Category: anime / In category: 10 of 10 / Overall: 97 of 100
How often have you seen a poster – usually for a children’s film, usually animated – which trumpets the movie as “magical”? How often has the epithet really only applied because magic (such as the ability, say, to fly) is the theme of said film? It’s one of those lazy descriptions that makes the ad man’s job so cynically easy.
Ladies and gentlemen, may I present Hayao Miyazaki’s warm, lovable and wholly life affirming animated classic ‘Kiki’s Delivery Service’, a film which not only proves itself that rarest of beasts – a work ostensibly for children (and, moreover, ostensibly for 13 year old girls) which genuinely is magical – but roots its sense of the magical firmly in the practicalities and responsibilities of everyday life.
Miyazaki’s work has always tended towards a strong feminist sensibility and here Kiki, a 13 year old witch-in-training who is obliged to spend a year away from home in the furtherance of her special powers, is cut from the same cloth as Sen in ‘Spirited Away’ and Satsuki in ‘My Neighbour Totoro’. All, for different reasons, find themselves far from home and move towards maturity through the necessity of a strong work ethic and the acceptance of their responsibility to others. The genius of Miyazaki is that none of this is forced down with sugar-coated insistence as would be the case in many a Hollywood production, but incorporated seamlessly into the narrative.
The other tenets of Miyazaki’s filmography are environmentalism and the love of flight. ‘Kiki’s Delivery Service’ just misses out on being the exemplar of Miyazaki’s ongoing themes and concerns by having very little in the way of an environmental subtext (claiming a scene involving a migratory group of wild geese as such would be pushing it a bit!); however, it rivals even ‘Porco Rosso’ in its big-hearted love of all things avionic.
Whereas the porcine hero of that derring-do action extravaganza pilots a seaplane, Kiki follows the time-honoured tradition of witches everywhere and reaches for the sky on a broomstick. It’s once she’s left home for her year away that she realizes she doesn’t really have a magical specialty beyond her (admittedly rather erratic) broomstick riding skills. After a misadventure that sees Kiki and her talking cat Gigi (the coolest and most laconic talking cat in cinema) stowing away on a goods train hobo-stylee, they arrive at a coastal town and try to fit in. The locals, though, are mainly sceptical.
Eventually, Kiki meets sympathetic bakery owner Osono who takes her in and gives her a job. Kiki, for whom self-deprecation is something of a tendency, considers the ability to fly the basic minimum for a witch-in-training and is kicking herself that she seems to have no other talents. Osono, however, recognizes that she has stumbled on an excellent and very motivated delivery girl. Kiki takes to the role with relish and quickly becomes self-sufficient.
That synopsis pretty much sums up the narrative developments of the first hour, and even though Miyazaki throws in a subplot about Kiki’s hesitant romance with teenage aviation fan Tombo which sets up a rescue mission involving a doomed dirigible for the edge-of-the-seat denouement, there’s not much in the way of plot. Instead, Miyazaki weaves a beautifully imagined series of vignettes detailing Kiki’s newfound friendship with an artist, her doubts and crises of confidence as she convinces herself she’ll always be an outsider, and her mixed feelings about Tombo (juxtaposed in witty fashion with Gigi’s feline romance with a neighbourhood cat), the latter exacerbated by an encroaching sense of homesickness.
With only the last reel plot development of Kiki’s sudden loss of powers providing any degree of conflict or drama (will she regain her capacity to fly in order to rescue Tombo when a freak accident afflicts the dirigible?), the film unfolds quite leisurely through its earlier stages. For the most part, the humour is light-hearted and good-natured (particularly an extended scene in which Gigi, doubling as a stuffed toy, is aided in his escape from a potential new owner by his supposed natural enemy, a dog) and Kiki’s adventures entertainingly episodic.
The final sequence goes for something deeper but without sacrificing the feelgood aesthetic that permeates the entire film. ‘Kiki’s Delivery Service’ is one of Studio Ghibli’s most purely enjoyable productions. It’s about growing up, gaining independence, and finding friendship and love. It’s about doubt, experience and determination. It’s as light as a soufflé and as deep as the human heart. It contains everything I love about Studio Ghibli.