If he hopes to fill the gap left in Japanese animé by the retirement of the great Hayao Miyazaki, Hiroyuki Okiura will have to do better than the uneven coming-of-age fantasy that is “A Letter to Momo.” Though it touches on the usual themes of youthful innocence and imagination challenged by misfortune, and on occasion achieves moments of supremely subtle, sublimely exquisite detail, “Momo” strains when it comes to evoking whimsy and magic. Its humor also fizzles — did Miyazaki ever have to resort to fart jokes for comic effect?
The story recalls “Spirited Away” in its tale of a young girl in a new home who discovers an enchanted world that parents can’t share, but it founders when it tries to evoke Miyazaki’s otherworldly wonder and surreal imagery. As an exploration of loss and grief, it initially shows promise, with 11-year-old Momo (Karen Miyama) on the deck of a ferry studying wistfully the title letter — an unfinished note from her dead father consisting only of the salutation “Dear Momo.” She and her mother, Ikuko (Yuka), are relocating from Tokyo to the idyllic island of Shio, which is where Ikuko’s aunt and uncle live. It’s unclear whether they are moving there because of financial reasons or because Ikuko needs to escape to a place not associated with her husband in order to start anew.
The viewer knows only as much as Momo does, as Okiura achieves the difficult task of seeing things from a child’s perspective. Like many kids her age, Momo is self-centered, so she doesn’t pick up on her mother’s bereft state of mind. But she does notice other things that grown-ups don’t.
That includes, unfortunately for the rest of the movie, the three charmless goblins sent from “Above” apparently to watch over Momo and her mother. They are Iwa (Toshiyuki Nishida), a hydrant-headed lunk with jaws frozen in a permanent grimace; Mame (Cho), a midget Nosferatu who seems in a drug-induced haze; and Kawa (Koichi Yamadera), the chinless newt who provides the flatulence. They spend most of their time stealing food, a ritual which becomes tiresome over the course of two hours. And when they’re not being dumb they’re acting inappropriately, or are just plain creepy, such as when Mame licks Momo’s leg with his foot-long tongue. I’ll take Clarence, the wingless angel from “It’s a Wonderful Life,” over these clowns any day.
Had Okiura cut some of the supernatural shtick he would have had a far more affecting and mercifully shorter movie. The crudity detracts from his knack for capturing the sublimity of real things, such as the majesty of landscapes. These are seen from a heavenly height spread out in breathtaking vistas, or from afar in extreme long shots revealing tiny human figures almost lost in the midst of the mountains, islands, and sea.
Even more poetic are images of evanescent beauty, such as the pattern raindrops make on a surface just before it pours. But the characters — the human ones — benefit most from the filmmakers’ artistry: They are complex, subtle, and exquisitely rendered, their gestures and expressions simply and exactly drawn. Okiura unfolds their dramas with oblique delicacy until he ventures from the realm of human affairs to the world of slapstick make-believe.