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Originally published Thursday, September 4, 2014 at 3:07 PM

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‘A Letter to Momo’: a spirited, lovely tale of family, friendship

A movie review of “A Letter to Momo”: Longtime animator Hiroyuki Okiura directs this story about a fatherless girl and her relationship with three goblins on a Japanese island. It received 3.5 stars out of 4.

Special to The Seattle Times

Movie Review ★★★½  

‘A Letter to Momo,’ with the voices of Karen Miyama, Yuka, Toshiyuki Nishida (in Japanese); and Amanda Pace, Stephanie Sheh, Fred Tatasciore (English-dubbed). Written and directed by Hiroyuki Okiura. 120 minutes. Not rated; suitable for general audiences. Varsity (for subtitled and English-dubbed versions: 206-632-6412 or


“A Letter to Momo,” the second film directed by longtime animator Hiroyuki Okiura (“Jin-Roh: The Wolf Brigade”), is a deliberate, slow-paced family movie that takes its time revealing the story’s fantastic elements: goblins, spirit creatures, missives from the afterlife and the like.

Waiting is not a problem. Despite the hand-drawn film’s supernatural edge, one of Okiura’s lyrical strengths is acquainting a viewer with the poetry of the real — animated reflections of ordinary, beautiful things we see in everyday life without actually noticing them at all.

“Momo” is full of deceptively casual observations that make one glad to be alive: the way the first drops of a sudden rain splatter against a stone statue. The downward drift of a woman’s hair as she leans forward. The way someone looks when backing away from late-afternoon sunlight into the shadow of a wall.

In this visually rich, highly detailed cartoon environment, “Momo” tells the semi-comic tale of an 11-year-old girl whose father recently died, leaving her an unfinished letter. The movie opens with a ferry ride Momo shares with her widowed mother as they move from Tokyo to a gorgeous, remote island.

(Note: “A Letter to Momo” will be screened at the Varsity both in subtitled and English-dubbed versions. The latter will be offered for kid-friendly matinees.)

Slow to adapt to a new life, Momo (Karen Miyama in Japanese, Amanda Pace in English) finds her adjustment complicated by the presence of three once-fierce, now-silly goblins. One of only two people who can see the ghouls, Momo scolds them for stealing crops but eventually gets used to them hanging around.

What Momo doesn’t realize is that her new friends are also playing a larger, heaven-sent role for her during her grief over dad.

Okiura perfectly balances both drama and comedy, underscoring a rising conflict between Momo and her mother (Yuka/Stephanie Sheh) and patiently establishing a friendship between a reluctant Momo and an island boy.

But the director pulls out all the stops for a thrilling, extended final act set during a deadly typhoon. He also invents an amazing set piece earlier in the movie, a chase scene involving two angry boars, Momo and the clueless goblins in a beautiful, terraced orchard.

“A Letter to Momo” suggests future masterpieces to come from 47-year-old Okiura now that he’s firmly in the writer-director’s seat.

Tom Keogh:

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