By Andrew Hamlin
Northwest Asian Weekly
Hiroyuki Okiura’s anime feature “A Letter to Momo” was seven years in the making, including the story, script, and storyboarding. It’s also the filmmaker’s first turn in the director’s seat since 1999’s “Jin-Roh: The Wolf Brigade.” For all the planning, though, the film begins simply enough, with a medium-sized ferry bringing people and cars to an island in Japan’s Seto Inland Sea.The ferry brings a mother and daughter to a small island called Shio. Momo (voiced in Japanese by Karen Miyama, in English by Amanda Pace) and her mother, Ikuko (voiced by Japanese singer Yuka, and English-language voice actress Stephanie Sheh), left Tokyo after the death of Momo’s marine biologist father in a storm at sea.
The breathtaking scenery doesn’t much appeal to Momo, who’s despondent at losing her father. She is ashamed of how she acted right before his death. Her mother wants to help, but she’s busy with her own affairs, trying to provide for their future.
Momo misses her old friends, her old life, and the quietude of the island isn’t much after her Tokyo life. She soon begins seeing vague shapes and hearing voices, especially when her mother is away. To her initial horror, the reasons behind these odd phenomena soon reveal themselves.
The family is being visited by three other-worldly spirits, sometimes called goblins. Whatever their origins (a topic they don’t care to dwell on), they’re ubiquitous, noisy, constantly gobbling whatever food they can scrounge, and generally making a nuisance of themselves. And since Momo is the only one who can see them clearly (after a while), she gets blamed for their actions.
Kawa (voiced by Koichi Yamadera and Fred Tatasciore) is a thick-bodied, rectangular-headed fellow with a huge bump on his scalp, fangs, and an inability to completely close his mouth. He’s brash and clearly thinks of himself as the leader of the group, although the other two don’t always go along.
Iwa (voiced by Toshiyuki Nishida and Dana Synder), the medium-sized apparition, looks like a chinless reptile with hair. He admires himself in mirrors and seems oblivious to his own silly appearance. He’s also vulgar and uncouth, prone to complaining even in the best of times.
Mame (voiced by Cho and Bob Bergen) is the smallest of the three and the most goblin-like. His eyes are perfect circles, but his ears point up and his enormous tongue constantly hangs out. Apart from his tongue issues, he’s very much like a mischievous toddler, who talks little and runs around a lot. Everyone else, including Momo, has to keep him from getting hurt, or accidentally hurting others.
The apparitions create a lot of trouble for Momo, as they perpetually steal food. But gradually, they hash out a mutual understanding between themselves and Momo, and they begin working to help each other. This all plays against the beautiful backdrop of the island, with its forests, farms, and surrounding ocean. Director Okiura masterfully melds nature, myth, and the power of caring. (end)
“A Letter to Momo” opens Friday, Sept. 5th, at Seattle’s Varsity Theatre, 4329 University Way N.E. in Seattle’s University District. Matinee screenings will be dubbed into English. Later shows will feature the original Japanese voices, with English subtitles. For prices and showtimes, call 206-781-5755 or check local listings.
Andrew Hamlin can be reached at email@example.com.