Do you ever stop breathing in the middle of an exquisitely animated scene, on a cut that is framed like aged single-malt whiskey and it sets your mind on fire the moment you set your eyes on it?
Do you ever adore those shots of a typical Satoshi Kon lead protagonists writhing in angst, reaching out for something they can never touch, ever?
Are you a sakuga otaku?
If you answered yes to any of those you will need to go and catch the nearest screening or home video release of director Hiroyuki Okiura's A Letter to Momo. The animator veteran, famous mostly from his Jin-Roh work, returns with a celebration of traditional animation, seven years in the making. All of the character and mechanical animation are hand-drawn.
How about for the rest of us? Click on and find out.
A Letter to Momo
If you are familiar with Jin-Roh, a dystopia set in Mamoru Oshii's dark and armor-clad alternative Japan, you might actually find the look of A Letter to Momo a little similar. A Letter to Momo carries itself with that realism style; the characters look not unlike a page straight out of Jin-Roh's character design philosophy, with its clean and weighted lines and deep, dark eyes. The character animation moves with precision and life-like detail, conveying a deepness in the way people move when they're burdened, and a measured bounce when they aren't.
The two films, however, share little else. It's probably safe to say the concept of A Letter to Momo is closer to a show like Kamichu. Like Kamichu, Momo is set during a beautiful summer around the Seto Inland Sea, a place with scenic landscapes dotted with tiny islands, ancient temples and countless bridges. Production IG spared little, it seems, at making the background art some of the most picturesque things you can find outside of a Ghibli film. Moreover, they do a bang-up job teleporting the viewer on board, with its bright canvas and moving animation. To round out the Kamichu comparison, Momo, the titular protagonist, too, is able to see supernatural beings and have her adventures with them.
For a film aimed at the whole family, A Letter to Momo sticks to its guns and tells a story about a 5th grader and her newly-widowed mother. The main plot focuses on the argument Momo had with her deceased father right before the fateful accident, which somehow focuses on the unfinished letter Momo's dad was writing. Having to move to the countryside after the incident, Momo also had to adjust to the hurdles of moving to a place lacking Tokyo-style comforts. It's got all the trappings you would expect--hard time making friends, being annoyed at her mother, being awkward around her distant relatives, and the things that otherwise occupy a child's mind during summer vacation.
The supernatural beings, thankfully, really livens up the film. It feels like a tried-and-true formula by now, but the three bumbling youkai-types acted like inexplicable but enjoyable action-adventure vehicles, leaving me equally weirded out and laughing at their high-energy antics. And thankfully so, as the pace of the film was on the slow and methodical side, perhaps to a fault.
I suppose those things are kind of beside the point. The main emotional draw from A Letter to Momo, for me, was its power of nostalgia. When Momo mopes around the house like a lazy kid on break, it felt as if I was watching myself, when I was Momo's age, moping around the house during summer break. There's a life-likeness in the character animation that just speaks, without words and beyond words, the things that might remind you of your childhood. Or the crazy things you did that summer, although I doubt any of us jumped off bridges. And on that note, our mileages will vary when it comes to nostalgia.
Unfortunately, despite the gorgeous and powerful yet subtle animation, all of these wondrous things are things that have been frequently executed in other films. It's a road that is a little too oft-trodden for me. Still, when you put that aside, A Letter to Momo is still a solid family film that offers something for both the young and their parents. The incredibly solid production value gets Momo a big bump as I'm just afraid that we won't be seeing other hand-animated films made like this in the future.
(A big thank you to the people behind the New York International Children's Film Festival for providing the screening!)
8.8 - Great. A would-be masterpiece held back by some minor but notable flaws.
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