Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Saturday, September 6, 2014

Director Report Card: Hayao Miyazaki (1989)

5. 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.

Miyazaki’s films are full of well-rounded female characters, whose youth never holds back their strength or ability. Kiki might be the most important of all of Miyazaki’s female leads. If Studio Ghibli lore is to be believed, the film was inspired by Hayao Miyazaki sitting on a park bench and observing the fashion young women of the day were wearing. Kiki was designed in opposition to such ideas. She’s deliberately un-hip. Throughout the whole film, the only clothes she wears is a black dress, white bloomers, and a red bow in her hair. Her separation from modern conceptions of cool are set up early. As she flies away from her home, she encounters another young witch, who wears sparkling earrings and has her hair up in a stylish fashion. After arriving in town, Kiki has to walk around a trio of teen girls, who barely notice, so self-adsorb are they in their chatter. After spending all afternoon helping an old woman bake a pie, she flies the meal out to her granddaughter, who is highly unappreciative of the gift. Yet Kiki is very self-conscious about her lack of fashion sense. She pauses outside a clothing store, wishing she had the money to afford a pair of fancy shoes. More than once, she seems to be jealous of Tombo’s more obviously feminine friends. Kiki is a fully developed character, not an attitude spewing caricature. She’s a role model and a feminist character but also a real person. To make this explicitly clear, the film ends with Kiki rescuing her male love interest, instead of the other way around.

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.

The book “Kiki’s Delivery Service” is based off of was set in a non-specific part of Northern Europe. The movie names the fictional town Koriko and visually patterns it after 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.

“Kiki’s Delivery Service” is about something else interesting too. In her adventures, Kiki meets a young artist named Ursula. Living in a cabin in the woods, the two befriend each other following the crash-landing with the crows. Inspired by Kiki’s adventurous spirit, Ursula begins to paint an abstract portrait of the girl. The two strike up a friendship, spending a day together. Ursula is a kindred spirit of Kiki and shares the film’s feminist themes. She doesn’t conform to feminine stereotypes either, even being mistaken for a boy later in the film. During the informal sleepover she and Kiki has, the two talk about her respective arts, about Kiki’s difficulty with maintaining her abilities. Ursula says “magic is like painting.” And with that line, “Kiki’s Delivery Service” becomes a movie about the creative process. Kiki can’t use magic because she looses confidence in her own abilities. Creating any art, whether it be paintings, animated feature films, or movie reviews, is fifty-percent self-delusion. You have to believe its good or else you’ll never see it through, which means working through loads of self-doubt. Just like Kiki has to when she finds she can’t fly her broom any longer. She doesn’t regain her abilities until she regains her self-confidence.

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.

While I’ve often considering “Kiki’s Delivery Service” one of Miyazaki’s lesser films, it is still a perfectly charming experience. The characters are beautifully realized, the film ebbs and flows fantastically, and the film has a surprisingly deep stream of subtext flowing under it is. Coming off the massive success of “My Neighbor Totoro,” it can’t help but pale some. Yet the two films compliment each other nicely and “Kiki” quickly became another beloved part of Ghibli’s catalog. [Grade: A-]

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