KIKI’S DELIVERY SERVICE (1989)
A young witch, on her mandatory year of independent life, finds fitting into a new community difficult while she supports herself by running an air courier service.
After making his directorial debut with The Castle of Cagliostro (1984), Hayao Miyazaki co-founded Studio Ghibli with long-time colleague Isao Takahata (Grave of the Fire Flies). Upon release in 1989, Majo no takkyûbin / Kiki’s Delivery Service was the fourth picture produced by the studio. Based on its namesake novel by Eiko Kadono, Kiki’s Delivery Service is arguably one of Miyazaki’s and Ghibli’s most underrated movies.
Overshadowed by My Neighbour Totoro (1988), Grave of the Fireflies (1988), Only Yesterday (1992), Whisper of the Heart (1995) and Spirited Away (2001), the director’s fifth feature often slips under the radar. Although he never intended on directing it, his directorial signatures are scattered throughout. Famously hailed as “The Walt Disney of Japan”, Miyazaki creates a compelling coming-of-age tale and allegory of independence and self-discovery.
Chronologically, Kiki’s Delivery Service falls between Miyazaki’s My Neighbour Totoro and Porco Rosso (1993). Released in ’89, it was a huge success and became one of the highest-grossing features in Japan and won multiple awards—such as ‘Best Film’ at the Anime Grand Prix and a ‘Special Award’ at the Japan Academy Prize. Regardless of this success, it didn’t reach Western shores until 1998, as the first movie to be released under a distribution partnership between The Walt Disney Company and Studio Ghibli.
On her 13th birthday, Kiki (Minami Takayama/Kirsten Dunst) is required to spend a year away from home to study. With her talking cat Jiji (Rei Sakuma/Phil Hartman) by her side, she moves to the seaside town of Koriko beginning her witch training. After learning to control her flying broomstick, Kiki sets up a flying courier service with the help of the local baker’s wife Osono (Keiko Today/Tress MacNeille). However, when the young witch begins to question herself and her place in the world, she loses her magical abilities. Now on a journey of self-discovery, Kiki must overcome her self-doubt to get her powers back.
The initial release on VHS in ’90 featured different voice actors and the Japanese translation wasn’t true to the original script. When released in ’98, the English dubbed version featured additional dialogue and music that didn’t appear in the original Japanese release. Many critics and Ghibli fans disliked the changes and pressured Disney to restore the original dialogue. And so, in 2010, Disney re-release removed the added dialogue and reverted the opening and closing songs to the originals. After viewing both versions, one can comfortably argue that neither of them is superior to the other. Kiki’s Delivery Service is a feature that doesn’t necessarily need dialogue to make its point. Besides one line from Jiji in the final scene, the outcome of the story is ultimately the same in either version. However, this has been altered for the 30th Anniversary Edition remaining faithful to the original release. As enjoyable the English voice actors are, the key ingredient to enjoy a Miyazaki feature is the subtitles. Although Ghibli approved the changes Disney made to their movie, one would argue it’s a disservice to the director if you were to watch the English version before the Japanese original.
Though many critics argue the dubbing changed the impact of the picture, the English version is not without its merits. Upon purchasing the US distributional rights, Disney brought along solid voice actors to their release in ’98. Directed by Jack Fletcher, who also organised the English tracks for Princess Mononoke (1997) and Castle in the Sky (1986), the all-star cast delivers great performances. Stepping off the set of Small Soldiers (1998), then 15 -year-old Kirstin Dunst is the voice of Kiki and is Almost unrecognisable as the role. She handles all the emotions of her character with great charisma. Not only is she endearing, but she handles Kiki in a way that’s easy to connect with. From happy to sad, one can’t help but laugh along with the character, but feel her predicament when needed. The delightful innocence of Dunst benefits the naivety of Kiki perfectly.
A controversial casting choice by Disney was Phil Hartman (Jingle All the Way) as Kiki’s feline companion Jiji. As one of the most memorable characters in the Ghibli universe, many fans disapproved of this decision. Originally a female, voiced by Rei Sakuma, Hartman’s portrayal is very different. In his last vocal performance before his untimely death, his witty and sardonic performance makes Jiji as hilarious as his Troy McClure character in The Simpsons. Providing plenty of jaded comments such as “smooth, very smooth. You definitely know how to make a good first impression.” The actor, who also played Dunst’s father in Small Soldiers, was given free rein with his material. His wise-cracking rendition of Jiji differentiates from the original Japanese counterpart, which understandably upset Ghibli purists. However, he’s still the highlight, creating one of the most memorable characters and makes it painstakingly difficult to witness the tribute card after the credits.
