By the time Kiki’s Delivery Service came out, Studio Ghibli’s penchant for finding magic in ordinary things was quickly becoming the studio’s calling card. Yet, as seems to be the case with most animation studios, the critical success of Ghibli’s early work did not translate into commercial success (perhaps pairing the melancholy My Neighbor Totoro with the soul-crushingly sad Grave of the Fireflies was not the smartest business decision for the company). With the studio thus strapped for cash and in danger of closing its doors, Hayao Miyazaki turned to magic of a more conventional kind to try and turn things around. Fortunately for all of us, the story of a young witch finding her place in the modern world proved to be the compelling ticket to finally give the studio some box-office gold to complement its seemingly unending streak of quality.
The premise of the story is simple: Kiki, a 13-year old witch, suddenly realizes that it is time for her to leave her childhood home and set off to become a witch in a new town as is her family’s tradition. Along with her faithful and opinionated cat Jiji, she lands in Koriko – a bustling and modern seaside city – that seems to hardly remember that witches exist and seemingly has no need for her services. Fortunately she bumps into Osono, a very pregnant baker who takes her in and gives her room and board and the inspiration to utilize her one main talent (flying) to start a “delivery service”. From there the movie is basically a series of episodes in which Kiki slowly finds her feet operating her business and fitting into her new town.
While the premise of the story may be simple, it is once again in the details that Miyazaki shines – animating his characters and settings to such a degree of accuracy as to bring his world to fully breathed-in life. Whether it is in seeing a dog interacting with a (seemingly) stuffed cat, a baker getting their shop ready for the day, or even Kiki preparing a fire for an oven, Miyazaki and his team prove themselves unmatched in capturing the little nuances of life that you forget the movie is currently being animated. Indeed of all of Miyazaki’s movies so far, this is perhaps the first that could definitely have been a live-action movie (except for a couple of fantastical scenes). Of course, such a choice would be a crying shame as the beauty of this film is found in the brightly colored tableaus Miyazaki’s animation team creates.
This commitment to accuracy and nuance comes to full bear in the person of Kiki, perhaps Miyazaki’s most fully formed character to date. Kiki bursts out of the gate full of giddy optimism as she decides this is the day she is leaving to become a witch, and you can tell part of her optimism is rooted in her lack of knowledge of how the world really works. What is perhaps a little heartbreaking about Kiki’s Delivery Service is that it really is a coming-of-age story in which our protagonist frequently finds her preconceived dreams of witchdom crashing against cold harsh reality, and the drama is in how she readjusts to every setback. When she arrives in a bustling seaside town, just like she always wanted, she is shocked to find out that most people don’t even know witches exist and care even less. Her decision to start a delivery service for the town is met with enthusiasm by Osono, but the response her customers give her is exactly the kind of response you might expect from encountering a delivery service. And to her dismay, the business of delivery services is often boring and frequently hard labor. Life in a big city also proves to be difficult as her money doesn’t go nearly as far as she might expect, while the glamorous attire of girls her age seem to tragically inspire a new-found insecurity of her own dowdiness. However unlikely, it seems that part of the message Miyazaki seems to be wanting to impart in this fantastical tale about a witch is that growing up and maturity require you to give up your idealistic and childish dreams of adulthood while accepting instead the simple joys of your circumstances now – just what every child longs to hear. It is no wonder that Kiki slowly becomes more depressed and forlorn as the movie progresses.
Kiki’s Delivery Service also most clearly distills Miyazaki’s “have his cake and eat it too” attitude towards the traditional and modern. In the presence of planes, trains, and automobiles in the modern-feeling Koriko, it is clear that Miyazaki has an admiration for technology and the way it can potentially make life better. Tombo, a boy who takes an interest in Kiki, is a would-be inventor who is trying to create his own flying machine and is as fascinated with technology as he is with Kiki and her witchcraft. And yet Miyazaki also seems to equally lament the passing of the old ways. In a truly heartbreaking scene, Kiki volunteers to help make a pie for one of her customers, an elderly lady, who wants to make a pie for her grandchild’s birthday. Kiki manages to start an old wood-burning stove to bake the lady’s pie, then rushes through the pouring rain to try and get it to the lady’s granddaughter in time only to be met with a rude girl who scoffs at the pie and dismissively takes it inside. The message is clear: for many the passing of the old ways is necessary to embrace the new.
For Kiki, who is a young person who literally embodies the old ways, this internal conflict between tradition and modernity eventually starts to emotionally tear her apart. Trying to live into her old ways, like in the case of slow baking a pie for an old woman, causes her to literally miss engaging with the new as she is late for a date with Tombo. Meanwhile the more she becomes enamored with the new, the more she loses touch with her ancient magical powers, first with her ability to fly and then even her ability to talk to her cat. Part of what makes Kiki’s journey so intriguing is that each episode makes the problem murkier and more complex, creating a Gordian knot of internal conflict.
Unfortunately, the episodic nature of this movie proves to be both the movie’s greatest charm and its greatest weakness. Kiki’s adventures never approach anything more than a mild peril, so when the movie tries to up the ante in providing a third act conclusion it does so abruptly and clumsily. The stakes for Kiki have up to the final act almost entirely been internal, and handled with delicacy and nuance, that the final act’s shift of stakes to a life-or-death situation, especially as it pertains to Kiki solving her malaise, is jarring at best. It should come as no surprise that the source material used here is a long-running Japanese novel series with many installments – it is clear that there is much more of Kiki’s coming-of-age to tell, and that what we see in the movie is a small step in her journey. Thus where Miyazaki decides to put a pin in the story seems dictated more by the limitations of an animated feature’s runtime than by any organic story ending point. We don’t necessarily feel any need to leave Kiki’s story at this point, aside from Miyazaki telling us that it is time to go.
The end credits sequence also crystalizes exactly why I have always been fond of this movie, but never fully in love with it. In the end credits we get a montage of the further adventures Kiki goes through, teasing us of storylines that we will never get to see. On my last viewing it finally became obvious to me that of all Miyazaki’s feature films, this is the one that begs to be a TV series. It is a story that requires patience, as Kiki slowly but surely comes-of-age and bit by bit learns how to step into her role. There is a rich cast of potentially recurring characters to aid her on her journey, whether the elderly madame, Osono and her quiet baker husband, her hippie artist friend Ursula, and of course Tombo. By the time the movie ends we only get to scratch the surface of the depth of potential relationship here. The movie feels like a pilot for a TV series that never was, and that feeling of incompleteness is what remains after the credits roll.
But even if the final act is ultimately unsatisfying, it is a testament to the care and sensitivity with which Kiki’s story is told before that the finale does little to ruin the movie for me. Apart from My Neighbor Totoro, it is the Studio Ghibli movie I find myself returning to the most as it best epitomizes Studio Ghibli’s penchant for gentle and comforting storytelling. Also since the financial success of this movie set the company up for the next few decades, it is also a movie I’m particularly grateful exists.
Other movies in the Studio Ghibli series: