By the time I entered college, my family had moved house seven times. The process of adjusting to a new place grew harder as I became a teenager, though by the time of our last move I was more accepting — or indifferent, take your pick. The difference between 13 and 17, in other words, was huge.
The title heroine of Hiroyuki Okiura’s new animated feature, “Momo e no Tegami (A Letter to Momo),” is closer to the former, tenderer age than the latter when her mother (voiced by one-name actress Yuka) decides to return to her home island in a remote corner of the Seto Inland Sea. Also, Momo (voiced by Karen Miyama) has just lost her father — and regrets the harsh words that proved to be the last he ever heard from her.
Okiura, an animator and character designer with a three-decade career, spent seven years developing “Momo” after the 1999 release of his first feature, the animated sci-fi epic “Jinro (Jin-Roh: The Wolf Brigade).” He presents Momo more as an average girl than a tragic victim, or the usual spunky anime heroine: When she reluctantly joins the local kids for a swim, she incredulously watches as everyone leaps off a high bridge into the harbor water — and heads for home alone.
Momo also doesn’t tough it out when she realizes the old house where she and her mother are staying is also the abode of three yokai (goblins). On spying this trio, who have emerged from a feudal-era picture book and look like ghostly apparitions, she runs for her life, in one of the film’s more exhilarating — and funnier — sequences.
But the yokai catch up, and soon become her inseparable companions (whether she likes it or not). The Shrek-like giant Iwa (Toshiyuki Nishida) is the leader, while the lizard-esque Kawa (Koichi Yamadera) is the slyest and therefore most human, and the tiny, round-eyed Mame (Cho) is the most childlike and mysterious. Momo masters her fear of them by finding a simple way, which I will not describe, to control them. They are hardly her servants, however. Instead she has to constantly keep them from getting into trouble — and dragging her into it.
The early scenes of Momo’s adventures with her yokai pals are not just comic relief. For younger viewers, especially, they make the forbidding and strange (i.e., the yokai) more familiar and likeable, while establishing Momo as a girl who can cope and grow, even while being half scared out of her wits.
All this sets the stage for later, weightier matters, particularly Momo’s response to a letter her father began writing her just before he died: She reads only “To Momo” before lapsing into an intolerable silence.
Okiura, who also wrote the script, manages this transition from light to serious with the craft and assurance of a true storyteller, while firmly grounding his human and nonhuman characters in their Seto Inland Sea setting, from the narrow portside streets to the gloriously expansive view from the island’s highest point.
All such scenes are painstakingly hand-drawn with an attention to detail befitting the best of Japanese animation (and produced by the Production I.G studio). Studio Ghibli maestro Hayao Miyazaki is the obvious point of comparison, but unlike many of Miyazaki’s more fanciful landscapes, Okiura’s port is vividly, recognizably real — so much so that you can almost smell the salt in the water and feel the warmth of the stones.
He also gives his principal characters fine shadings rarely seen in anime targeted at kids (though “Momo” can certainly be enjoyed by adults as well). A cheerful, energetic sort, Momo’s mom is at the same time a bit vain and self-centered, and not above flirting with a local guy out of motives Momo can’t quite understand — but that make her see red. Mom also suffers from asthma, not a typical trait for an anime character, though important to the story.
The film’s various threads — the realistic and the fantastic, the headlong action and the sensitively rendered human drama — come together in a climax satisfying in ways I wasn’t quite expecting. Those goofy yokai turn out to have a purpose, for one thing — and it’s more than just annoying Momo.
Also, the message about the importance of family, though echoed in innumerable saccharine ho￣mu dorama (home dramas) in Japan, has a freshness and urgency that moved this reviewer to tears — if not to move back to the old hometown. I’m here for the duration, I’m afraid — or until I see real-life yokai dancing on my desk.