With such a fantasy-based narrative, Kiki’s Delivery Service says more about life than one may expect. It’s a coming-of-age story in the best sense. One aspect of Miyazaki that’s always enjoyable is the empowerment of female protagonists. Almost identical to Princess Nausicaa in Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind (1984) and Chihiro in Spirited Away, Kiki’s story emphasises on independence and maturity. As she leaves her parents’ home in the opening scenes, she’s both figuratively and literally flying the nest. Throughout, Kiki is shown facing common problems associated with adulthood. Feeling insecure how she looks, seeking acceptance from others and slowly sinking in self-doubt. The adversities she encounters are those one would experience in real life which makes her journey more poignant. After many disappointing setbacks, she loses her ability to fly on her broom and talk to Jiji. Resulting in Jiji’s voice of scepticism being replaced by her own pessimistic thoughts.
Feeling worthless and alone, her world comes crashing down. It’s only until the wonderful scene when Kiki encounters the young artist Ursula (Janeane Garofalo), she learns about motivation and self-confidence. Ursula explains it’s no use forcing yourself to do something because, eventually, you’ll hate the thing you love. Something many creatives can relate to! After their conversation, Kiki gains the inspiration and purpose to continue her life journey. Kiki’s Delivery Service arguably started the director’s powerful message of how self-belief transforms children into young women. As Kiki transitions from childhood to adulthood, one realises Miyazaki’s underlining theme. Kiki’s story is one we can all relate to and possibly will experience some point in our lives. If we stand on our own two feet and believe in oneself, even the impossible is possible.
In addition to the theme of independence, another highlight is the unique twist on the genre. One couldn’t help but compare Kiki to the character Sabrina Spellman from TV’s Sabrina the Teenage Witch (1996-03). Usually, stories involving witches are dark tales of malicious women trying to cause harm to others, or misunderstood characters who are feared because of what they represent. But Miyazaki’s witches exist in everyday society. He continually amplifies the message that it’s okay to look different and that your actions will truly define you. In a touching scene during the epilogue we see a young girl wearing the same dress as Kiki. After the disastrous finale, Kiki becomes an unexpected heroine and is accepted by the town. The director goes against the grain of traditional Disney Princesses expected to see in Cinderella (1950) or Sleeping Beauty (1959). Teaching his younger audience the importance of a kind heart and good intentions will take you further in life than the best dress of the ball.
Miyazaki manages to capture Kiki’s journey with incredible pacing. Similar to the director’s previous picture, My Neighbour Totoro, there’s no tangible antagonist in the story. The action is minimal and the stakes are low. Kiki’s adversaries are a mixture of stormy weather as she flies her broom and time constraints as she tries to deliver her parcels. With a light tone and a simple plot, the director doesn’t complicate his characters or overstuff the narrative. As minimal as they are, every aspect of each scene feel important, and the director fills his feature with substance. Understandably, the slow pacing may not appeal to everyone. However, like most of Miyazaki’s works, it wouldn’t be nearly as good if it moved faster. Whether in the story, character development, or art, the episodic structure help develop Kiki’s journey. Creating a heartwarming story of a wonderfully three-dimensional character, beautifully told by Miyazaki.
Influenced by the decades of Disney animation such as Pinocchio (1940) and Bambi (1942), Japanese animation had come a long way since Osama Tezuka’s wide-eyed characters in Astroboy (1952-68). A personal highlight of anime was during the 1980s with the release of the TV series Dragon Ball (1986-89). However, mangas such as Katsuhiro Otomo’s Akira (1988) captured the realistic and colourful aesthetic of the decade perfectly. Akira may seem like an obvious choice—nevertheless, its importance of the genre can’t be exaggerated. Upon release, it raised awareness of this style of animation to mainstream popularity. Coinciding with the release of Miyazaki’s My Neighbour Totoro, these two features would help set a standard for Japanese animation. During the early production stages of Kiki’s Delivery Service, Miyazaki was helmed as a producer. However, unhappy with the standard of Sunao Katabuchi’s direction style, he would take over as the director, rewriting the story and redesigning the world.
Continually proving he has been raising the bar in the medium for years. Miyazaki’s unique style is as perfectly crafted as one would expect from any Ghibli feature. In an age when animators have become dependant on computers, it’s refreshing to see a hand-drawn feature looking flawless. Kiki’s Delivery Service is filled with bold and vibrant colours, yet it’s soft and fluid and maintains depth. Unlike My Neighbour Totoro, this feature contains a European/Mediterranean aesthetic, as opposed to the Japanese quality fans will be used to. Based on the Swedish town of Visby, the fictional town of Koriko is visually pleasing to the eye. Containing elements of Lisbon, Paris, San Francisco, and Milan, in Miyazaki’s universe World War II never happened and cultural boundaries don’t exist. As we follow the characters through the city, 1960s architecture display a combination of colourful flags. Not only is the director’s world appealing, but the idea of all the countries unified is just as beautiful.
