1988’s My Neighbor Totoro was a game changer for Hayao Miyazaki and brought him new and unforeseen levels of success, both in his native Japan and abroad. It focused almost entirely on childhood and the magic of remaining a child even in the toughest of circumstances. With his follow-up a year later, 1989’s Kiki’s Delivery Service, Miyazaki would focus on the next stage, growing up and moving on from childhood. But, of course, because he’s still him, it’s a world where witches are accepted in society, a city where most people are quite friendly, and a movie that has nothing even approaching a villain. It’s a movie about people being pleasant and yet it still has a sense of action, a deep emotional core, and a lead character who struggles with her decision to be her own person. It would also usher in Miyazaki’s now-25 year relationship with Disney, who will be releasing the film on Blu-ray this November.
Based on the children’s novel of the same name by Eido Kadono, Kiki’s Delivery Service is in many ways a hybrid of Miyazaki’s previous two films, Castle in the Sky and My Neighbor Totoro; both feature young girls who have to be heroic in some fashion, whether for the sake of their people or for the sake of their immediate family, and both deal with a magical set of circumstances unforeseen to either of them. Much of that’s the same way here, except Kiki comes from a magical world and goes to a non-magical, or less magical, one. Kiki takes the characters back to a truly fairy tale world like in Castle, but keeps a lot of the real-world, daily routine aspects and interpersonal relationships that set Totoro so much apart from the rest of the director’s work.
The film opens with Kiki, a young witch, about to leave home for her year abroad learning things that will hopefully become a better witch. This is a common thing for all witches. She leaves with her talking can Jiji and a small bundle of belongings and flies off on her broom to seek her fortune. Her mother was nervous for her to leave on the broom, but Kiki handled it just fine. She makes her way to the port city of Koriko, where people are accustomed to seeing witches, but usually none as young as Kiki, and attempts to find somewhere to live. While doing so, she is all but chased by a young, rather nerdy boy named Tombo who is fascinated with flight and Kiki’s ability to do it so gracefully.
Eventually, Kiki comes to a bakery owned by the kindly woman Osono. Osono says that Kiki can have room and board with her if she works as a courier for the bakery, making deliveries around town on her broom. Kiki joyfully accepts, promising to do a great job. Her first assignment doesn’t go so well, unfortunately. She’s meant to deliver a birthday cake a toy to a woman for her son, however a strong gust of wind takes Kiki off course and she’s not only late, but the toy cat is gone. The woman is not very nice and Jiji is forced to pretend to be the toy cat until Kiki can find the real one, somewhere below.
She manages to track it down, currently in the home of a young painter named Ursula, and begs her to get it back. At first, Kiki thinks Ursula is going to be mean as well, but she repairs the toy cat and gives it to Kiki to return. She now has a friend for life. Tombo also continues to be friendly and invites her to a party, though she falls ill from overwork and can’t make it. Once she’s well, Osono gives Kiki a delivery, which is just a ploy to get her to go hang out with Tombo. He’s made a flying bicycle and the two test it out on the sandy beaches of the town. Kiki likes Tombo, but his friends are too loud and brash for her liking and she feels that she doesn’t fit in.
All the rampant delivering and lack of much else has started to make Kiki feel depressed, like she doesn’t know if she’s made the right choice and contemplates going home. Worse, her powers are beginning to fade; she can no longer understand Jiji, who is busy chasing after a cute little white cat, and her flying ability is going away, making even her work suffer. Ursula tells her she’s suffering a form of writer’s block and that as soon as she feels inspired, she’ll probably be able to use her powers again. Naturally, Kiki isn’t sure about this. She goes to visit an elderly customer with whom she’s become friendly and the lady gives her advice as well. While there, Kiki sees on television that the town’s big airship demonstration is a disaster and the ship itself is crashing, leaving Tombo clinging for his life to a rope in midair. Kiki knows she has to try to help and, going back to her broom, wills her powers back in order to save her friend, which she does. This has helped her regain her confidence and feel like she can make a difference after all.
There are many of Miyazaki’s favorite themes at work here and one of the biggest is that of a child or young person having to come into their own and fulfill their own purpose. Kiki doesn’t know what she’s meant to do, there is no prophecy about her nor a birthright she has to accept, but she does feel like she’s not getting anywhere and worries she’s made the wrong decision. How many people can’t relate to that? Even though she’s a witch with a broom, this is about as universal a leaving-home idea as anybody has ever seen. Her powers go away because she’s suffering an artistic block, like her talents are meaningless and she has to learn that she’s special and important to people. She is literally finding her place in a big and new world, with a job and new friends and everything. The movie is about her finding that within herself and fulfilling her own prophecy.
We also have a true return of Miyazaki’s obsession with flight and the freedom thereof. The character of Tombo very much reflects Miyazaki’s own personal views on the subject, from being fascinated by it and envious of those who can fly any time they want to. Again, Miyazaki shoots the scenes of Kiki flying with great detail to air movement and resistance, and especially wind which plays a part in several scenes. If this film has an external antagonist to go along with Kiki’s self-doubt, it’s wind which causes any and all of the film’s psychical danger. With the exception of speaking to a cat, the main display of magic here is flying, concepts which the filmmaker clearly equates.
Kiki’s Delivery Service might not be Miyazaki’s most indelible film, but it more than continues all of his themes, and gives us yet another film where people are simply nice and helpful, and the conflicts are based around circumstances of life rather than around human machinations. Again, his visual style is about the beauty of surroundings and not the ugliness that can sometimes be out there. Koriko is a town I think any of us would love to live in, and if Kiki can be a witch and fit in, then any one of us could too.
Next week, we remain in the air (of course) and take a look at what is possibly Miyazaki’s most overlooked film, because it comes right in the middle of some of his most celebrated works, but that I think is actually one of his very best. It’s the story of a fighter pilot who got turned into a pig and now lives his life shooting down air pirates and the like in and around the Adriatic Sea. Sounds weird, doesn’t it? Well you’re right, but Porco Rosso is a movie I’m quite excited to talk to you all about. Next time!