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'Letter to Momo' from a new master of anime

Montage from A Letter to Momo
Montage from A Letter to Momo
Courtesy art

New Japanese anime, "A Letter to Momo"

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As a fan of "South Park" and "The Simpsons," I can overlook the quality of animation when the content is tickling both fancy and ribs. Fans of those shows get used to four-fingered hands or characters moving as if they were cutout figures (which they are).

Still, the best of both worlds is when great content and appealing animation are combined, such as in top Japanese anime. The latest in this category is Hiroyuki Okiura's "A Letter to Momo," a film worthy of the master of anime himself, Hayao Miyazaki.

"Momo" is suspenseful, charming, and moving, but not maudlin. In hand-drawn, pastel animation, it takes viewers to a beautiful, remote island where the preteen Momo is brought by her mother from Tokyo, after her father's death at sea.

The mother is busy and trying to keep her grief from Momo, so the shy girl if dealing with her situation alone, not making friends and staying distant from the elderly relatives whose home they share.

Momo is beginning to see spirits haunting the house and three goblins become visible and active - hyperactive and somewhat disturbing, in fact. They are mischievous, funny monsters, quite without Disney charm, demanding and turning troublesome. They are also ugly, but they slowly bring potential solace to Momo and the promise of solving the mystery that gives the film its name.

Momo and her father had a fight before he left on the science expedition where he died, so she never had the chance to resolve the conflict. She finds a letter from her father with only the words "Dear Momo" on it. Can that be resolved, with the help of the spirits, and avoiding a mawkish, Hollywood ending?

The answer is yes, with the finale of an amazing chase scene featuring a legion of morphing ghosts in a frenzied flight. The film took seven years to make and that final scene might well have taken half of the time.

Okiura, also director of "Jin-Roh: The Wolf Brigade," was one the animators of Katsuhiro Ohtomo's "Akira" and Mamoru Oshii's "Ghost in the Shell."

Avoiding the usual no-win choice between English voice track (ugh!) and using the original, with subtitles that keep a good portion of the audience away (something I never understood, but it's a fact), San Francisco (Opera Plaza) and Berkeley (Shattuck Cinemas) presentations, beginning Sept. 5, will offer two language versions with different showtimes: in English language voice cast, and in Japanese with English subtitles. That's the way to go!