Anime Feature Film Review – Kiki’s Delivery Service (1989)
by HELEN GEIB
The Kiki of Kiki’s Delivery Service is a sweet-natured, 13 year old witch with an entrepreneurial spirit. Following an old witches’ custom, she leaves home to live on her own for a year to develop her magical talents and gain independence. Her only companion is her familiar, a sassy black cat named Jiji. She settles in a large seaport town where she starts the titular flying broomstick delivery business. A small town girl, Kiki is at first in equal measures excited and daunted by her new home. However, she adapts quickly with the aid of good people who befriend her: a nice young couple who own a bread bakery; an adventuresome boy named Tombo who dreams of flying; an eccentric young woman artist; and a grandmotherly customer.
Kiki’s Delivery Service was directed by Hayao Miyazaki from his own screenplay based on a Japanese young adult novel. Whether it’s because the novelist was a like-minded storyteller or because Miyazaki put his own stamp on the material, the film exemplifies his recurrent interest in melding feminism and traditional social values. Kiki is an admirable feminist heroine; she is intelligent, independent-minded, resilient, ambitious. At the same time, her success in business and in life springs directly from her personification of traditional Japanese values of social courtesy, especially respectful courtesy to one’s elders, and a strong work ethic.
The story takes a pronounced turn towards the prosaic in the last third after Kiki loses both her ability to fly and her ability to converse with Jiji in human speech. In its earlier parts, the story had followed Kiki settling in at the bakery, on some of her more exciting delivery jobs, and through the adolescent push/pull of her relationship with Tombo. As the focus shifts to the physical and emotional changes represented by her newly uncertain grasp of her powers, the film turns away from magical adventures and into a parable of puberty. It becomes less episodic and more serious in tone, and also less delightful. Jiji’s transformation into a normal cat is particularly regrettable. Funny, original, and wonderfully well-drawn, Jiji is the film’s preeminent supporting character, yet to all intents and purposes he disappears from the story as soon as Kiki – for symbolic reasons – is made unable to understand him.
Kiki’s Delivery Service shares a number of common elements with Miyazaki’s third feature film Laputa: Castle in the Sky. In appearance, the characters are Europeans of indeterminate ethnicity and the quaint seaport town is an amalgam of picturesque European locations. The setting is familiar, yet unreal; fashions and technology suggest a fantasy version of a bygone era, in this case the 1950s. Branching out from Kiki’s old-fashioned broomstick, Miyazaki indulges his love of aviation with a propeller-powered bicycle and a dirigible, the latter the subject of a climactic air rescue.
Review Series – Directed by Hayao Miyazaki