“Without even thinking about it, I used to be able to fly. Now I’m trying to look inside myself and find out how I did it.”
Hayao Miyazaki’s Kiki’s Delivery Service is a delightful coming of age story about a young witch learning how to be her own person and where to find the source of inspiration for her unique abilities. It is an adaptation of a Japanese novel by the same name authored by Eiko Kadono. Kadono was originally displeased by the changes Miyazaki was making to the novel but after being invited to the animation studio, Kadano allowed the project to continue.
Kiki’s Delivery Service was translated into English twice, first by Streamline and then by Disney. The Disney dub is of course the one which informs this review of mine.
As an artist speaking to other artists in the world through this movie, Miyazaki makes a touching point about how to be an artist and stay an artist that uses their talents. This point is one of the most elegantly (and endearingly) told through metaphor that I have ever seen. As a whole, the film is a simple life lesson on creativity, where it comes from, how it works, and what we can do with it in the face of having to grow up and be responsible individuals.
The film resonated with me when I didn’t at all expect it to.
In all honesty, this is one of the last Ghibli films I’d seen and I had to hunt it down to watch it. I was able to see Only Yesterday before this one! I didn’t expect much from Kiki. I didn’t think I’d identify with the main character, a 13-year-old girl, and I thought the experience would just be forgettable.
Now that I’ve seen it a handful of times, my opinion of it has risen considerably. Not only is it a beautifully animated film full of energy and life, I now believe it is thematically robust as well. With each viewing, my understanding of it deepened and there was room for that deepening. The film managed to communicate an essential message and it felt like it was saying it just for me, to me as a writer with my own worries, self-doubts, and search for inspiration. That’s the personal nature of this film.
Kiki’s Delivery Service follows the life of a little witch named Kiki who decides it is time to leave her father and mother to undertake her ceremonial training: living for 1 year in an unfamiliar town and using her talents and skills to become a real witch as a service to the people. Ever since she turned 13 she’s been excited to venture out on her own. Her companion, a black cat named Jiji, is skeptical about leaving so soon but Kiki’s mind is set. There’s a clear night coming and she wants to take the opportunity.
Her parents of course cannot believe that she has grown so fast. It’s a touching moment when Kiki asks her father to pick her up like when she was little, and her dad embraces her. Kiki’s struggle going out on her own will be to remember her parents and their ways, the ways of tradition, while still trying to find out how to be her own person and find her own inner compass. This is seen at once when she’s leaving and her mother insists Kiki take her broom, tried and true, rather than the one the little witch made herself that morning.
Kiki eventually finds the perfect city to start her training in, an island town with a timeless European feel, crowded with people. She immediately gets in trouble with the authorities by almost causing an accident flying through the streets, and she proves to be socially awkward though determined to stick to her traditions and values and succeed in her training. This involves starting her own business.
She is almost immediately harassed by a boy named Tombo who is fascinated with aviation and therefore fascinated by her and her ability to fly. She also meets Osono at a local bakery, who offers Kiki in exchange for help at the shop. There, Kiki is able to open her own witch’s delivery business. She later meets Ursula, a fellow artist, from whom she can learn some wisdom. The rest of the film is about her struggling through her responsibilities and failures, and fighting against how they slowly begin to drain her, while finding her inspiration to keep going. Anyone who’s ever had a job probably knows a little about that.
The process of growing up is never an easy one, except I guess for those (I hesitate to say “lucky”, necessarily) who are born with a silver spoon on their tongue. Kiki isn’t a person like that and I doubt that most of are readers are like her. As such, we’ve had to deal with things that she faces in this film.
Coming to have your own perspective on life and how to do things as distinct from your parents’ way of thinking is one of the hardest things about growing up, I think. Our parents’ traditions won’t always be our own as we get older and begin to become parents ourselves, discovering things which work better for our own families and ways that we actually disagree (hopefully respectfully) with the way we were raised. The faith of our fathers, the habits of our mothers, they will not always be ours after we leave father and mother, unless we consciously make it so.
