A girl mourning the death of her father is visited by three mischievous spirits only she can see in “A Letter to Momo.” Marking a dramatic departure from his bloody 1999 debut, “Jin-Roh: The Wolf Brigade,” director Hiroyuki Okiura brings a dash of magic to this modern-day story, crafting precisely the sort of imaginative family-friendly toon auds expect from Studio Ghibli — only this one hails from Production I.G, the outfit responsible for the more adult-skewing “Ghost in the Shell” series. So meticulously conceived and rendered is the result, “Momo” should find avid support in anime-friendly markets and homevid.
Borrowing a number of the elements that make anime classic “My Neighbor Totoro” one of Japan’s most beloved toons, the film opens with a family’s move from Tokyo to the island of Shio. While her widowed mother tends to adult concerns, 13-year-old Momo occupies herself exploring the unfamiliar house and rural surroundings — a task complicated by the spirits of three former goblins: grinning giant Iwa, frog-like Kawa and baby-looking Mame.
Unlike the benign forest spirits in “Totoro,” however, this trio is pure mischief. With their insatiable appetites and nasty habit of stealing keepsakes from the locals, the silly-looking creatures are constantly getting into trouble, with Momo often taking the blame.
Normally, humans would not be able to see these spirits, who have been sent from above to watch over Momo and her mother during the time it takes her recently deceased father’s soul to reach heaven. As it turns out, this is the first time these three have been sent on such a mission, and they accidentally made their presence known by coming into contact with Momo on their initial descent, allowing for a series of unique adventures around the island.
While the supernatural element makes for the film’s most entertaining sequences, including an exciting setpiece in which wild boars chase Momo and her crop-raiding friends through an orchard, the story distinguishes itself from other anime offerings through its attention to both visual and emotional realism. Director Okiura’s nuanced sense of gesture and body language yields such true-to-life movement, it suggests either extensive work with actor-models or the classic rotoscoping technique Walt Disney used to animate Snow White — a style further enriched by placing the action against detailed, painterly backgrounds. (That said, auds who’ve had their expectations of anime shaped by Studio Ghibli fare may be disappointed by the pic’s muted palette and low-key facial expressiveness.)
As gorgeous as “Momo” is to behold, the film’s sensitive portrayal of a teenager dealing with grief proves its most compelling element. Devastated that her final words to her father were spoken in anger, Momo ponders an unfinished letter left in her father’s drawer, wondering what he intended to say. Okiura is so finely attuned to capturing the girl’s experience in an authentic way that “Momo” seems as likely to interest child psychologists as it is to entertain actual children.
With its complex characterizations and multiple storylines, the toon rivals mature live-action drama. Even so, the animation medium is essential to its unique surreal touches — especially the stunning climactic sequence, which rivals even “Spirited Away” as Momo’s mother falls ill and the spirits must intervene to help save her life.