Momo’s dad is dead. She is an adolescent, a pre-teen; she is at the age where the difference between 11 and 13 is a lifetime of experiences, challenges, and infinite tiers of maturity. She’s been displaced by her mother to a small island where she lives next door to her great-aunt and uncle. They used to live in Tokyo. She thinks of only bad things.
“This house is old,” she says.
“That’s what makes it special,” says her mother.
“Yeah, right,” she seems to think, sighing.
The attic is inhabited by three goblins that only she can see — a mistake on their part — who eat constantly and, to facilitate the eating, also steal. She meets a boy who’s around her age in town; she hides her face from him, despite her mother’s urging otherwise. The last thing she said to her father is, “I hate you. Don’t come back.” He didn’t. Even at the end, by the time she’s endeared to the goblins, by the time they, inevitably and of course, help her resolve all of the emergencies and problems, she catches them stealing her belongings and piles of fruit as they prepare to depart. Her heart sinks, her face grows long: “Just go. I want to be left with good memories of you.”
She is a child for whom everything is a disappointment; she is negative, always. She tells her mother how everything is different since her dad died, and how no one cares about her anymore. She is always alone. She is, at once, all to blame and blameless — young, fragile, sad. She has a letter that her father began writing her before he died — after she said she hated him. All he wrote was “Dear Momo,” nothing else. He wanted to say something — knew that he should — but had nothing to say. In a letter she writes back to him, she calls him “the best father.” I doubt it, but can’t blame him, either. As always, it’s not about blame, or, really, about anything.
It feels as if I should have waves of emotion for Momo, for her mother; in some way, vaguely, I do. In another way, I am numb. This is another in a series of anime films about devastatingly sad things; it brings to mind lots of Miyazaki, the most obvious and ripe comparison — My Neighbor Totoro, Spirited Away, and, more than anything, Ni no Kuni, the video game he produced last year. It suffers many of the same problems as Ni no Kuni, too: tedium, plotlessness, sadness for its own sake. The stories are incredibly similar, and the goblins in A Letter to Momo, while dazzling in their way, feel plain, underdeveloped; they are of another world, a world that was brought into existence unblinkingly and without hesitation, which makes them something magical, but I never felt connected to them, in love with them, tied to them.
The movie is beautiful; once a year, the fathers of the island make boats out of dried grass and send them into the ocean with flickering orange candles shrouded in paper boxes. The houses are large and creaking, full of pattering footsteps and life. There is never the sense that Momo is imagining the goblins — they are real. The reality exists without question, perfectly. It made me feel sad. I miss something in myself and cannot identify it, but want it badly. I feel, which is high praise. I have yelled, like Momo, and not meant it, like Momo; I have tried to convey what I do mean, like Momo, and felt it all slipping away — a hand and its fingers clenching at something that wasn’t there, in vain, always. She cannot say what she wants to say, couldn’t even if she tried.