Another thing we have to face is learning independence, how to take care of ourselves, feed ourselves, provide for ourselves, pay for the things we want. Kiki looks at a pair of expensive shoes in a shop window but has to spend her limited money on food and utensils she’ll need to cook that food. This is of course when other girls her age are walking around in neon clothing (compared to her old, drab black dress), laughing, having fun, riding in automobiles and going wherever they like. Kiki is stuck working for a living while spoiled brats are unthankful for their birthday gifts at their lavish parties (one scene in particular). The contrast is unfair. But as our parents used to say: the world is unfair.
Still another, and perhaps the more precarious, is making our own friends. Developing our own social circle (and maintaining it) is one of the tough things about doing this whole adult thing. Consider that when we were younger, we had classmates as almost automatic friends that we saw everyday. Maybe we can scrounge up some coworkers as friends, out of necessity, but if we don’t master socializing we won’t really have people we can come to trust and confide in. We need our allies.
Fitting in however is compounded by our sense of feeling different from everyone else. Self-consciousness is the bane of fitting in. In order for Kiki to become a part of the city she’s training in, she has to figure out how to discover who she is and what makes her special while at the same time being a functional and important part of the culture around her, without compromising her values. Quite the balancing act.
Finally, Kiki has to overcome her own doubt, isolation, and fears to be her own person and develop an understanding of what she truly wants to do in life with the talents that she’s been given. Kiki may be a witch but her magic is raw and unrefined, if not downright unreliable. I think of a correlation with a metaphor used by the characters in Whisper of the Heart where the talent of a young writer is compared with a rock with gemstones in it which must be extracted from the rock and cut and polished through hard work and perseverance. Kiki can fly on her broomstick but she never performs magic tricks or prestidigitation, making problems disappear. She can’t bibbity-bobbity-boo her way into financial security or social graces any more than you and I can.
Kiki’s Delivery Service is a magical movie about mundane life. It just so happens to star a flying witch.
The 8-bit Review
I feel the animation in Kiki’s Delivery Service represents the first moment that Studio Ghibli’s work begins to seem modern. Even with the addition of some obvious computer effects (used sparingly, such as in the lake at the beginning of the film), the movie retains the standard Ghibli, high-quality, hand drawn animation style.
Studio Ghibli can capture some incredibly life-like movements and behaviors while at the same time animating humorous, more cartoonish moments. Also, the flight sequences are visual highlights of the film. Flying towards and away from the screen? That can’t be kind on hardworking animators!
With all of the flying in this film, there were many occasions to animate the ground moving quickly past Kiki on her broomstick. Because the painted backgrounds are so rich and the scrolling, animated backgrounds during the flight sequences were simpler, out of necessity, there’s a slight jarring sensation in watching the film as the backgrounds jump between both representations. It could not be helped, I suppose, and later Ghibli films reconcile this disparity. Besides, “nothing ventured, nothing gained” and they had to make the first attempt at this somewhere.
The animators crafted a quaint world in Kiki’s Delivery Service. The city of Koriko which the young witch relocates to has a real-world aspect to it while retaining a fantastical charm about it. It feels timeless, out of place in our world though it could’ve possibly existed somewhere at some time. It’s the kind of city anyone would want to live in with people in it who seem genuinely nice to each other (for the most part). Miyazaki explained:
“I was imagining how the world would have been in the 50’s if the war had never happened. You know, the world that wasn’t.”
Apparently, the city was modeled after many real cities in various places across Europe, though primarily Visby and Stockholm in Sweden. That explains the European style architecture and writing. It does not explain this:
I almost jumped when I saw all of the Hawaiian place names on Kiki’s map. Haleakala, Wailuku, Hana. Also there’s a “-ui” off the edge of the map. “Maui”? Not all of the locations bear Hawaiian names but it made me get out a book I’ve got on the way the capital city of Honolulu looked through the 1900s, and a lot of the European style buildings did look very similar to those in this film. I thought immediately of Aloha Tower when I saw the clocktower in Kiki’s Delivery Service.
Was Miyazaki thinking of Honolulu, Hawaii when he helped build this oceanside city? I don’t have his number to call him up to ask.
