‘Momo’ Belongs in the Dead Letter Department

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“A Letter to Momo” is a Japanese anime work from screenwriter/director, Hiroyuki Okiura. In the United States, the film is playing theatrically in both Japanese with English subtitles and dubbed into English.

Momo is an only child, who has recently lost her father, while he was traveling abroad on a research project. Her asthma-ridden mother, Ikuko, has decided to sell the family’s condo in Tokyo and move to the remote island of Shio. There, the pair will move into a property owned by Ikuko’s aunt and uncle, next door to their own abode. Ikuko will be going back to school for nursing.  The film is conspicuously silent regarding the economic circumstances of the now fatherless family.

Momo’s last interaction with her father, before his departure abroad, was  extremely unpleasant. After an argument, she stalked off in a huff, never to speak to her father again. Now, Momo is haunted by this memory. After the funeral for Momo’s father, she finds a truncated letter in his desk. The entire text of the epistle is, “Dear Momo,” with nothing beyond that. Momo struggles to divine what her father had intended to say to her. She clutches tenaciously to the letter.

Momo’s sense of despair is exacerbated by the fact that she has no playmates in Shio and the school year hasn’t started yet. She cavils that her mother has abandoned her to be at home alone all day. However, when Ikuko tries to encourage a neighborhood boy to befriend her daughter, Momo takes umbrage.

One day, Momo hears noises in the attic. She makes a shocking discovery. There are a trio of yokai (supernatural monsters) living there. These goblins have been sent from above in the form of rain drops. Each assumes a corporeal form, which is decidedly ugly. Iwa is a giant ogre with severely discolored yellow teeth, exposed by a permanently frozen grimace. Then, there is Kawa, a chinless creature, who uses pungent flatulence as a weapon. Rounding out the crew is Mame, a homunculoid imp with an elongated tongue.

These monsters have supposedly been sent to earth to look after Momo and her mother. Only Momo can see them. Although the yokai are supposedly providing a protective function, they create plenty of problems. They are perpetually hungry and raid the gardens of neighborhood residents for food. In addition, they purloin random items from their homes.

Initially, Momo attempts to banish the spirits. Later, she attempts to enlist them to help her communicate with her dead father. The yokai are subject to a stringent set of regulations. However, they seem to be confused by the parameters of these provisions. Frustratingly, the film never clarifies what they are.

All of the central characters are annoying. Momo is extremely self-centered and oblivious to her mother’s sense of bereavement. The three spirits, in addition to being visually repulsive, are intellectually obtuse and devoid of the slightest scintilla of charm. Their constant squabbling is pointless and disconcerting.

The film conflates the mundane and the supernatural in a way that makes absolutely no sense. A somber scene is which the villagers launch straw boats to honor the dead is difficult to reconcile with the jocular tone of the goblins’ shenanigans.

This film’s story line recalls Hayao Miyazaki’s “Spirited Away.” In it, a pre-teen girl is ensnared in a magical world when her family moves. The film won the 2002 Academy Award for Best Animated Feature and set box office records as the biggest grossing film in Japanese history. Hiroyuki Okiura’s attempt to limn the same subject matter with “A Letter to Momo” ends up being a maladroit mess.

It remains unclear to me who the appropriate audience for this film might be. “A Letter to Momo” made its international debut at the 2011 Toronto International Film Festival, subsumed in its kids section. It later played at the Chicago International Children’s Film Festival. However, with a running time spanning two hours, it grossly exceeds the attention span of most youngsters. A perilous vignette in which Momo is pursued by a pair of wild boars will prove too scary for many children. Moreover, the crude humor and the clumsy treatment of sensitive issues seems inappropriate for them. The subject matter is too puerile to engage adults.

“A Letter to Momo” has elicited widespread critical praise. To me, this is inexplicable. “A Letter to Momo” is a tonally inconsistent film, beset with bizarrely disjointed elements.

“A Letter to Momo” : *1/2 No MPAA rating 120 minutes

Nathan Lerner sees over 200 feature films a year. He welcomes feedback at lernerprose@gmail.com.

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