Japanese Title: Majo no takkyubin
Directed By: Hayao Miyazaki
Produced By: Hayao Miyazaki
Originally Released: July 29, 1989
If My Neighbor Totoro is a story of the last days of childhood, then Kiki’s Delivery Service is the spiritual sequel about the first day of adulthood. One thing that I knew from the start of this project was that it was going to be very interesting since I had not seen many of these films, and this one, believe it or not, is one that I was watching for the very first time this past week. Whether its diving into characters in a genuine meaningful way, or simply animating geese, Miyazaki knows how to impress on all fronts. Much like our previous film, Kiki is not up against some big bad villain. Nor is she a powerful sorceress, casting spells with the flick of a wand. Kiki’s story is one that, despite her high flying antics, is quite down to Earth. Let’s take a closer look at this adorable little witch.
Much like the popular Pokemon series, children in the witch world are given the reigns of adulthood quite early. At 13, Kiki is tasked with striking out on her own to find a new home where she can learn to be a proper witch. Based on the book by the same name, which was published in 1985, the film changes some set pieces but retains the essence of the book which followed a young Kiki on her first steps into the witching world. Since the release of the first, four more books have been published in the series. The literal translation of the title is “The Witch’s Express Home Delivery Company.” the word takkyubin is taken from the Japanese takuhaibin service which is a cheap door to door delivery system.
There’s something to be said for the regard for tradition in this film. In fact, many of Miyazaki’s films circle around this idea of accepting the new while appreciating the past. Kiki herself represents an old artform, witchcraft. She bows to her elders and respects old traditions, despite wanting to live in a big city with modern ways of doing things. She’s a bit of an old sole. Yet, much of the film subtly hints at the importance of this respect for the past. In one scene, Kiki helps an elderly woman bake a pie by using an old style stove, since the new one has stopped working. She then takes that pie to the woman’s granddaughter who, not being a respectful young lady, talks about how she hates her grandmother’s pies. The disrespectful nature really comes through here as the point is made that caring for one’s elders and appreciating them is as important as respecting traditions.
While Kiki is painted as a good person in this part of the film, I think it’s important to mention that she is perpetually a good person. In fact, every problem she encounters is solved by being good and doing the right thing. Early on, she loses a stuffed cat that she is supposed to deliver. Upon searching for it, she finds it inside a log cabin in the woods. Now, I think I would just run in and grab it. But she patiently knocks on the door from outside, and when no one answers, she goes to find the person who lives in the house, and then even does housework to get the toy back, as well as get it sewn up as it has torn. She has the soul that is so pure, and even in the worst situation, she always looks for the way to do the right thing and is almost always rewarded for it.
In many ways, this film is about Kiki becoming a woman. The best part of this being the case is that she surrounded by wonderful female role-models. I remarked at one point in the film that Miyazaki seems to be better at writing woman than EVERYONE IN AMERICA! Obviously this is an overstatement, but he really does have a knack for writing fantastic female characters who feel real and genuine and are not simply flocking after boys. Ursula the artist is a great example of a free spirit and her talk about how sometimes we can’t do the thing we love and then must wait until we are able to do it again is deeply moving to me as a writer. It’s true, sometimes you just can’t get something to work and it’s stressful. She says that at a time like this, all you can do is wait. And it’s true. But it transcends growing up and really feels like Miyazaki is making a statement to anyone who does something they are passionate about. Sometimes you won’t be able to do that thing the way you had hoped. The best cure for it, is patience and understanding.
Yet while there’s plenty of depth and metaphorical concepts to love in this film. There are also lots of purely fun pieces to the film that I really enjoyed. Jiji the cat is adorable. His reactions to the story at hand are some of the funniest parts of the movie. As Kiki refers to how grand the ocean is, he remarks that it is nothing but a pond to him. His face as he awaits Kiki’s return while Jeff the dog slobbers on him made me laugh out loud more than once. Even Jiji’s romance with the neighbor cat is grin worthy and adorable at the same time.
Then there’s Tombo. Oh man. I feel for this kid. He likes Kiki from the start but she is not ready to be bothered with boys. As the movie progresses she takes a liking to him, and even goes riding on his bike with a propeller or as like to call it, A DEATH TRAP! They bond in a very innocent childish way, but this budding romance also represents Kiki’s first steps into the dating scene. In the end, she goes to save Tombo as he falls from the blimp, proving once and for all that she can control her powers, and she does in fact have feelings for him. Only through this trial is she able to fly once more, and only through this trial does she finally get closer to Tombo.
I really love that magic is so simplified here. In many ways, this makes the film feel more like it could take place in the real world. The only real power she has is flying. Witchcraft feels more like a religion or a custom, like Buddhism, than it does a magical art. She’s practicing an old way that has long been forgotten in a world that is moving forward. Much like the way the characters reacted to ghosts in Totoro, no one is afraid of her, and more often than not, they welcome her with open arms and affection. It’s great to see a world where people are inherently good. There’s still conflict, but its grown out of normal human internal issues, as opposed to people making terrible choices. While this might seem boring in concept, it proves to be extremely captivating in practice.
Kiki’s Delivery Service took me on a whirlwind tour. While this may have been my first time watching it, I will not soon forget it. It’s a great children’s film, because while it has a child-like nature and story, it never feels childish. It has lessons that even the most seasoned adults can take something away from and the animation, sound design and voice acting are once again top-notch. Miyazaki once again proves that growing up is, on its own, enough conflict to drive an entire film and keep it interesting. Filled with good intentions and love for her neighbors and city, Kiki is someone I would gladly let my kids, should I ever have any, watch because I think not only is she a positive female role-model, she’s the kind of human being we should all aspire to be. Always asking for less than we are offered, and always giving more than we have. Kiki’s Delivery Service is a fantastic film with delightful characters and a real sense that while moving forward is key, remembering and respecting tradition still holds a valuable place in this world.
NEXT UP – Only Yesterday
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Good review. This was my first Studio Ghibli movie ever. I loved it.
The first Studio Ghibli film I ever saw, and my #1 favorite!
Kiki’s journey of finding out what her skills are and discovering her true self is, essentially, my own; I’ve recently begun my education in the drawing arts with the goal of becoming an animator (and, utlimately, an animation director), and am intent on honing my skills so that I may achieve that goal. That being said, I really relate to Kiki.
Ursula’s commentary on finding inspiration also resonates with me deeply.
This was the first Studio Ghibli film I saw that made me be a fan of the company’s. I had previously seen Ponyo and The Secret World of Arrietty, but didn’t like either.
Has everyone seen this but me?
I haven’t either, Chris.
“Witchcraft feels more like a religion or a custom, like Buddhism, than it does a magical art. She’s practicing an old way that has long been forgotten in a world that is moving forward.”
This is actually a very profound statement as many witches today are more regligious than they are “crafty.” It’s more about the respect of and balance with nature than it is hexes and spells and such.