Kiki’s Delivery Service doesn’t have the best animation in the Ghibli canon (some character movements seem too clumsy now and then) but it’s far from the worst. Perhaps it’s because the film doesn’t have so many moments where the animators were required to “show off” their skills? That statement may not be entirely fair as even non-action moments of stillness demand a great deal of talent to animate. This is just a movie that doesn’t throw bombastic effects in your face, I guess I mean to say.
Maybe one of the best testaments to Ghibli’s animation in Kiki’s is their ability to make almost anything endearing. Jeff the dog.
From the composer who wanted the music to be just as important as the images on screen comes a soundtrack uniquely befitting this kind of film: lighthearted, whimsical, catchy, and at moments either traditional or contemporary. Joe Hisaishi demonstrates again and again that he’s as versatile a composer as the animators whose animation he sets his craft to.
Kiki’s Delivery Service is less epic and grandiose than previous Ghibli films, musically more along the lines of My Neighbor Totoro: warm and happy and full of whimsy, then occasionally sentimental. Echoing the European visuals of the film is a recurring theme played by the violin. Whenever the track starts it instantly swings the movie into the realm of emotion. It’s such an emotive song. In other moments pizzicato strings give the movie a sense of richness of culture.
There were several changes made to the audio of the film when Disney dubbed it, though these were cleared by Studio Ghibli like all other changes. The English soundtrack is more robust than the original Japanese and depending on the version your watching it may have different opening and closing songs. The original songs are the best and match the flavor of the film most closely, such as the one above.
If you’d like to avoid SPOILERS for this film, please Ctrl+f Family Friendliness to skip both the Narrative and Themes portions of this review.
Echoing again My Neighbor Totoro, there is a slight impression in Kiki’s that momentary scenes just happen in the way life happens, almost randomly, though the scenes here are building more lucidly into a constructed narrative leading up to the climactic scene where Kiki rescues Tombo during the dirigible disaster and becomes a hero.
After moving to Koriko, Kiki receives her first delivery job taking a cat doll in a bird’s cage to a little boy for his birthday. On the way, she is blown off course by a gust of wind and accidentally drops the doll in a forest defended by angry crows. She has to (humorously) substitute her cat Jiji as the doll while she goes back to search for the doll. She encounters an artist named Ursula who lives by herself in the woods, who found the doll, and the two eventually become friends.
Kiki gets another job delivering a pie, except when she arrives to pick it up the old woman is having trouble with her modern oven. Kiki helps build a fire in the old unused oven to bake the pie but ends up being caught in the rain on delivery and late for a rendezvous with Tombo, who had invited her to an aviation party. This leads to Kiki getting sick and losing her self-confidence and even a sense of her purpose, which snowballs into her losing her magical powers such as being able to communicate with Jiji and flying on her broomstick.
Though Kiki tries to regain her flight, she’s unable to and falls into depression. She even accidentally breaks her mother’s broomstick trying to fly and is forced to put her deliveries on hold. Thanks to the kindness of her friends and wisdom from the painter Ursula who tells her that she has to find inspiration and purpose herself just like an artist who is suffering from a blockage upon their art.
Kiki finds inspiration when a dirigible, the Spirit of Freedom, is blown loose by powerful winds and flies un-piloted over the city with Tombo dangling from a rope beneath it. Her own broomstick broken, she asks to borrow a broom from a chimney sweep and uses it in front of an adoring crowd to fly haphazardly up to Tombo and catch him just before he falls to his death.
The ending credits sequence shows Kiki flying again. Tombo flies alongside her on his own custom built flying machine. Jiji has kittens with a neighboring kitty and though he and Kiki cannot communicate anymore they still remain good friends. Kiki writes a letter to her parents telling them that she and Jiji are doing well and are happy living in Koriko, demonstrating that she’s successfully become independent and perhaps that she is choosing to stay in the city beyond her one-year training.
All of the Miyazaki earmarks are here, now grown to maturity with his experience as director. Only his favorite environmental slant is missing, but there’s a strong female lead, themes of independence, lots of flight and the wonder of soaring. You can tell that flight plays a major role in the film as it’s how Kiki conducts her business and it is representative of her artistic abilities and evidence that she’s found her inspiration by the end of the film.
