A Letter to Momo is a touching film designed to evoke emotion in anyone who has loved a parent or lost one (which is most of us). It accomplishes this with humor, good character development, and genuine feeling. It mimics the work of Hayao Miyazaki in an obvious and reverential way. It’s beautifully animated, if traditional, and there are some truly beautiful scenes scattered throughout its narrative. All this, normally, would melt into the kind of film that I’d fall in love with, but something about Momo left me merely lukewarm. It’s a worthwhile experience, but I couldn’t help feeling like I just wanted more Miyazaki.
Momo is a young girl whose father has passed away. She and her mother, in an effort to start a new life, travel to Shio, one of Japan’s southern islands, to visit Momo’s grandparents. Before they leave, Momo finds a letter addressed to her from her father, but the letter is only a greeting, and so she is left with a blank piece of paper and a multitude of unanswered questions. When Momo and her mother reach the island and their new abode, Momo quickly discovers a trio of yokai that only she can see. Hijinks procede.
Yokai are a distinctly Japanese phenomenon. They don’t quite have an English equivalent, though they can most readily be compared to demons, ghosts, or spirits, and while those words conjure up horror and malevolence, yokai are not always evil. In Momo, they are anything but, and the three yokai, Iwa, Kawa, and Mame, that Momo meets on the island are in reality her guardians. They provide comic relief in a huge way, and they nearly steal every scene they are in. Iwa is the leader, the large open-mouthed one, and has a bumbling confidence and ugly charm that are hard to ignore. Kawa, the sly middle fellow, is the lazy, always-hungry and rarely warm yokai. Mame, perhaps the most lovable character in the story, is sweet and seems to enjoy discovering the many wonders of life and nature. Combined, they form a perfect trio of entertainment and a much needed source of levity in an otherwise rainy tale.
Momo’s story is predictable, probably because I’ve seen quite a few of these films. Like I said earlier, Okiura is heavily Miyazaki-inspired. His plot involves a young girl with one or more sick parents who can unexpectedly see supernatural things and one or more odd creatures. He is in essence retelling My Neighbor Totoro. None of this is bad, but neither is it fresh or inventive. If every animator was inspired by Hayao Miyazaki, the cinematic world would be an amazing place. And this is not to say that Okiura hasn’t provided his own spin on the Totoro format. This movie is more humourous than anything Miyazaki has done, which could leave it less meaningful but probably doesn’t. It’s still a touching story, regardless of how many laughs are had.
I think where Momo shines for me is in its cinematography and setting. Much of Shio is covered in terraced farmland, which I find fascinating from an agricultural and landscaping perspective. The mountains of the island are covered in greenery, with retaining walls built up at each row to keep the soil and vegetables in place. Traditional agriculture, particularly United States large-scale agriculture, wouldn’t view this as a practical solution to growing food, and I’ve heard it does require more work. What intrigues me about the notion of terraced farming is how it utilizes the land, working with it instead of against it. Momo portrays the beauty of this landscape, and of the farms, as well as the simple elegance of island living. It’s a snapshot of a smaller group, one closed off from the larger community, and in some ways feels reminiscent of Japan’s size compared to the greater world.
And it pleases me to say that Momo is the end of my first Japanese curriculum. In a way, it’s a fitting and contemporary end to this months-long endeavor of mine, especially given that my love of Japanese culture may have very well begun with my first Miyazaki movie. If Okiura is one of his many successors, than we could have a bright future ahead of us, even if I didn’t fall head over heels for Momo. I’ll be writing up more thoughts about the curriculum overall in the next day or so, but I can say without a doubt that this has been one of the best and most meaningful learning experiences of my life. I wish college would have been as rewarding.