What is this, Shii’s Anime Blog? Uhh, anyway.
Momo e no Tegami, “A Letter to Momo”, is a technically ambitious and heartwarming success by Hiroyuki Okiura (Jin-Roh: The Wolf Brigade, Paprika) and Production I.G. that gives me hope for anime films in this decade. The film achieves what a good anime should aim for: fantastic and wonderful images which at the same time astound the viewer with their novelty and retain a touch of familiarity that makes them hauntingly real. It’s a meticulous effort that’s very much worth your time.
You may remember that I was underwhelmed by Shinkai’s Voices from the Other Side, which seemed be a hodgepodge of homages to Ghibli and surreal but poorly assembled spectacles. Momo e looks a little Ghibliesque on the surface, but this is really just because both Miyazaki and Okiura are drawing on Edo period grimoires for source material. Get into the theater and you’ll discover that the cinematography, character designs, and plot arcs are really quite different, and Momo e has its own personality.
The basic plot is rather predictable from the beginning, but it becomes fleshed out and made more engaging by a careful pacing. Unfortunately for me, this film contains a lot of dialect: the islanders speak a rustic, almost humorously archaic variant of Shikoku-ben, and the spirits speak a mixture of 19th century samurai language and other things I could not identify. The latter especially tripped me up a few times and probably requires a native grasp on Japanese, or familiarity with afternoon samurai dramas, to be enjoyed fully. But the archaicisms give the fictional setting a feeling of realism and physical location.
Language is far from the only aspect of the film where exhaustive research has born delicious fruit. I don’t need a “making of” video to know that the director and lead animators must have personally visited islands in the inland sea as a model for their setting. The streets and buildings boast accuracy at every curb, even moreso than Ghibli’s recent Kokurikozaka kara. See if you can spot the cleverly employed pillow shots. Every background has been based on real life reference down to the smallest detail. There must have been some serious observation of island life involved to capture all of the tiny moments we see in the film, such as families carrying water tanks up to their homes and gas-powered elevators running up through the terraced rice fields (棚田). The faces of the human characters also sometimes exhibit an uncanny realism, which can be seen in the trailer.
Another part of the film where background research was both complete and well-integrated is the aspect of the haunted house. The haunted house in Totoro, to use the most obvious example, is just a word used to introduce the cute characters. In Momo e, on the other hand, the number of parallels with real poltergeist haunting proves that the director and writers must have done some real research into the subject. Just as in a real-life poltergeist incident, the haunting begins with strange knocks from unoccupied rooms, then develops into spooky incidents such as invisible hands grabbing people, objects flying across the room, fires being started… or the weirdness witnessed by the adults in this film, which I will not reveal. The haunted family inevitably includes a young child age 6-14, in this case Momo. Eventually the child is named as the culprit, as is the case here (this is not a major plot point), but how a child could pull off such sophisticated conjuring undetected for such a long time, or why they undertook such an effort, is never explained. I don’t expect viewers to be familiar with this branch of parapsychology, but the touch of realism will surely strike a chord unconsciously.
These are just the aspects of the film that stuck out the most to me– I’ll leave other points to other reviewers. In any case, the film blended seamlessly with my experiences of rural Japan, with the result that when the drama reached its peak, I was completely submerged in its world. I was not the only one feeling this way–I could hear a lot of sniffling in the theater. It was one of those films that’s so good you lose track of time and you’re not sure whether you were watching for thirty minutes or three hours, even though in my case I didn’t understand all of the dialogue!
The feeling experienced by the viewer after the curtains close, in my opinion, is a crucial judge of the real quality of a film. When I came out of the theater I felt grateful and moved for having seen such an honest portrayal of life and death. I’m not sure if I would buy a DVD for extended replay, but I would definitely see this film again with friends. My reverie was temporarily interrupted by a theater employee handing out marketing material for the film, including a postcard inviting people to mail in letters they would want to send to lost family and friends. This struck me as a little insensitive, but it doesn’t affect my impression of the film itself, which I wholeheartedly recommend.