Miyazaki himself said of the book Kiki’s Delivery Serivce, that it is:
“…a fine work of children’s literature warmly depicting the gulf that exists between independence and reliance in the hopes and spirit of contemporary Japanese girls.”
What’s there to analyze? Miyazaki spells it out for us. Just kidding, we’re going to analyze anyways.
Kiki’s story is of course about growing up and becoming independent. She doesn’t sacrifice her femininity in doing so and thrust herself into the role of macho, unfeeling pillar of strength like much of the feminism in Western entertainment does to its leads. She remains an adorable, endearing, lovable but strong character. She doesn’t have to compete with manhood for independence. Miyazaki is too wise a storyteller for that. I’d hope it’s not overstepping my bounds when I say that this is a respectable way to present feminist themes: depicting women as women and girls as girls with their own unique power without falling into the easy trap of depicting women as strong just because they can do whatever a man can do. Kiki is more than that. If you misread any of that as somehow anti-female, you’ve misunderstood me.
Involved in that is something that I think is a uniquely Japanese consideration. Throughout the film, there’s this divide and balance between the old and the new, between traditions and contemporary convenience. Kiki never despises the deep-seated values and beliefs of her parents (like many teenagers do) but discovers how she can incorporate them into her life in the modern city. She originally uses her mother’s broomstick but it isn’t enough to sustain her (literally) until she finds and uses the chimney sweep’s broom for the duration of the film.
Using the old wood-burning oven rather than the broken new one, adapting her business to the needs of the city-folk, wearing the old witch’s color of black with her own dash of personality (the red bow in her hair), these are examples of how Kiki manages to retain her inherited lifestyle in new settings, balancing antiquated and current, never doing damage or dishonor to her parents while at the same time being free and open-minded.
The dirigible being named the Spirit of Freedom is probably not a coincidence. It is blown loose and becomes a hazard just after Kiki loses her own ability to fly, which eats away at her own spirit of freedom, both a result of and a contributor to her own self-doubting. She is able to save the day during the Spirit of Freedom incident by taking to the skies again and overcoming herself for the needs of others, specifically for her friend Tombo in dire danger.
As a writer, Kiki’s loss of her flight and the reasons why she lost it really spoke to me once those reasons became clear. Kiki’s Delivery Service isn’t a preachy film and so it took me a few viewings to mine its thematic treasures. I’d consider writers to be artists. Isn’t the most famous example of an impediment to creativity the so-called “writer’s block”?
I’ve consistently been an advocate of the assertion that there is really no such thing. I mean that in terms of defining writer’s block as just suddenly, superstitiously even, being unable to write. I’ve gone on record before as saying that writer’s block is something which can be worked through. Some of the earliest literature I read on the art of writing articulated as much. It seems to me to be a matter of rediscovering purpose.
Writing can easily become dull and nothing is fun anymore when it starts to feel like homework. The same is true even for blogging. There have been times in the past when my desire of consistent posting here has weighed less than a sense of the tedium of it all. I’ve found that I don’t really want to write if I have to. I think this is echoed in Kiki’s Delivery Service where her gift of flight is something wonderful that becomes a slave to the demands of her business and is ultimately drained from her.
“Flying used to be fun until I started doing it for a living.”
Like Kiki, we as artists need to sometimes reassess why we do what we do and why we’ve chosen to use the gifts we’ve been given in the way that we’re using them. Everyone pines for the absolute pleasure of being able to do what you love for a living, but I have the suspicion that even doing that would eventually become tiresome without the necessary process of occasional self-searching and rediscovery of inspiration and purpose.
I would even compare it to being a father, though I’m not sure we could categorize fatherhood as a kind of artistry. I love my family and want to take care of them and provide for them, but sometimes this act of love too can become a kind of monotonous burden to bear. Only a reassessment of why I am working keeps me going, remembering that I love my family is a source of inspiration and it even makes me excited to “bring home the bacon”, as they say. ‘Cuz who don’t love bacon? Vegans.
