very familiar. There are also a handful of scenes in the English dub that use internal monologues to explain motivations but that are really unnecessary and break the mood.