A Letter to Momo…or a Totoro Reboot?

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If you felt so certain that you have seen A Letter to Momo before, you were not alone. it was very similar to another anime. You might have heard of it. It’s called My Neighbor Totoro.

But of course, I would not judge A Letter to Momo just because of that. So let’s begin.

The primer: Written and directed by Hiroyuki Okiura, A Letter to Momo followed the events after the titular character and her mother moved back to their country home. Momo had a hard time fitting into the new environment and the discovery of three spirits in her house did not make things any easier. Momo eventually befriended the three spirits and they went on some fantastical adventures.

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How was it so similar to My Neighbor Totoro?

This was obvious. Just think of Totoro and look at Momo’s story. A girl (or girls) and one parent moved from the city to country house surrounded by nature and peaceful community. The girl subsequently met spiritual entities and eventually became friends. There were a boy of roughly the same age of the girl and old folks living next door. The girl got lost or ran away at one point and had people out looking for them. The girl’s mother had some kind of chronic illness that caused lots of troubles in the end. The girl eventually asked the spirits to intervene and resolve their problems. Aside from the main plot, the overall atmosphere and artworks were very similar to Totoro’s. In addition, the interaction between Momo and the three spirits was also reminiscent of that in Natsume Yuujunchou. I wouldn’t be surprised if Neko Sensei or the Cat Bus showed up at some point.

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Was it that bad?

Far from it. Despite being utterly derivative, A Letter to Momo was a very good film and entertaining. It was so good that I felt sorry. A Letter to Momo played it too safe. With a different script and probably more risk taking, we could have a fantastic anime instead of a fantastic remake.

The characters were generally by-the-number for this type of anime. Momo was your typical stubborn teenage girl and her mother was kind but she suppressed sadness inside. The three spirits were also typical for comedic characters. But these characters worked well because their interaction with each other was great in the film. Momo was likable and I, as a viewer, was on board with her the whole journey.

I did not expect A Letter to Momo to be so funny. But it turned out that the comedy part was much more memorable than the drama elements. Despite the conventional structure, the anime was full of small but delightfully funny moments which helped carried the viewers along to the end. A Letter to Momo also boasted detailed, beautiful artworks and animation. I liked that the anime kept the background art from standing out too much, lest it overshadowed the characters. But upon closer inspection, it was clear that lots of work was put into creating this humble, peaceful town.

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Scary thoughts and Deus ex Machina (Spoiler alert!)

One thing, however, bothered me. In the final act, Momo’s mother was suffering from asthmatic attack. So Momo had to cross the bridge in the midst of a typhoon to get a doctor back to her house. She asked the spirits to help her but they initially refused to intervene. Fortunately, they changed their minds and helped shield Momo from the wind and she made it across safely.

Think about it. Earlier, we learned that the three spirits was sent from the Sky to look after Momo’s family. They came as three drops of water. We were told that Momo was able to see them only because the three spirits accidently fell on Momo’s head. That meant Momo was never supposed to see the spirits, let alone talk to them, if not for that ‘accident’. So if this were just another normal scenario, Momo would not have known that these spirits existed. She would ran off on the bridge alone, got blown off the bridge and die horribly. Her swollen dead body would end up in the bottom of the ocean, eaten by fish and crabs!

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Conclusion: Let me make this clear. A Letter to Momo was solid, funny and beautiful. But the anime was stuck under the shadow of other greater films. I would say that A Letter to Momo was a great film but not a memorable one. With all that said, the anime still deserved high level of recommendations from me. Seriously, it was better than half the anime released last year.

Rating: B+

Facts

Title: A Letter to Momo (aka Momo e no Tegami)
Genre: drama, comedy, fantasy
Released date: April 21, 2012
Running time: 120 minutes
Director: Hiroyuki Okiura
Animated by: Production I.G

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9 responses to “A Letter to Momo…or a Totoro Reboot?

  1. First I want to say that I enjoy reading your blog a lot, almost every entry you post is relevant and interesting for me because you find a good balance between reviews of interesting shows as a whole (as opposed to blogs which discuss every single episode of several shows and therefore produce too much content for me to read through), movies and blog posts where you discuss Anime topics in general. I think I replied to one of your posts one or two years ago, but I can’t find the blog entry anymore :)

    I disagree with you with a few things you say about ‘A Letter to Momo’.
    In my opinion this movie does not feel [i]that[/i] similiar to ‘Totoro’ as you state here.

    I agree with you where you say that the plot is basically the same. The fact that the story in ‘Momo’ did not develop in a more unexpected way is also the one thing that did disappoint me a bit about the movie after I had watched the trailer a few months earlier and hoped for something surprising.

    But I’d argue that the atmosphere is quite different because while the ghosts in ‘Totoro’ are mystical animal-like creatures which are either unresponsive to the children’s actions or act rather random (except at the end), the main character in ‘A Letter to Momo’ interacts with the ghosts like they were humans, they talk and she has to negotiate with them about their behaviour. So it’s more a movie about how people, who are forced to stick with each other get along and the focus lies on the development of these inter-personal relationships. Also Momo carries her teenager problems and her trauma about her deceased dad with her around, while the two young girls in ‘Totoro’ are always carefree and playful, which sets a very different mood for the two movies.

    I want to add that the look of ‘A Letter to Momo’ reminds me less of the Ghibli style and more of the realism in the former works of its director (Jin-Roh, I read that he was also part of the staff for ‘Ghost in the Shell’) and maybe the movies of Satoshi Kon.

    So in conclusion to me it sounds like you want to implicate that it’s nearly a total Ghibli ripp-off, while I think it is as distinct from ‘Totoro’ as any other story with people who are able to see ghosts which are invisible to others (you mentioned Natsume and I would also compoare it to Ghost Hound, Mushishi, maybe also Denno Coil, although there the “ghosts” are of digital nature).

    But I agree with the second half of your review and your rating :)

    • Thank you!
      I think you are right about the animation style of Momo. It was more realistic than the dream-like atmosphere of Ghibli films. And Momo paid more attention to how the girl tried to fit in with the new environment.

      I am really happy to hear that you like reading my blog, despite its slow pace. Plus, receiving insightful comment like yours is the best thing any blogger could hope for.

  2. yep .. I agree it really has the studio ghibli atmosphere and some of the characters reminded me of totoro.. but I enjoyed the movie though :)

  3. Uggghhhh I need to see this. I’ve been slacking on my anime watching. Just getting back into it. I’ve become a seasonal anime viewer. Summers off.

  4. I noticed people are far more critical about anime films than American animations. Everything I’ve heard about “Momo,” last year’s “Poppy Hill,” and the recent “Wind Rises” has been along the lines of this: “it was good BUT…..” “I thought it was fine BUT IT WAS STILL JUST A….” etc. etc. From minor similarities to Totoro, to scenes of characters smoking cigarettes, something offends somebody in an anime.

    American films are let off the hook. I wish more people would show some negativity towards studio products here in the states, particularly the over-rated Pixar Animation, where everyone joins the same sheep-like mentality: “It’s Pixar! It’s Pixar! It was so godly! Sure, the story made no sense and it was a ripoff of 4 or 5 other films, but hey, IT’S PIXAR!”

    • Thank you for the interesting comment.
      To say it briefly, I believe that the audience of US animation and anime are mostly different groups with different expectation in their minds. Plus, most people may tend to criticized a film or anime based on each one’s respective genre.
      I gave my opinion on an anime in relative to other anime I have seen. And the same may be the case with Pixar’s film being praised based on previous US animated films.

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