Review of Kiki’s Delivery Service (1989)
Miyazaki Hayao (writer-director).
In a deeply peaceful alternate Europe, where airships are still in fashion into something like the early 1960s, a witch is going to spend a traditional year away from her friends and parents because she’s recently turned thirteen. She finds a city by the ocean but the bustling people there aren’t very friendly, and she doesn’t have any special skills. The girl begins to worry. A pragmatic artist helps her deal with uncertainty and recover inspiration.
After the first two times I saw this subtle coming-of-age fantasy, I felt that it was very good but a little rushed, forming a definite rump to Studio Ghibli’s formal debut double feature in 1988. In 2020, I saw it a third time, with nieces aged 9 and 12. Despite loving Totoro, they were skeptical of animation, associating it with “fakeness”. Kiki grabbed them right away. It is a rare gem of a children’s film, with unusual emotional authenticity.
Though at first she seems headstrong, deciding almost on a whim to start her journey, Kiki’s confidence is limited. We see this in the way she uses tradition as her guide: She goes out of her way to follow the outdated custom of living alone at 13 and the traditional real-world European image of witchcraft, in a world where witches are marginal and barely useful. In her first encounter with Tombo, Kiki clings even to the notion that boys and girls must be properly introduced before they can speak to one another, something the rest of the world has abandoned. She looks perpetually out of place in her unfashionable Satanist-style black witches’ dress and large red bow.
When challenged by nature and callous urbanites, Kiki initially perseveres, but soon reaches the end of her rope. There are plenty of children’s movies with clumsy or volatile characters, and tens of thousands of children’s movies about finding some personal drive or inspiration, but I know of no other children’s movie where the main character is so realistically moody, or where the nadir is literally just her spending a day in bed with a fever after giving up. She doesn’t fail to grab the MacGuffin from the villain’s stash in an action sequence; there is no MacGuffin and no villain. Kiki’s failure is her own. It’s all about character and growth. The action sequence comes last and adds very little, though it has the girl rescuing the foolhardy boy from his own source of inspiration.
The rapidly shifting weather might be a metaphor for mood swings, but even if that’s true, the emotional backbone of the story is striking in its rarity, and the storytelling is excellent. Miyazaki even put in a scene where Kiki goes to the outhouse in the morning after moving into the bakery’s guest room, and she’s so nervous that she hides from the near-silent baker on her way back. The silences and nuances are illustrative and meditative, like the slow zoom onto Ursula’s painting in the log cabin, but they remain engaging to children. This is a feat.
Still, I wish Miyazaki had found some other motif. Among the film’s traditional notions of witchcraft, witches here fly on their brooms, a tool of domestic femininity. In real life, the tool was used for unpaid work. It probably entered the mythology of witchcraft in the 15th century, where it was an attribute of witches because it suggests both femininity and, by its shape between the legs, a phallus, hence grotesque incongruity. The choice was surely intended to ridicule and stigmatize those innocent women who where tortured and killed in European witch trials in accordance with Exodus 22:18.
Though flying a broomstick started as sexist mockery, Kiki’s Delivery Service uses the motif naïvely and without suggesting why the witches are all women or why they use brooms. Perhaps, in using Ursula as Kiki’s life coach, Miyazaki intended to connect the artist’s hard-won confidence and independence to feminist reclamation of the witch motif. As in “The BITCH Manifesto” (1969), the idea would be to “own” witchcraft as an image of female empowerment, symbolic of any real vocation of a woman’s choosing. This could connect further to the witch-cult hypothesis of 19th-century US feminist Matilda Joslyn Gage. However, if Miyazaki meant any such thing, the movie doesn’t show it. More likely, he wanted the clean pop-culture fantasy version of the motif because it’s whimsical and readily available to the audience.
Despite the obvious, easily provable effectiveness of magic, Kiki’s society looks much as it did in real life at the time, except for the freewheeling mixture of alphabets, spoken languages and architectural styles. Supposedly, this is a Europe where the great wars never happened. Why then, without a European Recovery Program, is the radio chatter American? There is no comment on this, no hint of what happened. Did the entrenched racism and nationalism just fade away spontaneously? Have the people somehow learned to embrace those horrors without negative effects, the way witches here ride phallic brooms without being hated or burned?
The effects of magic apparently include magic potions and prophecies, and witches’ familiars. Jiji doubles as a Disneyesque funny animal sidekick who loses the ability to talk when Kiki’s magic fades. No scholars or businessmen are shown taking an interest in any of this. Instead, incongruously, Tombo’s club project suggests that the huge ontological ramifications of magic are being forgotten like Jiji’s language as technology replaces some of the economic functions of witches. Clearly, Miyazaki put the solid emotional core above the internal logic of the setting.
The result is a creeping sense of inconsistency. This extends even to character and colour design. That thing in Kiki’s hair makes her look like a moekko stereotype, and the choice of showing her black hair as black but her black dress as purple is a kind of formalism likewise running counter to realism. The whole film reads like “magical realism” and wishful thinking about history. Fortunately, these problems are orthogonal to the things I like about the movie. Though its world is annoyingly shallow, its characters are uncommonly deep.
The story is based on a book, like Miyazaki’s earlier work on World Masterpiece Theater (1969). Perhaps Miyazaki didn’t have the power or the courage to depart from it into his usual, more mature mode of fantasy, but more likely, he didn’t have the runtime.
The Swedish dub is not bad, except when Kiki’s ｢はーい｣ is translated as a simple “Jaa”.
References here: Ghibli movie titles, “Don't mention the war!”, “On Your Mark” (1995), Anime from Akira to Princess Mononoke: Experiencing Contemporary Japanese Animation (2001/2005), Spirited Away (2001), Someday’s Dreamers (2003), Howl’s Moving Castle (2004), Tales from Earthsea (2006), “Kitten Witch” (2016), Mary and the Witch’s Flower (2017).