Cultural cues in ‘A Letter to Momo’

Girls need their fathers. Fathers are the first super heroes in the lives of girls and their fall from grace of childish ideals can be hard. In the 2011 Japanese animated feature, an 11-year-old girl tries to make sense of life after her father’s death. Directed and written by Hiroyuki Okiura, the movie is filled with reminders of nature and the Shinto influence on Japanese culture.

The animated feature begins and comes back to imagery and mention of water. Three mysterious drops of water fall from heaven. We first see the mother Ikuko and her daughter Momo (which could mean peach and is typically associated with girls) on a boat. They are in the Inland Sea (Seto Naikai) and heading for Shiojima (Salt Island).

The drops of water fall on Momo and then to the deck where they shimmy along. We’ll see them again soon. Momo is looking at the letter in the title (which is a literal translation of the Japanese title).  The letter wasn’t written on mood-setting colored paper.  Instead, it was on plain lined letter writing paper, but only begun with nothing more than “To Momo” (ももへ).

Momo and her mother are returning to her mother’s hometown, an island just recently connected to Shikoku (one of the four main islands that make up Japan), but the bridge has yet to be opened to the public.

There she meets Yōta and his sister Umi. Up in her great-grandparents attic she finds a rare book about goblins or yōkai. Those drops from above work their way into the special box holding that book and three of the goblins pictured come to life.

As it turns out, Momo’s father, an oceanographer on a research project, has died, leaving the letter unfinished and Momo with the memory of her last angry words to her father. The movie is about how she comes to terms with her father’s death and the yōkai, for a brief period, watch over Momo and Ikuko.

The surname of the family, Miyaura, means Shinto shrine creek. There’s a lot of Shinto imagery in this movie, and language usage also plays a role in the mood set by this film. There are things lost in translation that I’ll try to explain.

宮浦もも(みやうら もも)

宮浦いく子(みやうら いくこ)

宮浦カズオ(みやうら かずお)

In Japanese, there is more than one word for return. To return home, or return to somewhere that is home-like is kaeru (かえる)whereas to return to another location is modoru (もどる).  One commonly says, O-kaerinasai  (お帰りなさい)or  O-kaeri when someone returns home.

Momo’s last words to her father are something like: “Don’t bother returning home.”


The same Chinese character for “to return home” (帰る)is used to say “to return to one’s home country” (帰国する). When old people return to childhood in their senility, one also uses kaeru (年を取ると子供に帰る)。 Yet it is also used when one dies or returns to dust (死んで土に帰る)。

To lead us into the world of spirits and strange creatures who change form, the word kaeru also calls to mind the homophone which means to change form or shift as in a sentence straight from Kodansha dictionary: “They turned them into swine” or 彼らは豚に変えられた。

Notice the difference in the two characters.  In the second verb, the character is more often used to the word “hen” or strange. So it’s small wonder that this movie is inhabited by “henjin” or strange people like Iwa, Kawa, Mame.  The names of the yōkai make us think of both nature, Shinto customs and fathers.

Iwa is a rock, crag or reef. It is also compared to one’s father in the song about the four seasons. “The people who love summer have strong hearts; The waves smash the rocks are (strong) like my father”

夏を愛する人は心強き人、岩をくだく波のような ぼくの父おや。

Kawa means river and Kawa seems to be a kappa or river child, a type of water deity. Different version of kappa exist and they can be anything from simply a troublemaker that plays tricks like farting (and this does figure into the story)  to a water monster that drowns people.

Mame reminds one of beans. Mame can mean beans. In Japan, on New Year’s Day, you eat beans to insure you’ll face the new year in good health. Mame is a homophone for honest, devoted, hardworking and active. On Setsubun, one traditionally scatters roasted soybeans out the door and say “Demons out, luck in” (鬼は外福はうち).

Momo’s very name has a seasonal appeal. In March, on Girls Day or Hina Matsuri, traditionally peach blossoms are displayed along with the dolls. Peach blossoms are considered feminine (as opposed to the iris which is traditionally associated with Boys Day or Kodomo no Hi).

At the memorial service for Momo’s father, the scene is introduced with cherry blossoms which represent the transiency of life because the blossoms only bloom for a few days before the petals flutter to the ground, generally in about April.

The emergency or crisis that brings Momo into her own in the movie happens as the formerly calm waves are whipped up by a storm and are crashing against the island and it’s the yōkai who eventually help Momo in a scene that might remind anime lovers of the famous cat bus from Hayao Miyazaki’s “My Neighbor Totoro.”

I wondered if there wasn’t some fun word play in making the father, Kazuo, an oceanographer or kaiyōgakusha (海洋学者) and then reversing kaiyō to make yōkai (different Chinese characters) and have yōkai as the important part of the storyline as opposed to having specific mythical beasts such as the kappa connecting with this girl.

One reason why I wonder about the reversing of syllables is because of one of the character’s names. The young boy that becomes Momo’s friend, Yōta, has an unusual name for a Japanese boy. If you reverse the characters, his name becomes taiyō, the word that means sun.

There’s another name that seems signficant although not reversed. Yōta’s younger sister is named Umi. The characters literally mean Ocean Beautiful, 海美(うみ), but the pronunciation is the same as the first character read by itself, 海(うみ), and again meaning ocean.

The characters aren’t given for the first names for the Miyaura family, but one might guess that besides Momo meaning peach, Iku might mean go and Kazu might mean number, but these seem less important than the actual last name.

To a certain extent, you can contrast this movie with Goro Miyazaki’s “Up on Poppy Hill.” While Momo told her father not to return home, in the “Up on Poppy Hill,” another girl named Umi waited for her father’s return.

In Japanese movies, sometimes names have meanings and associations. Sometimes they do not. In “A Letter to Momo,” the cultural associations linked to the names given to the yōkai and the imagery of water and the seasons presented build up poetically layered animated feature about one girl and her father.


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