Years before anyone had ever heard of Harry Potter, Studio Ghibli provided its own tale of a magical, broomstick-riding adolescent. I continue my Ghibli retrospective with Kiki’s Delivery Service.
The most outlandish stories can move us emotionally. A reader or viewer might never have experienced magic or journeyed to other worlds or otherwise had the amazing adventures characters in a story have. However, that reader or viewer doubtless has experienced emotions that those characters might well feel: fear, wonder, loneliness, grief, or the joys of love. If a storyteller can make the imagined events strike a chord in our own real-world experiences, then the story will stir us and feel “true-to-life,” regardless of how superficially far removed from our lives the story’s events might be. If, however, a storyteller cannot make the plot and characters somehow feel relatable, then the story will fall short of this goal. We might be dazzled by spectacle, we might be excited or amused by the characters’ escapades, but we won’t be moved.
Kiki’s Delivery Service (1989), written and directed by Hayao Miyazaki, seems to be aiming for that peculiar blend of a fantastical plot with underlying emotional realism and relatability. I would say that the movie doesn’t quite hit the mark, though. While resonant situations and themes come up, the filmmakers don’t develop them sufficiently to make the story wholly satisfying.
Before I proceed to the review proper, though, there is a general topic that I ought to address as part of this Ghibli series, and this is as good a place as any to do so.
Studio Ghibli movies can of course be watched in multiple languages: in the original Japanese or in English dubs, of which sometimes there are more than one version. When I review the movies, in which language do I watch them? My preference is to watch them in an English dub, as I don’t speak Japanese and, when viewing movies where the visuals are such a central part of the appeal, I don’t want to be even slightly distracted by reading subtitles. Sometimes I will make an exception to this rule, though, if the Japanese original is notably superior to or different from the dub. Grave of the Fireflies, for example, I opted to watch in Japanese with subtitles, as that version (in which Setsuko is voiced by an actual four-year-old girl) was preferable to the Central Park Media English dub (in which Setsuko is voiced by an adult woman doing a “little girl” voice).
Unless otherwise noted, however, I am watching these movies in English. When multiple English dubs have been made, I have opted to watch the Disney or GKids dubs. And in a case such as Kiki’s Delivery Service, where the Disney dub has been released in multiple versions, I will specify that I watched the version with the 2010 Disney English dub.
Whew! OK, with that bit of housekeeping out of the way, let’s move on to the review.
Kiki’s Delivery Service, which Miyazaki adapted from a book of the same name by Eiko Kadono, follows Kiki, a thirteen-year-old witch, as she travels from her small-town home to the big city as part of her witch’s training. Witches, we are given to understand, must leave home, at least temporarily, and make their way in some other part of the world if they are to grow fully into their magical vocation. This is what Kiki’s mother did before marrying the girl’s father and settling into a comfortable domestic life of potion making. Now it is Kiki’s turn, and she flies off on a broom accompanied only by her black cat, Jiji, who can talk to her.
Kiki and Jiji end up in a port city, where they soon make new friends. One is Osono, the pregnant proprietor of a bakery where Kiki helps out in return for lodging. Our heroine soon discovers she can turn her flying ability to her advantage by whisking people’s parcels from one part of the city to the other in return for a fee. She goes into business for herself, opening the titular delivery service.
Meanwhile, Kiki and Jiji cross paths with a variety of people: Ursula, a bohemian artist who lives in the forest outside the city; Tombo, a nerdy adolescent boy who is fascinated by flying in general and Kiki in particular; and a wealthy, elderly woman referred to only as “Madame” who retains Kiki’s services and is impressed by the girl’s work ethic and consideration for others. All told, Kiki’s year of witch’s training seems positively idyllic, until a personal crisis threatens everything.
The movie resembles Castle in the Sky in how it keeps both location and time period unclear to create the appropriate setting for this story. The city’s architecture suggests continental Europe, while the ubiquitous cars and the presence in wealthier households of primitive television sets hint at the mid-20th century. Biplanes and dirigibles are still the only forms of air travel available to non-witches, though. The blurring of place and time allow the Ghibli animators to create a world sufficiently different from our own that its inhabitants could believably employ a witch on her broomstick to deliver goods but similar enough to feel warmly familiar.
The story contains humorous and exciting episodes. When disaster threatens Kiki’s first delivery job, she and Jiji must desperately improvise to save the day. Later, Tombo takes Kiki for a ride on his bicycle/makeshift airplane that is both funny and frightening; the movie makes good use here of point-of-view shots from Kiki’s perspective to convey the terrifying speed at which they hurtle along. The movie’s climax, set high above the city streets, is suspenseful and visually impressive.
Everything is rendered with Ghibli’s customary skill at stunningly beautiful visuals and gratuitous, humanizing details. My favorite images include painterly shots of Kiki in her lodgings, long shots of the city streets as a dirigible glides through the sky above, and the recurring image of Kiki against a background of green hills in the countryside.
My favorite humanizing detail is a moment when Kiki must gather firewood from a woodpile. She picks up four logs, only to drop one on the ground. She awkwardly tries for a moment to pick up the fallen log, despite the burden of the other logs. Then, she gives up, leaves it on the ground, and moves on.
