Although Hiroyuki Okiyura has had a rich and varied career in Japan as an animator, designer and story artist, in America, he's known only as the director of Jin-Roh: The Wolf Brigade (1998). In contrast to that violent but often compelling science fiction adventure, his latest directorial effort, A Letter to Momo (Momo no e tegami, 2011), which has its Los Angeles premiere at the LA Children’s Film Festival on April 26 at 7:30 pm, is by turns, rude, funny, dramatic and touching.
Adolescent Momo Miyaura and her recently widowed mother Ikuko move from Tokyo to Shio, a small island in Japan’s Inland Sea. Momo has trouble adjusting to the minuscule town where they'll be living with aged relatives. Her emotional state is even more vulnerable because she had a fight with her oceanographer father just before he was killed in an accident at sea. The harsh words she spoke before he left haunt her still.
Adding to her problems, Momo begins seeing three weird-looking figures—on the street, at the nearby shrine, even in their house - when her mother is away, attending classes on another island. Mame is a bug-eyed homunculus; Kawa has a frog-like face; Iwa sports a large head and a mouth full of gold teeth. The bizarre trio are yokai, creatures from Japanese folklore. There’s no real English equivalent for yokai, although it’s variously translated as goblin, monster or haunt.
After her initial terror, Momo learns to tolerate the outre spirits and becomes fond of them in spite of herself. She learns that in punishment for earlier misbehavior, they've been assigned to watch over surviving family members for spirits who have not yet reached heaven—in this case, Momo's father.
Iwa, Mame and Kawa aren't really evil, but they are mischievous, given to stealing to food to assuage their never-ending hunger, and poking into things where they have no business. Like many supernatural beings in Japanese culture, they’re earthy and even crude: Kawa fights off opponents with toxic farts. But beneath their rough and tumble exteriors, they have good hearts. They break the rules set for them “Above,” and help Momo get to a doctor when a storm aggravates her mother’s asthma.
Okiyura does an admirable job of reconciling these disparate moods and emotions. In too many recent American animated films, characters act like clowns and jerks only to turn ickily sentimental in the last reel. The affection between Momo and the yokai trio develops more slowly and more believably. Similarly, Momo gradually realizes how much her mother has suffered: They re-establish their bond at what American viewers may not recognize as the Bon festival, a summer celebration honoring the souls of the dead. The pacing sometimes feels needlessly slow, and the film play better if it were about ten minutes shorter than its 120-minute length.
Although it lost the Japanese Academy Award to Mamoru Hosoda's Wolf Children, A Letter to Momo has been winning prizes on the international festival circuit. Its many warm and charming moments, which sometimes recall the work of Studio Ghibli, should earn the film a solid fan base in America.
And it will be very interesting to see what Okiyura does in his next film.
Further screening information: www.americancinematheque.com