The Ghibli classics are back in theatres for 2017 in North America! From this June to December, a film is being shown each month on two selected days either with subtitles or English dubs. Hearing that Kiki’s Delivery Service was back on screen, I rushed to the theatre despite having just re-watched the film earlier this year. The film is simply too magical to miss.
Kiki’s Delivery Service. Out of all the Ghibli films that represent an adolescent’s struggle into adulthood, this one had the greatest impact on me. Kiki and her cat listening to the radio while tottering towards an unknown city on her broomstick in the dead of night…this scene encompasses so much fun, uncertainty, and promise that it stirs the hearts of every child and strikes adults off guard with poignant nostalgia. While the Ghibli classics are back in North American theatres, here are 10 things that make Kiki’s Delivery Service such an endearing film.
Who wouldn’t love this wonky old lady? Bertha appears even older than the Madam she works for due to her comically hunched back, but is all about witchcraft, spaceships, and hand-built fires. Notice her questionable interest in dark matters too. Her traditional master-servant relationship with the Madam is another interesting aspect in the film. One cannot help but wonder why two similarly elderly women living alone in a house still maintain such a strict status distinction between them. Perhaps Bertha has gotten used to serving her Madam since the times when they were young women in a prospering household?
9. Kiki’s Character Design
Minimalist yet eye-catching, antiquated but lively, Kiki’s witch outfit does wonders on her despite her own complaints. It’s essentially just a throw-over black dress paired with a gigantic red bow, but this outfit alone speaks enormously about Kiki’s character and role. At thirteen years old on the night of her fly-off, Kiki puts on the all-black dress of her tradition as a part of accepting her new identity as a member of the witch world, but personalizes her outlook by adding the flashy bow that hasn’t left her since her first appearance, carrying her childhood innocence with her on her transitional journey. Her character design, completed by a rustic broom and a black cat familiar, allows her to shine vividly as a magical figure in an otherwise ordinary world. For Miyazaki, it takes just four items to constitute the perfect witch.
8. Baker Dude
It is silent characters like Mr. Osono, the baker, who showcase Miyazaki’s astonishing characterization skills. There is guaranteed to be something to laugh about in every scene he appears in. Initially indifferent towards Kiki, we learn from his dramatic pacing about and grunting (and his wife’s translation) that he probably cares more than anyone else about this added member to his family. The way he waits by the window for Kiki whenever she returns home late from a delivery is wholesome and heartwarming. He is also someone who would go to great extents just to show off his tray-spinning skills to a cat that happens to be around – what isn’t there to like about this guy?
7. Magic Realism
The setting is akin to Europe around the 50’s, loosely based on Stockholm. The heroine is a witch. In the midst of traffic rushes and honking horns, Kiki narrowly escapes getting a ticket for flying too low on a broomstick and disrupting traffic. It all seems so laughable and precious, especially when she is the first and only witch who has set foot in that town in decades. Unlike many of Miyazaki’s renowned works, Kiki’s Delivery Service has a simple setting where people work, drive, and abide by laws. While it may lack the grandeur of Howl’s Moving Castle or Spirited Away, it’s certainly refreshing to see how naturally Kiki’s fits in with her world despite her eccentric position. Contrary to the depiction of reclusive witches in fiction, Kiki fulfills her goal by integrating into modern society, which is all made possible by the townspeople’s readiness to accept the reality of a flying witch in town. Kiki’s world’s unassuming attitude towards magic makes it a magical world in and of itself.
6. Jiji the Cynic
Every naïve protagonist needs a sidekick with a sharp tongue. Jiji fulfills his job dutifully. Throughout the film, Jiji’s role as a familiar seems only to be of criticising: he lashes out against aloof strangers, animals, and most frequently, Kiki’s own decision-making. Carrying a Jiji around must be a lot like carrying around a pocket-sized mom. But for someone as kind and passionate as Kiki, who fails to see the flaws in others or the toughness of the challenges ahead of her, it is immensely helpful that Jiji is there to point out the obvious. For the most part, Jiji voices all the concerns that the audience would have for Kiki as she ventures into a new world stumbling and crashing. Not to mention that Jiji endured a great sacrifice when made to replace the stuffed cat toy Kiki lost during a delivery…it serves to show just how loyal Jiji can be, making him one of the most lovable components in the film.
5. Voice Acting
Quite a few surprises here! Minami Takayama, who later goes on to voice Conan in Detective Conan, voiced Kiki as well as Ursula. Kappei Yamaguchi, who voiced Tombo, later makes his name as L in Death Note, Inuyasha in Inuyasha, and Usopp in the One Piece movies. Seiyuu – what an unfathomable species of people. All in all, Takayama’s performance as Kiki was phenomenal. She was sweet and innocent, and at the right moments, brittle and faltering. Each of Kiki’s laughs in the film induces a wave of warm fuzziness. I did find Mrs. Osono’s laughing to be a bit stiff in the comedic scenes she is present in, although that is in part due to how prolonged those moments can be sometimes. Kiki’s laugh works, however – she simply creates a pure and contagious sense of glee. Jiji’s voice was also handled flawlessly. Its sharpness was tailored to his cynical punchlines, but accomplished to an effect that is much more delightful than piercing. Rei Sakuma draws out a perfectly jaded soul trapped in a teeny body. And of course, Kouichi Yamadera’s timely grunts as Mr. Osono were impeccable.