Between the floating island of Laputa in Castle in the Sky to his more recent aviation-themed epic The Wind Rises (2013), the concept of flight has always been a fascination for the director. In Kiki’s Delivery Service, the director relishes the opportunity to create his beloved flying sequences. From peacefully gliding alongside a skein of geese, to ineptly flying around the city. Each areal spectacle is a definite highlight. Many of the landscape sequences are reminiscent of short animation The Snowman (1982). The water coloured countryside and seaside imagery look amazing with the help of perspective shots from Kiki as she’s flying above the city. Swooping in and out of clouds, the overhead sequences make each scene suitable for a postcard. Knowing that each individual scene has been handcrafted, one can’t help but appreciate the art Miyazaki and the animators have created.
The most notable part of Miyazaki’s trademark animation is the attention to detail of the city and the characters occupying it. The director’s been quoted as saying “anime may depict fictional worlds, but I nonetheless believe that at its core it must have a certain realism”. Throughout Kiki’s Delivery Service, each background character is meticulously placed creating an almost real world: from the old man crossing the street in the background to large crowds chanting Kiki’s name. Each individual character serves a purpose. Regardless of the size of their role, the animators make each character light up the screen with their presence. Miyazaki’s animations thrive creating a well rounded, real-world atmosphere. Similar to the bathhouse in Spirited Away, the director successfully creates a world that extends beyond the animated pages.
Kiki’s Delivery Service is a wonderful animated picture and a testament to the animator/director Hayao Miyazaki. The plot may not be as haunting as Howl’s Moving Castle (1986), or as fantastical as Spirited Away. However, the journey Kiki goes on, along with the commentary on independence, is heartwarming and handled delicately. While the theme of self-discovery may be lost on younger viewers, Kiki’s Delivery Service is still a wonderfully inspiring picture that can be enjoyed at any age. Children can admire Kiki as an independent role model, whereas adults can be filled with nostalgia. Miyazaki proves that when anime is in his hands, it can be transcendent.
Kiki’s Delivery Service looks absolutely striking on Blu-ray, further amplifying the already stunning aesthetics of the picture. Presented in a 1:85:1 aspect ratio with 1080p/AVC encoded video, the presentation is faithful to Miyazaki’s intentions and maintains the integrity of his animation. The colour palette of the seaside landscapes is soft with pastel hues and beautifully delivered. A personal highlight of Miyazaki’s features is the colour palette. Compared to vivid American animations, his palette is usually soft and easy on the eye. The director intends on keeping his palette natural, conveying a warmness to the animation. There is noticeable grain occasionally. Mainly prominent around the lettering of the film’s title and other English text. However, they are easily unnoticeable and one would probably miss them with the blink of an eye. The animators line art is naturally defined with a clean transfer, making each brushstroke unblemished and pleasing on the eye.
With Kiki’s Delivery Service, viewers have the option of two audio tracks: a DTS-HD Master Audio featuring the Japanese 2.0 tracking (with English subtitles) and an English 2.0 dubbing. Both tracks are clear and precise with no technical issues noticeable. The English-speaking actors do a brilliant job at bringing their characters adding different personalities to the originals. Giving one a reason to re-watch the feature with the English dub. Sound effects such as rainstorms and the bustling city fill the surrounding soundstage with clarity. Whereas the crashing of the waves create a truly immersive atmosphere spreading from the front to rear speakers. The most noticeable feature is the brilliant musical score from Joe Hisaishi. A regular in the Ghibli universe, Hisaishi also composed the soundtracks for Castle in the Sky (1986) and is equally wonderful here. Relying heavily on strings and piano, the composer is able to evoke several emotions with the same composition.
director: Hayao Miyazaki.
writer: Hayao Miyazaki (based on the novel by Eiko Kadono).
voices (Japan): Minami Takayama, Rei Sakuma, Kappei Yamaguchi, Keiko Toda, Kōichi Yamadera.
voices (US, 1990): Lisa Michelson, Kerrigan Mahan, Alexandra Kenworthy, Edie Mirman, Eddie Frierson & Greg Snegoff.
voices (US, 1998): Kirsten Dunst, Phil Hartman, Tress MacNeille, Janeane Garofalo & Debbie Reynolds.