Growing up is a tricky business. For 14-year-old Kiki it is going to be even more difficult than usual because she is a witch, and wants to follow an important tradition: spending a year away from home perfecting her abilities, as resident witch in another town. Director Hayao Miyazaki uses this starting point (based on a story by Eiko Kadono) as a metaphor for finding independence. This is what he had to say in his forward to the book The Art of Kiki’s Delivery Service:
At one time the main characters of stories for young people gained financial independence, which was then equal to spiritual independence, after struggling through difficulties. In today’s society, however, where anyone can earn money going from one temporary job to another, there is no connection between financial independence and spiritual independence. In this era, poverty is not so much material as spiritual.
He also takes inspiration from his own background, drawing a parallel with the huge numbers of young Japanese who want to follow in his footsteps:
This is like someoone who wants to be a cartoonist coming alone to Tokyo. Today there are said to be around 300,000 young men and women who are hoping to make it as cartoonists. Being a cartoonist is not that unusual a job. It is comparatively easy to get started and to make some sort of living. But a characteristic of modern life is that once the needs of daily life are taken care of the real problem of selfrealization begins. Kiki is protected by mother’s old but well-looked-after broom, she has the radio that was a gift from father, and the black cat she is so close to that it is almost like a part of herself, but Kiki’s heart wavers between isolation and longing for human company.
Like a cartoonist, Kiki has a talent that she wants to use in order to gain her independence, one major ability: witchcraft. To normalise this and therefore make the parallel with the life of a cartoonist really work, witchcraft is shown in the film to be something accepted and normalised. Everyone seems to be aware of the existence of witches, accept them, and rarely discriminate against them. Even in the Mediterranean-style town where she eventually arrives she is accepted for what she is without too much trouble, although they have not had a “resident witch” for a long time so are a bit surprised. In a parallel with writer’s block, Kiki loses her powers and has to find a way to regain them, and she cannot do that alone.
Before we get to that, it is worth mentioning how limited her powers actually are in the first place. This is far from the Harry Potter concept of witchcraft, waving around a magic wand to do anything. Kiki has two abilities: she can make a broomstick fly and she can talk to her cat. That’s it. She starts off the film very bad at one of those two things. As Miyazaki says:
Quite a few TV cartoons about little witches have been made before this, but the witchcraft has always merely been the means to fulfill the dreams of young girls. They have always become idols with no difficulties. The witch of Majo no Takkyubin (Kiki’s Delivery Service) does not possess that convenient kind of power.
So Kiki’s powers are not enough to save her from the emotional journey to independence. She has to grow as a person, develop her talents and most importantly be resourceful and kind. The friendships she develops are crucial to this process. Probably of least importance, although essential for the big set piece and her emotional development, is the romantic subplot, allowing Kiki to fulfil the traditional anime role of a tsundere girl (see this article for some discussion of how that works). What Kiki really needs is help from female role models, those who are further ahead than her on life’s journey. In one of Miyazaki’s trademark blendings of Japanese and Western traditions, Kiki finds her very own Hecate sisters.
So in some versions of the Greek myth, Hecate has three aspects, sometimes three-headed, sometimes just three sisters. Modern interpretations tend to divide her into three: a young woman, a mother, and an old lady.
- Ursula. She is the young woman, not a huge amount older than Kiki. She is individual, independent, self-reliant. She has a talent (art) which she pursues to stunning effect. This is where the “writer’s block” parallel is really emphasised, and Ursula helps Kiki find the ability within herself to regain her powers, when it really matters.
- Osono. She is the mother (well, mother-to-be for most of the film), who takes Kiki in and crucially provides her with a job that can utilise and hone her talents. This places her in a safe environment, with a loving, surrogate mother.
- Madame, the old lady. She shows Kiki the value of kindness, and Kiki’s encounter with the old lady inspires her to put somebody else first and help her with an important task, even if it means missing out on something she really wants to do instead. Ultimately, the act of kindness is for the benefit of somebody who does not appreciate it at all, which is a moment of great disillusionment and leads to Kiki’s “writer’s block” phase. Kindness for the sake of kindness is important, but will not always be reciprocated. That does not negate the kindness, an important and tough lesson to learn.
The film follows a similar pattern to My Neighbour Totoro, to the extent that it is almost entirely a slice-of-life film, with no actual antagonists as such, and the moment of drama is just confined to the final chapter of the film rather than building throughout. It is a fascinating approach, and it will not be long before Miyazaki actually breaks with traditional dramatic storytelling altogether, removes the dramatic bit and just goes with the sheer beauty and emotional connection of a slice-of-life story for the entirety of a film, to stunning success.
The British dub features the voices of Kirsten Dunst as Kiki and Phil Hartman as Jiji the cat. They are both fabulous, and Hartman in particular lends Jiji a kind of dry wit that is not quite present in the original. It was his final role before his tragic death, which makes the moment when he stops speaking halfway through the film all the more poignant.
I love so many of the Studio Ghibli films that it is very difficult to pick favourites, but this one is right up there with the very best. We are another level up in terms of the sheer, stunning beauty of the animation, and the Miyazaki trademark blending of modern and traditional (often anachronistically) really adds to the magic. The music is of course utterly beautiful as always. I have an aversion to reviewers scoring things like a teacher unless there is a very valid reason for doing so, but in order to perhaps provide a little help to readers who might want to buy some of these films, I will start ranking the films in order of brilliance, but bear in mind there is a hair’s breadth between some of these, particular my #1, #2 and #3 at this point which all verge on perfection. So far:
- My Neighbour Totoro
- Laputa: Castle in the Sky
- Kiki’s Delivery Service
- Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind
- Grave of the Fireflies
PS. Just a technical note: I originally bought the Buena Vista DVD release of this (UK), and then recently bought the StudioCanal release (UK), partly to get the matching cover, but also for a few extra features. I would recommend tracking down the Buena Vista release if you can. It uses the original Japanese titles at the start and the end on the English dub, which doesn’t sound like an advantage, but…
For the StudioCanal release the start and end titles are the English version, but the picture quality drops out horribly at both points, despite being otherwise excellent. I mean, really horribly. Presumably the original master tapes could not be sourced for that version or something. For the sake of English captions appearing on the screen rather than Japanese, I would personally have the Japanese captions and not have the picture quality drop out like that. Frustratingly, the best thing to do is really to try to track down both versions.
PPS. There’s also a live action version. Don’t bother. RP
Read next in the Junkyard… Only Yesterday