“I also cry a lot at school. But Ms. Ushizawa says that crying and laughing a lot shows that we're alive.”
When I was a child, there was a young man in my primary class at church who had cerebral palsy. I never sat next to him, I never talked to him or his family, but he was always there at the end of the front row in his wheelchair, smiling and attempting to sing along. I remember the day the teachers announced proudly he had gone on his first date (as he was sixteen at the time), and he tried to tell us through his smile how it went. But I at the time didn't appreciate what his presence meant to us, as I alongside a few other children didn't have too many nice thoughts about him. He was the only other person I knew with a disability until I was ten when my brother at the age of three suffered a brain injury, and then a couple of years later, my other younger brother (just before the youngest was born) was diagnosed with autism.
Society is not kind to those with disabilities—physical, mental, or a combination of both. It's better now than it was ten/twenty years ago, and sure as hell better than a century ago, but there's still a long ways to go as long as selfishness and hard hearts exist. Yes, it IS difficult to take care of those who need help 24/7, but that's an obstacle that can easily overshadow them who are still people, but trapped in a body that's barely functioning as-is. Learning this as children makes it easier to love and care for the unfortunate who continue to smile every day despite their handicap.
“My Sister Momoko” is a great example of what it means to love and smile, as told through the eyes of nine-year-old Riki whose twin sister, the titular Momoko, suffers from an unnamed disability that's rendered her physically and mentally underdeveloped. Despite the hardships he and his family go through every day, her smiles and innocent countenance bring just as much happiness to them. They are more blessed than others who go through similar ordeals as revealed in the circle of mothers with their own more-severely disabled children, and it's Riki who learns this as much as his parents.
It's not just Riki, it's also his peers who learn to care and even love Momoko when she graces their company with her smiles and encouragement to her big brother. The one who goes through more development is Ryuuji, whose strict father demands he study long and hard to become the best of the best, as “only the strong come out on top in today's world”. Hesitant as he is, he's the one who's the most cold toward Momoko joining the class though he takes it out mostly on Riki whose own struggles causes him to waver in his love toward his sister.
It's almost hard to believe this was animated in 2003, as the style is reminiscent of the 90s (well, maybe the 80s as it made me think of “Barefoot Gen”, honestly), and is a little cheap-looking to boot. There's some off-model moments here in there (mostly in the face), but I have to give them praise for how Momoko is portrayed. It's rare to see a physically-disabled character in animation, and her frail physique and the way she supports her head on a shoulder is unique in that aspect. So many things could've gone wrong in animating her and keeping her consistent, but she works well with her environment, limitations and all. She also stands out in that she's the only special needs child who is able to walk around and even talk, which also means she gets the most attention—justified, as she's the main character, and the other disabled children have their needed screentime whenever we see her school or them on a field trip.
When it comes to voice-acting, again, Momoko stands out the most, and Kurumi Mamiya did a wonderful job. I imagine recording this movie was emotionally draining for many people involved, to be on point with emotions where appropriate must have been some form of catharsis. I'm no voice actor in the slightest, so I can only guess what goes on in those sound booths for projects like this and the amount of time and numerous takes needed to get it just right. I secretly wish this had gotten a dub somehow, but who knows if that dub would've hit all the right notes in a movie that can't afford slip ups that would risk ruining the mood. I want to be optimistic in that whoever would've dubbed it would've given their all much like the original dub, but alas, it's just a pipe dream at this point. Given its obscurity and age, I doubt anyone will pick this up at this point despite its relevance. At the very least, the English fansub did a great job, and I thank them for bringing this to light at long last.
This little film was hard to watch sometimes as it brought back a lot of bittersweet memories, and my youngest brother (who's more severely-autistic than the other two) was constantly on my mind watching Momoko. I still think about that young man and wonder where he is today, if he's still alive, or if his work is done and he's finally passed on. I also still think about the other children I've met in my lifetime from middle school-on who had disabilities, and with some of them, I regret not being kind enough to become friends with them. My heart goes out to those families who struggle to raise their children in a world that looks down on them, who deep down wants to be rid of the burden, but love keeps them going. It may never get better on an outward appearance, but it's better to learn and grow to be caring and nurturing toward these poor, yet happy souls than not at all. Personal experience made sure of that.
It's been slowly picking up, but until the day comes when a children's show/movie is able to portray disabilities without being ham-fisted, prejudiced, biased, or anything that could be harmful or just "passable", "My Sister Momoko" will be that diamond in the rough that doesn't try to fix the world all at once as it knows its limits, but is still positive in its message. The experience is different for each person, so if it doesn't affect you on a personal level or make you tear up, it's fine since it's meant to raise awareness, but hopefully on a positive level than negative.