The vocal performances in the English dub are good. Kirsten Dunst and Matthew Lawrence are appropriately cheerful and ingenuous as Kiki and Tombo, respectively, while Janeane Garofalo brings her patented dryness to the more mature Ursula. Madame is voiced by Hollywood legend Debbie Reynolds, whose vocal performance has a warm elegance. Most notably, the dub features one of the final performances of Phil Hartman, as Jiji. Voicing the feline sidekick, Hartman provides a nice array of arch, sarcastic comments.
Despite all these varied strengths, however, I found Kiki’s Delivery Service rather lackluster overall. I would identify two reasons for this reaction.
One problem is the pacing. I appreciate how Miyazaki and his team take their time with matters such as Kiki’s initial troubles upon arriving in the city, her first delivery job, and how she gets to know Tombo and Madame. Nevertheless, the movie’s initially leisurely pace means that the filmmakers must race through the later portions of the movie to stay within a 100-minute runtime. The crisis Kiki must confront comes up relatively abruptly and then is resolved very quickly, so that the drama doesn’t carry as much weight as it should. This rushed conclusion might be less of an issue, though, were it not for the second, bigger flaw.
Kiki’s Delivery Service’s story of an early adolescent witch making her way in an unfamiliar city is rich with possibilities for emotional depth. The movie presents “being a witch” in an unusual, intriguing fashion. I am not just referring to how witches such as Kiki and her mother, despite having all the trappings of sinister fairy tale witches (broomsticks, black cats, long black dresses) are presented as entirely benevolent and innocuous. What is more striking than that is how un-exotic and even staid and stodgy witches are.
In the big city, Kiki’s black dress sets her apart from other girls her age—not as being more “magical” but as looking drabber and more conservative. This conservatism extends to her manners as well: she initially reacts with irritation to Tombo’s attempts to make friends, sternly reminding him that they have not yet been formally introduced. Kiki is able to get along far more easily with adults, including older women such as Madame, than with people her own age. Her willingness to work hard and to be of service, her good manners, and her generally perky demeanor recommend her to grown-ups but mark her as the definition of “uncool” to big city teenagers. In particular, all Kiki’s interactions in the city with girls her own age are portrayed negatively, as these girls are uniformly snobbish, catty, and generally disdainful of her.
This scenario parallels or echoes so many people’s real-life experiences. Kiki’s situation is variously like that of the small-town kid, perhaps from a strongly religious background, plunged into a cosmopolitan setting; or that of an immigrant from a highly traditional culture arriving in a more permissive one; or a poor, working-class kid among more affluent contemporaries (unlike other kids in the city, Kiki has to work a regular job, which inspires another girl’s scorn). In the simplest and broadest sense, she is the New Kid. She is a figure whom viewers can relate to in many ways.
Another real-world parallel to Kiki’s situation—one the movie explicitly draws—is an artist’s struggle to create. Late in the movie, Kiki confesses to Ursula her personal difficulties. In response, Ursula compares these difficulties to periods in her own life as a painter and sketcher when inspiration seems to disappear. She doesn’t have any obvious solution for Kiki but does offer some valuable advice on the importance of sometimes taking a break from creative work and of finding your own voice as an artist.
These are all powerful themes, and other aspects of the movie hint at still others. A crucial subplot revolves around Jiji’s romantic interest in a female cat in the city and how this drives a wedge of sorts between him and Kiki. This subplot could be taken as a metaphor for how, as childhood friends grow older and develop romantic interests, they can drift apart. Who cannot relate to that situation?
Having set up so many emotionally resonant elements of the story, however, Kiki’s Delivery Service then largely fails to pay off any of them. The movie’s climax, which resolves Kiki’s personal crisis and sets her on the path to happiness, doesn’t really have anything to do which being an outsider in an unfamiliar environment, or being an aspiring artist, or growing apart from friends. The climax revolves around events that are simultaneously utterly conventional by movie standards and so far removed from most people’s actual experiences as to leave a viewer (or at least this viewer) pretty cold. I was not at all clear why the concluding events helped Kiki overcome her personal difficulties, except for the unsatisfying reason that “the plot demanded it to wrap up the movie.”
Don’t get me wrong; I am not insisting that to be successful a movie must have a subtext with real-world relevance. A fantasy story about exotic magical adventures, which doesn’t have anything more to “say” than “This is so exciting!” can be perfectly fun and enjoyable. Yet for most of its runtime Kiki’s Delivery Service avoids conventional fantasy adventures. Unlike other stories of magical teenagers, there are no heroic quests, battles with dark wizards, or world-endangering situations here. The movie instead concentrates on low-key, relatively mundane events and makes the main conflict a purely internal, emotional one, all while hinting at some underlying significance. To tell a story like that only to resolve it with an episode of external peril is very disappointing.
Perhaps future viewings will cause me to amend my assessment. At present, though, I would judge Kiki’s Delivery Service a gorgeous-looking, interesting work of light entertainment that ultimately falls short of the greatness it could have achieved.