Magical realism is a label I don't like to throw around often, in big part because it's so open-ended it could encompass too many things for its own good. Whole swaths of anime could end up under this brand, and we'd be none the wiser for what they actually were. Few people, even those not familiar with the names in question, would confuse the "magical realism" of a Miyazaki / Studio Ghibli production with the "magical realism" of one of Satoshi Kon's lighter works — or, for that matter, something like Nichijou.
For A Letter to Momo, though, the label does fit, as it describes not only the flavor of the story but its twee attitude and perhaps also its slight flavor. It's not the masterpiece some have called it, and I wonder how much of that is people feeling obliged to say something positive about work by an industry veteran (Hiroyuki Okiura) whose work spans decades and countless titles great and small. But what Momo does, it does with charm and humor, and no small amount of empathy.
Three ogres, no waiting
It isn't all that misleading to make comparisons to some of the Ghibli films, actually, since Momo's setup parallels a number of them at once. Momo, a girl of eleven or so, has moved with her mother to one of Japan's more remote islands, a hilly backwater that holds little of interest for someone who just arrived from Tokyo. But Momo's gloom is about more than being displaced; she remains in mourning for her father. He was a marine biologist, seen only in flashbacks as a cheerful man of compulsive work habits, and Momo's last words to him were "I hate you," right before he left on a survey expedition and never returned. All that remains is memories, photos, and one artifact of his — a sheet of paper with the words "Dear Momo" written at the top in his handwriting, and nothing more on the page. She keeps it with her like a talisman to ward off a future that doesn't contain him.
Life in the village is just as uneventful as Momo fears. The main activity for kids her age seems to be jumping off one of the big bridges. The other kids try to open up to her and welcome her into their activities, but she's more preoccupied with her own gloom — which she refuses to properly recognize as grief — to bother. Even the goofball of a mailman and her crusty, likeable grandparents don't really do much to crack open her shell.
That job, it seems, falls to the ogres. They are a trio of stooges who descend from "Above" — literally — and assume the form of a gang of demonic goons depicted in one of the old books stowed away in her new house's attic. Invisible to others but visible to Momo, they set about insinuating themselves into her life by being grade-A nuisances. They eat the food Momo's mother leaves out for lunch; they steal vegetables from the terraced hillside farms; they find endless ways to drive Momo to distraction. Finally, she gets her hands on their "travel pass" — a magic talisman of sorts — and uses that to blackmail them into not being too unruly.
Out of this begins something akin to a friendship, however fractious and difficult it is, one where Momo tries to keep her goblin buddies from making more trouble than they absolutely have to. A project like this turns out to be what Momo needs to jolt her out of her inertia, even if she doesn't recognize it at first, and even if her new playmates are allegedly spiritual guardians to keep her from coming to harm while her father's spirit sorts out its passage into the afterlife. They mean well, but they're too clumsy and incompetent — not to mention tied to the supernatural world — to really substitute for human companionship. But while they can't substitute for it, they can certainly help Momo find it, or re-establish it between her and her mother, whom Momo fears to have left her father behind a little too quickly.
Right idea, shaky execution
When I used the terms "twee" and "slight" to describe Momo, I wasn't so much talking about the subject matter as I was the approach, and in retrospect I sense the movie's light-handed approach isn't a deficit. It's hard to tell a story about grief and loss without wallowing in the thing, and it's also hard to leaven that, to make it comprehensible, without also seeming like you're trying to make it palatable. I think Momo works in big part because it doesn't get too serious for its own good, and because of the way it turns the contrasts between the "silly" and the "serious" sides of the story to its advantage. This is a tough thing to get right, and even Momo doesn't get it entirely right, in big part because while it gets the generalities right, it sometimes stumbles on the specifics.
One scene in particular comes to mind, where Momo tries to help the ogres scare up something to eat that isn't vegetables stolen from farmers' fields. They end up on a slapstick chase involving a piece of farm equipment (a kind of motorized conveyor that rides on a rail) and a couple of boars, one that leaves them miles from home, exhausted, and empty-handed. It's funny, but also overlong, and in that respect I agree with one particularly negative review of the film that singled this scene out for way overstaying its welcome, where one good joke is turned into five laborious ones. But I don't agree with said review that the scene is pointless; it illustrates, if clumsily, the first time she and the ogres are working together in any respect. Plus, it ends with Momo having actually had a good time for the first time since her arrival — and with her treating the ogres with kindness instead of fear or reproach, when she feeds them canned goods as a compensation for having gone through such hell earlier.
The same kind of right-idea, shaky-execution issue arises in the climax as well, a sequence that hearkens most closely back to My Neighbor Totoro, another movie about supernatural presences being a healing force in a family going through hard times. The details of that sequence sound like pure melodrama: While a typhoon pounds the coastline, Momo's mother suffers a crippling asthma attack, and Momo and the postman enlist the help of the ogres (in quasi-defiance of heavenly orders) and the rest of their supernatural buddies to defy the elements and retrieve a physician from the next island over. It's exuberantly animated, and it shows how the ogres are finally given a chance to do the right thing by drawing on the very things that keep them separate from the rest of Momo's life. But again it's overlong and drawn out, to the point where the initial joy and surprise of the idea gradually gives way to impatience.
I suspect that impatience is a symptom of how the entire movie could have benefited from tighter editing and been reigned in by thirty minutes without losing anything. Even a story set in the leisurely bucolia of the Japanese countryside doesn't deserve to have more beats per scene than it really needs. (That said, the movie is a wonderful example of an anime that relishes observing everyday details with precision and wonder, like the aforementioned terraced hillside farms.)
At the heart, a sweet one
Then there are all the things that show the movie has the right idea about its material, and which make the frustrating pacing feel more like a stylistic gaffe and less like a deal-killer. At one point the ogres mistakenly use the letter from Momo's father to send a message back up to "Above", and not only is their confession of having done so used as a marker for their assumption of personal responsibility, the way a letter comes back to Momo from Above is used to cap the story in an unexpected way and give it closure. If the movie is flawed, it's not from a lack of understanding of its material, just from certain decisions about how best to mount such things.
Hiroyuki Okiura, the director, screenwriter, and character designer, has directed only one other feature-length animated production before this: Jin-Roh: The Wolf Brigade, although it would be better to think of that as a Mamoru Oshii film by proxy since it was Oshii who wrote it. Given that Okiura spent seven years developing this project, it's clear this was for him a passion project of sorts. Unfortunately, it also explains why Momo sometimes lingers when it should leap. I was reminded of Takashi Makamura's A Tree of Palme, also apparently a passion project for that director, but one where the love for the project had calcified around it instead of flowering within it, and the end result was overlong and ponderous (if also spectacular).
Momo's biggest problems are far from deadly, though, and the good things in it are all things which outlast and outshine its occasionally lumpy delivery. It also has a quality that I find most valuable in anime when I see it, that of being a film about a young person that is really aimed at older audiences — or maybe better to say, adults of all ages.