The final and most perplexing thematic element in Kiki’s Delivery Service is the relationship between Kiki and Jiji. The young witch and the talking cat are the closest of companions throughout the film until the cat begins to wander away and make friends of his own and Kiki falls into her doubts, culminating in Kiki’s inability to understand Jiji’s speech. He becomes for all intents and purposes a regular kitty cat. She apparently is never able to talk with Jiji in human language again. It’s one of the saddest parts of the film. I’ve seen the film several times now in both English and Japanese and yet the meaning of this eluded me.
Miyazaki himself wasn’t helpful in the documentary The Kingdoms of Dreams and Madness where he explains: “Sometimes we become speechless.” …Okay?
However elsewhere he’s described Jiji as representative of the immature and adolescent side of Kiki, so as she grows up, developing like Osono’s baby in the womb until the both of them are “born”, Kiki becomes this independent woman who don’t need no talking cat, it’s just that. Jiji becomes his own cat and Kiki becomes her own woman. They are still friends of course, but in this sense Kiki doesn’t need Jiji as her sole sounding board anymore since she has found companionship with fellow humans.
Maybe what makes the loss of communication with Jiji a little more poignant is the fact that the cat was voiced by the late, great Phil Hartman. The Disney dub was released shortly after his death and it was dedicated to his memory as one of his final roles.
Family Friendliness: 8/10
As heartwarming and lovable as Kiki’s Delivery Service is, there’s one big strike against it in terms of Family Friendliness. Just one, and it is: So. Many. Panty. Shots. Seriously, guys (I’m presuming the animators were guys?). This might just be some kind of Japanese thing, depicting the undergarments of Japanese girls so frequently, but it is a little much. I mean of course we could expect some, considering she’s riding a broomstick in a dress through the air, but it’s almost as if some sequences intentional angle things in such a way…
Beyond that, the story of Kiki is one especially for young adults struggling to find their own way in the world, to break from their parents while at the same time not losing their inherited identity.
On final word on this: some more conservative viewers may be put off by the depiction of witches and/or black magic in this movie. To them I’d say that there is hardly any talk of witchcraft or the darker elements of that particular part of history. It’s not like we’re going to get a Salem witch trial at the end of the movie or anything. Flight and a talking black cat are about the entire breadth of it. Some people may not care but for those who do, there you go.
Kiki is played by a very young Kirsten Dunst, which is surprising to me because I didn’t think of the actress at any time during the film. Some of her line readings sound a little too energetic and her voice can sometimes be shrill, but I don’t consider her to have down a particularly bad job even though she’s not the best performed heroine in the Ghibli canon. As I understand it there’s a sizable crowd who considers her performance to be a travesty (of course compared to the original Japanese) but I think it’s passable.
Phil Hartman lends his characteristic dry voice to Jiji, a departure from the Japanese version which had a less… abrasive and sarcastic personality than he does in the Disney dub. Apparently Hartman also ad-libbed several of his lines and there’s more dialogue from Jiji in the English than in the Japanese. Jiji is ever a source of comedy in the film and casting a comedian with a distinct voice was a good idea. It is visually humorous to see this snarky, booming man’s voice coming out of a teeny tiny kitty cat so I think avoiding the typical little for Jiji was a good idea. Hartman’s is my favorite performance in the film. He brought levity, energy, snideness to Jiji’s lines.
Tress MacNeille as Osono and Janeane Garofalo as Ursula did spot on jobs as their respective characters. Matthew Lawrence as Tombo occasionally sounds a little bit too old for the part but that’s generally a consistent problem with these films anyways. He at least conveys the boyish enthusiasm needed for the part.
I’ll say again that Kiki’s Delivery Service surprised me. It is a film that says much more than I expected it to say, utilizing every element of its storytelling to convey meaning. It reaches levels of sentiment which surpass mere sappiness (a pox upon family films). Far more than a forgettable “fun” film, this is one which is not to be missed.
My Personal Grade: 8/10
Kiki’s Delivery Service helped me to better understand myself and the risks and struggles I face as I continue to write. I found myself identifying with its titular character much more than I thought I could have. This movie further cements the assertion that Studio Ghibli is a masterful animation studio with a large and versatile range. This is more of a family film than others in their canon but I think it is best viewed by artists who can appreciate its themes.
Aggregated Score: 8.2