A Letter to Momo (Momo e no tegami) Review (TIFF 2011) – An enchanting journey to Shio Island

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Adhering to the belief that there is something special about hand drawn animation that cannot be duplicated by computer animation, director Hiroyuki Okiura and Production I.G. have spent the past seven years making a magical masterpiece. A Letter to Momo rivals Studio Ghibli classics for pure imagination and charm, and is one of the most endearing, absorbing and comical adventures that I have ever seen.

The film follows a young girl named Momo and her mother, as they move from bustling Tokyo to the quaint island village of Shio. Early on it is made clear that the reason for their move is the death of Momo’s father in a research expedition at sea. Grasped in Momo’s hand is a blank piece of paper that she found in her Father’s desk. At least it is almost blank, save for two words, ‘Dear Momo’. Momo is having difficulty proceeding with life, without knowing what her father’s final communication would have been. However, a series of supernatural events on Shio island force Momo to engage life again and attempt to come to terms with the death of her father.

Hiroyuki Okiura wrote and directed A Letter to Momo, and in my opinion should write a book or teach a class on how to bring animated characters and worlds to life, if he hasn’t already. Okiura started his career working on Akira, and has been involved with major projects ever since (for example, Ghost in the shell, Innocence: Ghost in the shell and Paprika). His directorial debut was Jin-Roh: The Wolf Brigade. A constant theme in Okiura’s work has been violence and mature themes, however, he felt it was time to create something that would be enjoyable to children and adults alike. A Letter to Momo is the perfect compromise between these two different audiences, as the comedy and fantasy elements appeal to both ages, while the central characters have layers of complexity and emotions, to a degree that most live action characters/actors fail to achieve.

The animation is top of the line. The fluidity and imagination of several action sequences would suggest that they must have taken months or years to perfect, while the panoramic views of forested Shio island are absolutely breathtaking. One of the most amazing aspects of the animation are the facial expressions of Momo, as they are almost unbelievably real. I can’t remember the last time that non-verbal language has been communicated so clearly in an animated film. Finally, the wonderfully varied score is a pleasure to listen to and greatly complements the images onscreen.

While watching A Letter to Momo I felt like I personally knew the characters and cared deeply about their fate. The magical and touching story of A Letter to Momo is something that no film fan should miss. Unfortunately, it may be a while before North American audiences get another chance to see it.

I have no doubt that it will be worth the wait.

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