December 2, 2003
At one point during Kiki’s Delivery Service, a young artist was explaining what motivates her to paint. In so many words, she explained that, yes, she could have followed the same commissioned works everyone else makes, but she chose instead to create her own, original, art. When I heard this, I thought to myself, is Miyazaki speaking straight to the audience about himself? Was he afraid his audience wouldn’t understand such a lighthearted, simple gem?
Nausicaa of the Valley of Wind, Hayao Miyazaki’s 1984 landmark film, was a serious sci-fi adventure with a strong environmental theme and brilliant action set-pieces; Castle in the Sky, in 1986, mixed adventure, romance, and screwball comedy; 1988’s My Neighbor Totoro was a pristine, nostalgic childhood fantasy. On first glance, Kiki’s Delivery Service seems slight; almost trivial. Even after viewing all of Miyazaki’s Studio Ghibli films, I felt reservations towards what I expected was just a “kid’s movie.”
What I discovered was one of the most charming, joyous films I’ve seen in a long time. I can’t remember a movie that consistently surprised me as much as this one; Kiki’s is the rare coming-of-age movie that connects with people on both sides of adolescence. The story – based on a popular children’s book in Japan – is about a young witch who ventures from her village and strikes out on her own. The girl, Kiki, wears a dark mop of hair with a red bow, and is confident, strong-willed, determined to prove herself in the world. She’s a teenage Audrey Hepburn in a Frank Capra picture.
On her 13th birthday, Kiki is required to spend a year away from home to study her skills, in the family tradition, so she flies off and finds a coastal city with a romantic, European flair. One of the jokes in the movie is that Kiki doesn’t have any witch skills; all she knows is how to fly a broom, and even that can be shaky. There’s a wonderfully funny moment when she takes off from her home, with friends and family waving her off. There’s a long buildup, and then she suddenly darts off, crashing into the nearby trees before gaining control. One of the villagers remarks that he’s going to miss hearing those bells on the trees, and you realize that’s because she crashes every time she takes off.
Miyazaki always sprinkles his films with a sense of humor, but he’s never been as openly silly as here. The jokes come one after another, and there’s such great joy in the setups that you can’t help but smile. And the humor avoids the typical cartoon slapstick you get most of the time; the humor is firmly rooted in its warmth and humanity.
This is, I believe, Miyazaki’s greatest talent; he truly loves to tell stories, and his stories come out of a deep well of his hopes and his experiences. His films may be animated, but they are as emotionally real as the best live-action movies. He loves the movie medium, and you know he would shoot live actors if he wanted to, but using those wonderful impressionist watercolor landscapes is far more his style. Miyazaki is a true artist in an age when movie art is an endangered species.
Kiki’s first steps toward adulthood resonate for me because of those qualities. I can relate to her efforts to find a place to live, to start her own delivery business, to fit in with a city full of strangers who’ve never seen a witch on a broomstick, to fit in with the popular, pretty, stuck-up girls. When Kiki feels awkward in her black dress and longs to look like the popular kids, she feels helpless, and who hasn’t felt like that? Sometimes, there really isn’t much you can do anyway, and you know you have to believe in yourself, but you'll still be an outsider.
Of course, she does make friends with her good charm, including an expectant mother who runs a bakery (and takes Kiki under her wing), the silent bakery chef, the young adult artist, and a young boy who is immediately smitten and becomes something of a kindred spirit. He shares his love of flying, takes Kiki on a ride on his propeller-bicycle (one of the movie’s high points), and gets caught hanging from a wayward zeppelin in a climax that parodies the Hindenburg and Harold Lloyd’s Safety Last.
So, why the reservations that Kiki’s Delivery Service was just another “kid’s movie?” Those reservations only reflect the endless abuse I’ve suffered at the hands of American animation. In America, the word “animation” means “babysitter,” and Disney’s formulaic assembly line of patronizing, simple-minded cartoons. Cartoons-slash-corporate tie-ins, if you really want to be bold. This endless conditioning means, of course, that virtually no animated movies in this country are aimed at an older audience, or at least treat its audience like adults. Everything gets dumbed down for Rod and Todd Flanders (or maybe it's Ned...now there’s a topic to pick up).
The key to enjoying Kiki’s – and I think this really is the lynchpin of it all – is one word: subtitles. Disney’s earlier English dubs for Kiki’s and Castle in the Sky were noisy, intrusive, and seemingly determined to kill any sense of mystery; everything is shouted out loud. To be fair, Disney brought solid actors for the voice parts, including Kirsten Dunst and Phil Hartman (in his final role), but the dubbing is a little syrupy and overdone. The new DVD release finally allows Western audiences to hear the original Japanese soundtrack, and the film is considerably better for it. The images are allowed to shine and flow freely, and silence is used as wonderfully as in Totoro. Silence, after all, is one of Miyazaki’s gifts; to sit back and enjoy the images, watching scenes play out at just the right tempo. His quieter voice unveils itself between the beats, and it soars.