Kiki is thirteen years old and a junior witch. Now she has come of age, family tradition means Kiki has to fly away from home and spend one year in an unfamiliar town. Kiki has never been away from her loving parents and frets because her only skill is knowing how to fly, but she embraces life with hope and enthusiasm. Bidding goodbye to friends and family and, accompanied by her talking cat, Jiji, she rides her broomstick to a sleepy, seaside town called Koriko - a town that doesn’t yet have a witch. A friendly baker offers Kiki a room, and she discovers being able to fly makes her the perfect courier. Delivering letters and packages, Kiki befriends young artist Ursula, has her first romance with airplane-crazy Tombo, and wins hearts all over town. Then one day, Kiki suffers a crisis of confidence, and suddenly finds she cannot fly…
This lyrical, low-key charmer was Studio Ghibli’s first mega-blockbuster. Thereafter, a new Hayao Miyazaki animation would be crowned Japan’s highest grossing movie every three years. How could such a gentle film, with no villains, no conflict save for a young girl’s private fears, hit so big? The answer lies in its target audience. Whereas Laputa: Castle in the Sky (1986) had been a boy’s own adventure and My Neighbour Totoro (1988) was a childhood fantasy, Kiki’s Delivery Service was intended for young girls. It’s a little known fact that, in Japan, the biggest consumers of manga aren’t twenty-something sci-fi geeks or adolescent boys, but teenage girls. Write something that appeals to them and you’re golden. But Kiki’s isn’t a cynical ploy to tap into a lucrative market. It is a sincere attempt to create a loving, nurturing world where adolescent girls may come of age. Miyazaki envisions a world that melds old fashioned values (courtesy, gentility, fortitude) with a progressive modern outlook (tolerance, independence).
Although based on a children’s book by Eiko Kadono, it was Miyazaki who wove Kiki’s crisis of self-belief into the plot. The result is a rare story that takes the anxieties of teenage girls seriously, without resorting to clichés. Kiki is neither a young hell-raiser nor a nerdy outsider yearning for the in-crowd. She can be confident, bubbly, awkward, shy, brassy, moody or sweet. In short, she’s real. Miyazaki’s sublime visual invention renders lazy afternoons, teenage awkwardness, acts of kindness and subtle gestures into engaging cinema. Animation is all about movement, so the achievement here is making a series of quiet, everyday interactions hypnotically compelling. That isn’t to say the film lacks action. Kiki’s daredevil aerial rescue is one of the most exciting animated set-pieces of all time. Flight serves as a metaphor (Not for the first time in a Miyazaki movie), a representation of young ideals rising, falling, and soaring again. It transforms an internalised conflict into something as exhilarating as Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981).
Joe Hisaishi complements Miyazaki’s visuals with his summery score. J-pop aficionados should listen out for the opening and closing songs, written by folk music icon Yumi Arai. “Yuming” - as she is affectionately known - is sort of the Joni Mitchell of Japan (although her record sales are more comparable to Madonna’s) and her presence on the soundtrack underlines the film’s feminist aspect. The most proactive characters here are women, although men aren’t portrayed in a negative light and are every bit as caring (e.g. the shy baker who shows his affection by baking bread). In Miyazaki’s world the strong nurture the gentle, an idea perfectly illustrated in the scene where a large dog tenderly cares for Jiji. Junior aviator Tombo seems like a stand-in for Miyazaki himself. He’s a good-hearted daydreamer with his head in the clouds and needs a nice, sensible girl to temper his occasional foolishness. This poses an intriguing question: is Kiki the fantasy girlfriend Miyazaki wishes he had as a boy?
Yuming’s songs were removed for the Disney dub, which is otherwise an accomplished piece of work. Kirsten Dunst and Janeane Garofalo contribute exemplary vocals while the late Phil Hartman (Troy McClure in The Simpsons) delivers a more sarcastic take on Jiji the cat.
Koriko represents one of Miyazaki’s most visually appealing environments. A trip to Stockholm (Research for his aborted adaptation of Pippi Longstocking) provided the initial inspiration, but the animation wizard combines elements from his favourite cities - Naples, Paris, Lisbon, Amsterdam and San Francisco - with the light of the Mediterranean. He once joked that one side of Koriko “looked as if it bordered the Baltic Sea and the other side the Mediterranean.” More than an artistic pick and mix, this attempts to meld the best qualities of each city into one world; a world perfect for little girls to grow up witty and wise.