Saturday, September 6, 2014
Director Report Card: Hayao Miyazaki (1989)
Kiki’s Delivery Service
Majo no takkyûbin / Witch's Special Express Delivery
“Kiki’s Delivery Service” got a big push in the U.S. when it was released on video in 1998, nearly a decade after its original Japanese release. Disney slapped advertisements for it all over their shows and other video releases. The film got the first of many all-star dubs, even featuring the last vocal performance of Phil Hartman before his untimely death. Because I’m a jerk and a loser, I never saw the movie until years later. By then, I was aware of Hayao Miyazaki and where the film fell in his career. Studio Ghibli being well established by this point, the director was looking for a new challenge and found himself adapting a popular novel by Eiko Kadono. The risk paid off as the movie became another huge hit for Ghibli.
Young Kiki comes from a family of witches, living in the countryside. It is tradition that at the age of 13, witches set out on their own, jumping on their broom and flying off until they find a place where they’re needed, where upon they will practice their trade. Despite being inexperienced, having only mastered flying, Kiki and her talking cat Jiji set off on an adventure. Settling in a city by the sea, Kiki makes friends with a husband and wife bakers, setting up a delivery service out of their attic. From her new business, Kiki encounters many new friends.
“Kiki’s Delivery Service” is a coming-of-age story, above all else. Kiki is thirteen years old which is important. Unlike many hyper-sexualized female anime characters, Kiki looks her age. She’s short and, under her shapeless black dress, has no discernible figure. This combined makes her look much younger. The way she acts characterizes her youth as well. Kiki is constantly running, skipping, nearly tripping, and, at the story’s beginning, nearly always excited about something. If “My Neighbor Totoro” accurately captures the energy of young childhood, then “Kiki’s Delivery Service” accurately captures the similarly effervescent but distinct energy of young adulthood. Yet the story concerns her maturation. By the end, she is more mature and that youthful energy is more focused. She knows the pride of running her own business now and the ups and downs of adulthood.
The movie handles the topic of witchcraft in a very matter-of-fact fashion. Kiki’s mother is introduced at work, mixing potions for an elderly customer. Why witches set off on their own at age thirteen is never explained, only that they do. Kiki’s mother insists she takes her old broom, instead of a newly carved one, presumably because it has more built-in power. The audience is left to guess. The film is vague enough with its fantasy elements that it practically works in archetypes. “Witches always wear black,” Kiki’s mother tells her. Accompanying the young witch on her journey is Jiji, a talking black cat. To a kid born in the nineties, Jiji immediately reminded me of Salem from “Sabrina the Teenage Witch.” It’s a troupe the film intentionally recalls. None of these are complaints. By working in broad strokes, the film quickly establishes its magical world in easy to understand terms.
The original Japanese version ends with a song that translates as “Wrapped In Kindness.” From the moment she arrives in town, Kiki experiences the kindness of strangers. She lands on the street and awkwardly introduces herself to a random selection of people. Most look at her in puzzlement but an old woman at least says hello. A cop gives her trouble for nearly crashing her broom into traffic. Before she can’t get arrested, Tombo distracts the cop, allowing her to get away. Kiki becomes a kind stranger herself by returning a pacifier to a forgetful mother with a baby. This action is all Osono needs to see before allowing Kiki to live in her home. Later on, Kiki takes the time to help an old woman bake a pie. That kindness is returned in time. “Kiki’s Delivery Service” makes the case for doing nice things out of the goodness of your heart.
Gotland, Sweden. The place certainly looks like Europe, with its peninsula setting, thick forests, and flat-stone architecture. Despite its blatantly European visuals, Koriko still feels very Japanese. The customs and style of the area seems less like an idealized European city and more like an idealized Japanese town. Koriko is a pretty big city and even has a clock tower. However, it winds up feeling more like a small town. Everyone seemingly knows each other and, despite lots of cars being around, most of the people walk wherever they have to go. The film is also oddly timeless. The cars looks like classic models from fifties or sixties. There are few televisions and the one we do see is in black and white. The most advanced technology displayed in the film is a portable radio. The movie is never placed in a defined time period, creating a nostalgic tone for the entire story. There’s a relaxing feeling to the setting and it’s the kind of place a viewer would actually like to visit.
Which isn’t to say that the film isn’t without its exciting moments. The thrills are of a lower key variety at first, anyway. During her first big delivery, Kiki flies over the forest, carrying a stuffed black cat in a canary cage. A rogue wind blows her down, dropping the gift into the woods below. Kiki races for the present, barely catching it in time. However, the gift inside the cage is gone, forcing Kiki to explore the forest below, earning the err of a group of angry crows. The action is beautifully animated, giving the audience a clear sense of motion and speed. Another moment that has the same element is when Tombo shows Kiki a bicycle he’s built with a plane propeller attached to the front. The two swerve around curves, going faster and faster, until the bike actually leaps the railing, falling down the cliff, barely kept afloat by the still spinning propeller.
Despite its slower pace, the film still has a surprisingly action-packed finale. Teased throughout the film is the dirigible docked in town. Tombo, an aviation fanboy, is lucky enough to get a ride on the blimp. However, there’s a problem, the airship becoming uneven and floating lop-sided across town. Amusingly, a police car is dragged along, dangling below and eventually falling into a pool. The big moment comes when the blimp collides with the clock tower, Tombo’s grip on the rope lessening every minute. Kiki rushes to rescue her friend, quickly grabbing a broom from a guy on the street, and leaping into the sky, regaining her ability to fly at the last minute. The climax creates great suspense, holding off on the reveal for as long as possible.
Naturally, the film is elevated by the trademark Studio Ghibli attention to detail. From the cars to the buildings and clothes, everything is intensely detailed in a way that suggest a history and a personality. Amusingly, the cows and birds, briefly seen though they are, look surprisingly realistic. More importantly, the tiny movements and quirks of the characters give them a realistic sense of life. Kiki is endearingly clumsy, stumbling over her own feet more than once. This carries over to her attempts to fly, as every lift-off has her bumping into trees or bouncing off walls. A delightful moment has the old woman and her assistant dancing by swinging an office chair around. Osono’s husband, known only as the Baker, never has a proper line of dialogue, only granting once. Amazingly, he is still a fully-developed character strictly through his body language and facial expressions.
I’ve been hard on Joe Hisaishi’s score over this retrospective but the composer’s skills are developing. “Kiki’s Delivery Service” is his best score yet. The music has a calliope sound to it and makes great uses of strings and other unconventional instruments like the mandolin. It’s a lovely score and invokes the film’s tone very well.