A Letter to Momo (Japan, 2012)

There’s a new game in town, that is, if your town is Japantown. It’s called “Youkai Watch”. And it has replaced Pokémon as the biggest craze for the youngest set in Japan. Like Pokémon before it, the product crosses platforms, from game cards, to video games, to anime, to film, a transmedia phenomena, what the U.S. industry calls ‘synergy’ and what, according to Marc Steinberg in his book Anime’s Media Mix: Franchising Toys and Characters in Japan (University of Minnesota Press, 2012), the Japanese industry has been calling “Media Mikkusu” since 1963. Whereas Pokémon had “pocket monsters”, Youkai Watch has yōkai, supernatural monsters with roots in Japanese folktales. (Wikipedia notes that In Japan, the romanized spelling is trademarked as ‘Youkai Watch’, without the diacritic.) According to a recent report from Motoko Kakubayashi on Radio New Zealand National’s “Nights” program (August 5, 2014), a July release of a new Youkai Watch video game sold over 1 million copies in four days.

Kakubayashi went on to point a key difference between Pokémon and Youkai Watch. In order to collect these new old monsters in the latter, you have to become friends with them rather than catch them. The superpowers of these supernaturals involve intense emotions and in order to befriend them, you have to help them overcome their problems with these powerful emotions. Such a new twist on the ‘Gotta Catch Them All’ Pokémon tagline adds a positive social behavioral layer to a game genre that can occasionally encourage some obsessive anti-social tendencies when taken to the extreme. As Kakubayshi elaborates, children are encouraged to think about what each Youkai might be feeling and what might best help resolve their problems. Youkai Watch is a game which promotes a humanistic value of empathy via trans-human expression, what Anne Allison calls “techno-intimacy” in Millennial Monsters: Japanese Toys and the Global Imagination (University of California Press, 2006).

Youkai Watch: The Movie is set for a December 2014 release, but if you are curious about the place of yōkai in Japanese culture, GKids is in the process of rolling out a US release of A Letter to Momo. Hiroyuki Okiura’s anime follows a young girl who is dealing with the death of her father soon after they had a fight. The last bit of communication they almost had was disrupted, her father leaving the words ‘Dear Momo’ on an otherwise blank sheet of paper. After the funeral, Momo moves with her mother to a seaside town where Momo meets three yōkai.  It is through their trans-human relationship that she develops a means to forgive her father and to forgive herself.

Momo’s meet-up with the yōkai is initially creepy. Their relationship evolves into one that is at times endearing, at other times frustrating, returning to a wondrously frightening and mesmerizing scene near the end. Particularly endearing is the little dance Momo performs with her yōkai friends. I have talked about this elsewhere on VCinema, but the common place of simple dance choreography on TV commercials in Japan is a clever tactic for companies to get consumers to embody the products through the mimetic physicality of the dances performed on the commercials. Like the horse dance in the ‘Gangnam Style’ video, you often can’t help but want to imitate the dances, and by imitating them, you are reminded of the product the company is selling. And then you unintentionally sell that product by having others witness you dancing. The simpler the dance, the easier it is to imitate and propagate. In the case of a product as lovely as this film, I don’t mind shilling through my shimmying for Momo.

The dance scene in A Letter to Momo is simple and delightful. It is kawaii (cute). Yet it is also deliciously meta because dancing beside Momo are three kowai (scary) yōkai, making this a moment of what I will call ‘kowa-kawaii’, two emotional responses we don’t often juxtapose but foreigners in Japan often mistakenly transpose. (And the Japanese word kawaii is as much an emotion as it is an aesthetic. The shoulder scrunching and forearm shaking that often accompanies the interjection of ‘Kawaii!!!’ is a kinesthetic expression of emotion.) Although this choreographed display of kowa-kawaii does not seem to convey the same kind of rebelliousness against societal demands on girls to be cute that Laura Miller finds in her analysis of the hōrapuri (or “horror mode” – hōro modo ) genre of purikura (print club) stickers in her chapter in Bad Girls of Japan (Ed. Laura Miller and Jan Bardsley, Palgrave Macmillan, 2005), something about the dance in A Letter to Momo resonates with that yabapuri (“repulsive print club’) aesthetic tradition. There is still something subversive towards cute present in this dancing scene.

The dance in A Letter to Momo became something to share with my nieces in Japan and the dance now serves as an embodied memory of the film and that playful time with them. This place of dance, along with the culture of yōkai and the pleasant mix of eeriness and nostalgia with which the film’s tone embeds the viewer, is why I will be seeing A Letter to Momo again when it is released in the San Francisco Bay Area on September 5th even though it’s an English-dubbed version. This time I’ll be seeing it with my goddaughter and her sister. But they are at that age where an old guy like me performing the dance might be too uncool. This time around I might just have to leave myself dancing via the mirror neurons in my head that are triggered by watching such  actions on screen.