A mere one year after the release of Totoro, Miyazaki returned with his next film, Kiki’s Delivery Service (魔女の宅急便) (in 1989). Miyazaki had told epic, adventurous stories in his first two outings, then had settled down a bit for the gentler Totoro. Kiki continues the more personal tone taken with Totoro, but this time incorporating more of the vivid scenes of flight and adventure that characterized the early Ghibli films. While Totoro revolved around childhood, Kiki clearly focuses on the trials and tribulations associated with adolescence and growing up. Of course, when I mention a phrase like “growing up”, your first instinct is probably to groan, as such stories have been told to death, usually in a far too condescending and simplistic manner. Kiki easily avoids this and keeps its charm right to its satisfying finish.
Our main character, Kiki, begins the film rushing to her parents, eager to finally leave on a rite of passage that all witches (as she and her mother are) must go through – finding a new city and settling there for an year to establish herself as a fully trained witch. So, after some minor hurdles, she finds herself in a picturesque, clearly European-inspired city called Koriko, and manages to find a kind bakery owner who gives her room and board. To pay for this, she sets up a delivery service, and that’s the base from which the story takes off. But as boredom, loneliness, insecurity and various other factors trickle in, she finds herself slowly losing her witch powers.
Like with Totoro, there is an overwhelming sense of kindness which pervades every scene, and a complete lack of evil. Apart from a few bratty teenagers, the people Kiki meets are helpful, admirable and pleasant. A baffling review of the film by Ken Hanke says the following, “there’s a strange tension…..a tone that suggests sinister motives may be present in some of the characters — notably the artist Ursula and an elderly woman“. I really couldn’t disagree more. Kiki shares this important quality with Totoro – a lack of any real antagonist. There is no conniving villain witch who wishes for Kiki’s failure, the conflicts in the film are those of a personal nature which begin within Kiki, conflicts she must resolve on her own. You don’t need to manipulate audiences with a cold, despicable villain in order to create tension and drama and make audiences root for the protagonist, there is more than enough possibility with kind of themes explored in Kiki. We haven’t all been witches-in-training, but we’ve all been through childhood and adolescence and can recognize a little of ourselves in the situations we see in the film.
One thing I love about this film and Miyazaki films in general is the restraint he takes in telling his story. There is a moment in this film where Kiki discovers she can’t understand what her cat, Jiji, says to her anymore. It’s a touching and sad moment, but Miyazaki doesn’t linger on it or exploit it. The lack of audience-manipulation makes these moments more real and more heartfelt. Another scene I’d like to mention is one where Kiki must retrieve her cat from inside one of her clients’ homes. Inside the house, we hear the parents joking about how their large pet dog has taken a liking to the cat (we see the dog curled up with him). Our admittedly jaded expectations tell us that what will follow is a typical slapstick scene where Kiki must find a way to retrieve her cat from the paws of this dog. Instead, the dog calmly walks outside and delivers the cat to Kiki, who, along with Jiji, thank their animal friend for his assistance.
Ive noticed reviews are indecisive about calling this film in particular a children’s film, but that question, in my opinion, sort of misses the point. Miyazaki has plainly stated, for example, that when he created Totoro, he was thinking of young children, yet adults from all over the world have enjoyed and praised the film endlessly for touching their spirits as very few films do. I think some people have gotten so used to condescending, manipulative Disneyfied animation that they cannot grasp the idea of an animated film which can touch the hearts of children and adults. Kiki is a film that certainly will be enjoyed by children for its endearing characters and delightful visuals and flight scenes. But the older members of the audience will also bask in the familiar themes of adolescence and growth portrayed here so well (rather than pop culture references or not-so-subtly crude humour that many animated films resort to). They will love the characters for their believability and charm. And they will undoubtedly appreciate the imaginative environment Miyazaki has created, a hybrid of various European influences from different time periods meshed together (Miyazaki deems it an alternate universe where no World Wars occured). Having said that, I can understand why Kiki gets the superficial “kids movie” label, because at first glance it is more straightforward than some of his other films.
I should probably just write a stock paragraph praising the art and animation and then copy-paste it into every Ghibli review I write (and there will be many more to come). So what can I say? You know the drill. Wonderful, vivid artwork and animation. The flying sequences are a joy to watch, and so are the plain sequences of interaction between Kiki and other characters. The environments, as I’ve mentioned, were drawn from locales which Miyazaki visited (he mentioned Stockholm specifically, as well as other places like Ireland and even San Francisco). They are very beautiful.
Joe Hisaishi’s music is a treat. The few problems that appeared in his scores for Nausicaa and Laputa (mostly occasional synth interjections), which began to fade away in Totoro, are now gone completely. This is a lovely, classically influenced and orchestra-heavy score with some great melodies. I particularly liked the theme which appeared as Kiki first flew into Koriko – I assumed this would be the theme for the entire film, but as far as I recall only appeared the one time, though I may have to relisten. I like to think of Kiki as the film where Hisaishi’s mature period really began. As for the vocal music, the opening song which plays as Kiki leaves her home is pleasant enough, but what I really enjoyed was the closing song, “Yasashisa ni Tsutsumareta nara” – which is a really lovely, youthful, optimistic song . According to Nausicaa.net, these are actually old, popular Japanese songs, so they were apparently not written specifically for the film.
In some ways, Kiki’s position in the Ghibli canon is a bit unfortunate. Its a superb film, but films like Grave of the Fireflies, Totoro, and Princess Mononoke all have even more memorable qualities which make them stand out even more in my mind. Yet Miyazaki has created a film here that is so effortlessly superior to most other animated films and is brimming with the same imagination and creativity, as well as sensitivity, that you’ll find in the best of his work. An organization called Concerned Women for America boycotted the film in its American release because they felt the film promoted witchcraft and poor values. I hope Miyazaki never heard of this, because it would only make him even more pessimistic than he already is for the human race, that a film as warm and likable and benign as this one would still make someone upset.
6 responses so far