The story of Kiki’s Delivery Service starts way back in 1987, when Studio Ghibli obtained the rights to Eiko Kadono’s novel Witch’s Delivery Service. At the time, both of the Studio’s main creative forces, Hayao Miyazaki and Isao Takahata, were occupied working on My Neighbor Totoro and Grave of the Fireflies respectively, but it didn’t really matter, as originally conceived, it was supposed to be a shorter (probably not even feature-length) movie that would showcase the talent of the younger animators working for Ghibli at the time.
That, however, didn’t turn out to be the best idea. At least not in Miyazaki’s eyes. The director, who was serving as the project’s producer, simply wasn’t satisfied with the work that was being done with the material. He wasn’t taken with any of the potential directors, and he was particularly appalled by the screenplay, which he found to be rather atrocious. He decided to right the ship by taking the animators on a European tour that was supposed to inspire the look in the design of the film. By the time they came back, he had pretty much become the film’s director.
it’s hard to say things didn’t work out for the best. After the Grave of the FIreflies/Totoro double-feature failed to turn a profit on its theatrical release, the studio more than welcomed the unprecedented success it experienced when Kiki’s Delivery Service was released. Not only did it become the biggest financial success in the studio’s (admittedly young) history, but it ended the year as the highest grossing movie of 1989 in Japan.
So, what is the film about? Well, not unlike My Neighbor Totoro, there isn’t really all that much to Kiki’s Delivery Service as far as plot is concerned.It’s the story of Kiki, a 13-year-old witch, who leaves home in order to finish her training. She moves into the seaside city of Korko, where she starts working as a delivery girl for a local bakery. It’s a nice, humanistic, warm movie. There is no villain, and no violence. It’s basically a movie about a young girl coming into her own in a very important transitional period, and for that, it should be praised.
It’s also a beautiful looking movie, although at this point, saying that about a Miyazaki movie should be redundant. There is flawless movement in the character animation, and the design of the piece is something to take note of. The purpose of the aforementioned trip Miyazaki took to Europe was to inspire the design of “Koriko”. Wikipedia tells me that the main inspiration for the fictional city was the Swedish town of Visby, which is probably much smaller than what we see of “Koriko” in the film.
In any case, “Koriko” looks beautiful. I have a deep affinity for the way Miyazaki portrays Europe. It’s not something he has done too often, but whenever he does, he shows a deeply romantic view of the continent that I find absolutely refreshing. As someone who has lived his whole life in the Americas, I’m accustomed to exotic representation of Africa and Asia, so it’s nice to see how people from those continents visualize Europe. You can find the zenith of this Romance in Miyazaki’s next film, Porco Rosso, but there are enough of these charms in the art direction and music score of Kiki’s Delivery Service.
Another of the movie’s strengths, as usual, is the characterization of its lead characters. Kiki is beautifully animated, and satisfyingly complex in her personality and desires for a female character. It’s nice to see a girl who is inherently good, but also very active. The image we’re used to is that of the traditional Disney Princess, who is very kind to animals, but also incredibly passive, and in wait of a Prince to come and save her. Kiki is the agent of her story. She is energetic and restless. She wants to turn her talents (in this case flying her broom) into a way of finding her path in this world.
The other winning character in the film is Kiki’s pet cat Jiji, who is just the best. He is not necessarily the cutest, nor the funniest character in Miyazaki’s filmography, but he finds a flawless balance in being the perfect animal sidekick. Like I just said, the design doesn’t make him cute, but he is definitely slick, with his pitch-black skin, and his gigantic green eyes. He also talks, which tends to be a warning sign in animated sidekicks, but his interventions are focused and always welcome. He is not there to steal the show, just to put some very fine color in the movie. There is a recurring joke about him pointing out when a something looks like him that I just adore.
Now that I’ve talked about the movie’s strengths, it’s sadly time to talk about its limitations. Kiki’s Delivery Service is a lovely movie, but not one without flaws. It’s fairly similar to Totoro in tone: a low-stakes story, for children, without much violence, and rooted in very human and approachable feelings. For that, I applaud it tremendously. The only thing is that this approach can result in unexciting storytelling. It’s a tough balancing act, that Miyazaki perfectly handles in Totoro, but doesn’t quite reach in Kiki. It’s still a good movie, that deserves to be watched and enjoyed by kids for years to come, but the truth is that when you’re talking about a master of Miyazaki’s caliber, even a really good movie that is not a masterpiece is somehow a disappointment.
Still, there is a lot to recommend in Kiki’s Delivery Service. If you’re a kid, then you’ll surely enjoy it. I would put it under the essential viewing pile, especially for young girls. If you are an adult, and you still feel like you need an excuse to watch the movie, then I will point you out to the flying sequences.
Miyazaki is known for his love of flight, and this movie, about a young witch that spends a lot of time flying on her broom has some of the most beautiful flying sequences in the director’s filmography. People tend to describe flying sequences in movies, especially animated movies, as “magical”, but it’s not as easy a thing to achieve as you’d expect. I just have to look at Disney’s recently released Big Hero 6 for an absolutely underwhelming flying sequence, which feels derivative and phony. What’s so cool about Kiki’s flight, is that she is used to it. It’s just another part of her day, and somehow, it is still riveting and exciting.
Next Up: Isao Takahata tries his hand on a “delicate” subject in Only Yesterday, the only Ghibli film yet to be released on home video in the United States and Canada.