4. The Bakery
One of the first things I recall when thinking of Kiki’s Delivery Service is always the bakery. It seems to me like a location that fuses the idea of magic with freshly baked bread. The signature bread wreath/business sign Mr. Osono hangs at the window is nothing less than a piece of mouth-watering art. In fact, I am convinced that the ideas this film has implanted in me were what made me drop off my resume at a bakery on impulse when passing by one last summer (the resume was originally going to a chiropractic clinic). After coming back from my summer bakery job, each procedure Kiki and the Osonos go through at the bakery strikes a chord in me for being painfully accurate. Bracing yourself with a small cringe before carrying a large tray of buns, bagging fresh loaves with care so that it doesn’t squish from the moisture before it cools, letting your eyes wander while answering phone orders and handling cash… it’s the little things that make me question if Miyazaki ever worked as a baker himself. The way Kiki naturally fills in whatever task needs to be done since her first day further highlights how independent and resourceful she is, making anybody feel a pang of love for her.
3. Kind People
The supportive and hospitable folks in Kiki’s Delivery Service contribute greatly to the film being frequently labelled as an iyashikei work. Although Kiki is initially met with cold shoulders upon her arrival in town, it doesn’t take long before she is found by people who need and cherish her. First there’s Mrs. Osono, who offers her lodging for her help in delivering a pacifier, then the unrelentingly zealous boy Tombo, then Ursula, the elder sister-like painter in the forest. The crucial thing is that these people do not take Kiki in merely out of pity, but because she is able to be of help to them in some way or form. In exchange for letting her occupy her own space for free, Mrs. Osono requires that Kiki pays her back by helping out in the bakery during her pregnancy. This does not hinder their good-naturedness, as they are still unconditionally supportive when Kiki is in need of a helping hand or emotional support (such as when she catches a fever from the rain), but provides Kiki with an opportunity to develop practical skills and establish herself as an equal to everyone else in the town.
As with other Studio Ghibli productions, all the soundtracks in Kiki’s Delivery Service have been composed by Joe Hisaishi, a composer known for covering a great range of styles predominantly through orchestral compositions. In Kiki’s Delivery Service, the soundtrack is light and at times jazzy or mellow, fit for describing the heart of a solitary voyager. The main theme, “A Town with an Ocean View”, is simple and wistful but not without a sense of frisky optimism. It also has a vocal cover entitled “Meguru Kisetsu” (Circling Seasons), which I also highly recommend. The opening song, “Rouge no Dengon” (Message in Rouge) by Yumi Arai, which Kiki listens to from her radio on her first flight, is easily as incredible with its up-tempo and retro feel. Interestingly enough, the song describes calling out an adulterous lover, and had been spontaneously selected by the producer after listening to a concert by Yumi Arai a day prior to his decision. Regardless of the story behind it, the song has reached great success as the opening to Kiki’s Delivery Service and has become inextricable from the film.
Here’s a sample of a Town with an Ocean View: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vD1yAEWpzeQ
1. Kiki’s Loss of Magic
And finally, Kiki’s loss of magic – her greatest obstacle in the film – was what impacted me the most as an audience. Up to this point, Kiki has gotten through so much with her fearlessness and drive – she knows deeply that even if she isn’t a fully-fledged witch yet she will soon become one, because she has what it takes both in her heart and in her blood. Then, without explanation, Kiki loses her ability of flight along with her ability to understand Jiji the cat – the only companion she has that recognizes what it means to be a witch. She tries various times to fly, but is finally struck down by desolation when her broom snaps in two.
Upon re-watching the film, this part resonated with me much more deeply than when I watched it as a child. It reminds you of all those things that you have been forced to give up – or that simply evaporate from you – when you cross over into adulthood. Kiki’s inherent magic, to me, symbolizes the innocence and originality of childhood, which dissipates as she gradually adopts alternative ways of society, in this case, the bonding with the human Tombo and approval of his attempt to fly via the rational means of mechanics. However, for Kiki, the disappearance of magic isn’t a permanence, but is an inevitable obstacle to overcome as a step towards developing greater mastery over magic. Through Ursula, Miyazaki proposes that if persistent trying doesn’t work, one simply needs to take a break for inspiration. Kiki goes through a phase of mild depression, then experiences a period of healing at Ursula’s before finding her conviction again when pushed by the need to save Tombo through flight. In Miyazaki’s depiction of the identity loss crisis, nothing, including the cause and process of the loss of magic or its consequent recovery, is explained. The vagueness of the whole situation mirrors an adolescent’s struggle when finding in horror that they have lost the connection with who they used to be and are even further from who they wish to become. In the end, Kiki’s re-conquering of her powers sends the powerful message that becoming an adult is not about giving up something valuable, but about taking possession of it in a more cognizant way.
All in all, Kiki’s Delivery Service is easily Miyazaki most solid depiction of what it’s like to fumble for a self that becomes lost in a large and frenzied world. Kiki’s struggle is more developed, and consequently, more powerful than Chihiro’s from Spirited Away or San’s from Princess Mononoke in that Miyazaki allows her to become fully defeated before rising up again. While I do miss the extravaganza of Miyazaki’s more fantastical films, and wish that elements of the witch world such as Kiki’s family or Jiji’s role got expanded on, Kiki’s Delivery Service is a satisfying film brimming with subtle, nostalgic beauty. In the end, Kiki delivers not just letters and birthday cakes, but takes her audience from childhoods of blithe into adulthoods of uncertainties and potentials via a bumpy broomstick ride.