Studio Ghibli#4: Kiki’s Delivery Service (1989)

 

In this column, Amos Lamb will take you through the wonderful world of animation. Exploring what makes it such an appealing genre/medium for all ages, with the focus spanning from the mainstream animation studios like Disney & Studio Ghibli, to more obscure animation such as Japanese OVA’s, British claymation, Czechoslovakian stop-motion and everything in-between.

 

Author’s Note: Slight spoilers are discussed in this article.

 

Coming off of My Neighbour Totoro, Miyazaki initially didn’t plan on directing Kiki’s Delivery Service. But after being dissatisfied with the initial draft of the script and heavily influencing the rewrite by introducing new story elements and altering the existing ones. Eventually Miyazaki introduced his own finished screenplay and revealed that he wanted to take over as director for the project. His influence on the finished product is undeniable, especially continuing to explore ideas and themes initially tackled in Totoro, most noticeably the lack of an antagonist, and the episodic nature of the challenges that form Kiki’s character development and growth. 

In this film, Miyazaki explores the melancholy nature of adolescence and the struggles of growing up through the titular teenage witch, who, as per tradition, leaves her family home to set up a business in a new town by herself. Miyazaki and his team manage to capture the whole spectrum of emotion that Kiki experiences in her venture out into the world; from the beautifully hopeful and joyous journey out into the world, as she soars through the skies alongside the birds as she first glances the Town she eventually calls her home (on a personal note ‘Town with an Ocean View’ is my favourite song on the soundtrack and in competition for my favourite Joe Hisaishi song ever).  But also the film conveys her sadness, alienation & struggles, as we see the trials and tribulations of her delivery service, as well as her budding romance with a local boy, Tombo. The way this emotion is captured, aside from the obvious, is done really well; one of my favourite ways in which emotion is shown is through the allegorical nature of Kiki’s ability to fly, for Kiki it is both her biggest strength but also weakness. Within the film flying represents, on one hand, freedom, in that it allows Kiki to start her delivery business and make a career for herself and also the ability to leave home and start her new life to begin with. But it also represents a sense of isolation that comes with the freedom, flying high above the town with only the birds (and at first her cat Jiji), there is the undeniable hint of sadness in her alienation in the air, she has no company, no other witches to fly with (and the only time she encounters another witch she ends up feeling ashamed and embarrassed). Another clever element imbued with Kiki’s flying is how she grapples with the broom as she flies; this represents her own inner conflict. At the start of the film as she leaves home she’s ill-equipped to fly the broom, as shown by her twirling around and hitting the trees, but she’s competent enough to find the groove. But as her sadness grows, we see her literally losing the ability to fly, and this gets to the point where she loses all ability to fly completely when she’s in the very apex of her sorrows, representing how the sadness won in her internal struggle. This metaphor continues to the end of the film in a way that I really admire, as she rushes to save Tombo during the climax, she borrows a broom from a local sweeper, and as she flies we see that her confidence is back, but not completely, she still struggles to completely control the broom, which for me, represents that she isn’t fully back and still struggling but she has enough control to power through and remain in control, or readapt when it isn’t going to plan. Following this metaphor, this is one of my favourite messages in the film, as it’s not a sudden turnaround saying “oh Kiki is back to normal”, it’s a more human message that Kiki isn’t perfect, she’s suffered through these feelings of sadness, and while not completely there, she’s working hard to do her best. 

On a similar line of thought, the coming-of-age themes are strikingly different to traditional children’s animation in the West. The biggest difference, and it can be shown literally through the changes in the Western Dub, is the handling of Jiji the cat. One of the most striking elements of Miyazaki’s original script is the decision for Kiki to not only lose her ability to speak to Jiji, but for this to remain the same at the end of the film when she regains her other abilities back. This was infamously changed in the Disney dub of the film for Western release, and is something that fans of the original choice will criticise heavily (myself included). The reason why I think the original ending is significantly better, is the same reason I like the lack of control of the broom in the climactic scene, and that is because it represents Kiki’s growth in a beautifully melancholic way. Throughout the early part of the film, Jiji is a voice of reason for Kiki, but by the end of it, because of the hardships Kiki has endured, she no longer needs Jiji’s wise words, as she herself has become wiser, and in turn, more adult. It’s a bittersweet ending, as I imagine most viewers were hoping for a reunion of the two friends (I know I was), but the exclusion of such an ending plays so well into the themes of growth that the film is conveying.

Kiki’s Delivery Service didn’t strike me as a masterpiece on first watch many years ago, but I remember I had the pleasure of seeing it a couple of times in cinema the last few years, and both the combination of understanding what Miyazaki is trying to do and the overwhelming beauty of the visuals and the soundtrack on the big screen, but now I don’t think I’ll ever be able to see this film as anything other than a masterpiece. The animation is gorgeous, the landscapes and artwork are a delight to look at, I cannot explain how fantastic the soundtrack is, and the characters are just a delight to spend 103 minutes of your time with. It really is a beautiful film that never fails to bring a smile to my face, and the underlying message of the film is a really important one I believe, accessible and meaningful to any viewer of any age.

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