Reviewby Andrew Osmond,
Kiki's Delivery Service
In a modern but genteel version of Europe, 13 year-old Kiki is a witch, eager to set out into the wide world and live independently. Bidding her friends and parents goodbye, she soars into the night on her broomstick, together with her talking cat Jiji. A long journey brings Kiki to a beautiful coastal city, whose people have never seen a witch before. However, it is not easy to live here, even with the help of a kind woman bakery owner, who gives Kiki a place to stay. But then Kiki hits on an idea to support herself – a flying delivery service!
A question regularly raised on anime discussion forums is, “What's the best title to introduce to someone who's never seen anime, and/or thinks it's all sex and violence?” Inevitably, many of the nominees will be Hayao Miyazaki films. Among those films, Kiki's Delivery Service, Miyazaki's tale of a little witch who finds her place in a beautiful city, is probably the most accessible of all.
It has a perky girl heroine, and a funny talking cat. It has a simple story that's set up clearly in the first few minutes. Kiki, according to witch custom, must find a new home and establish an independent life for herself, without the support of mum or dad. The film's tone is feelgood, often comic, but it still leaves space for realistic fears and frustrations. Unlike Nausicaa or Laputa, Kiki has no violence or aggression. What it does have a tremendously exciting life-or-death action climax, perhaps Miyazaki's best. It's comparable to the airborne finale to Pixar's first Toy Story, except that Kiki, unlike Woody and Buzz, flies and falls without style, making her even more of an underdog.
Kiki's world isn't a Pinocchio fairy tale. Rather, it's a Platonic ideal of the best holidays you half-remember as a kid. It has cars and planes and TV sets, but it's also full of rustling hillsides, rippling lakes, and cabins in woods without any of the horror-film connotations. And then there's Koriko, the town where Kiki settles. Koriko is one of Miyazaki's great hand-drawn playgrounds. It slopes up from the sea like a hyper-detailed picture book, all impeccably handsome buildings and sunlit lanes and alleys and bridges and walls looking back to the sea. The longest documentary extras on this new StudioCanal edition revisits the locations which inspired the city, specifically Stockholm and Visby. However, Koriko is the kind of dream town that could make you equally nostalgic for Edinburgh, or Rome, or Amsterdam.
Of course, the film is a working holiday. The story is about Kiki finding herself gainful employment, and doing all the things normal humans must; getting lodgings, managing money, promoting her business. If the talking cat puts us in cartoon land, then a brief scene with Kiki in a supermarket, dismayed at how fast her cash goes, anchors us to reality. In the second half of the film, Miyazaki reflects on the difference between a job and a true vocation, a source of pride and identity. It's eloquently expressed by Kiki's friend Ursula, an older girl who brims with cheer, jokes and candy, embodying what Kiki seeks; a happy, fulfilled life.
The film is divided into clear-cut chapters chronicling, for example, Jiji's perilous run-in with a Very Big Dog and the story of the two old ladies and the herring pie. The latter episode slows the film down to the pace of a chat with grandma, yet it still feels organically integrated into the film. (Miyazaki would put a similar scene into Spirited Away.) Kiki's up and downs are faithfully portrayed. The director lets us feel Kiki's thrilling downhill bike ride with Tombo, the pesky town boy who likes her, but he also shows us her slow, dejected walk home after she falls out with him.
The only ‘problem’ with Kiki for mainstream Western audiences - at least if you believe Hollywood marketing chatter - is that its central character is a girl, which might put off boy audiences. True, the oversized red ribbon which Kiki wears in a bow round her head is one of the most overtly kawaii bits of costume in a Ghibli film. Not to mention the aeronautical issues – what happens if the ribbon tangles with something while Kiki's taking off or landing? Then again, Kiki emphatically doesn't wear pretty dresses, which is why it's so satisfying when we glimpse a Kiki cosplayer.
But the really crucial thing, in audience terms, is that Kiki has Jiji with her. As soon as the cat starts speaking, looking hilariously peeved and pained at her mistress's enthusiasm about setting out into the wide world, he becomes the film's Universal Translator. Just by itself, Jiji's feline commentary makes Kiki accessible to Western girls and boys who've grown up with animal adventures like Bolt or The Jungle Book, and puts them on a level with Japanese kids who grew up with, say, Soreike! Anpanman or Ranma ½. Jiji's Japanese actress, Rei Sakuma, had regular roles in both those shows, playing Batako-san and Shampoo.
The new Blu-ray edition of Kiki feels markedly clearer and cleaner than the previous DVD release, especially in the bustling town scenes. These in turn represented a new level of Ghibli spectacle in 1989, with dense, lively crowds and innumerable extras (bystanders, onlookers) that must have meant terrifying amounts of work for Kiki's artists. You can sometimes catch “cheats,” frames where the figures stay motionless, but the level of animation is still extraordinary. Kiki's seat-of-the-pants broomstick flying makes the fantasy real, especially her most ungainly moments, when she blunders through traffic or crashes down into treetops. As for character depth, look at the scene where Kiki receives a cake from a friend, which causes her to relive all her emotions and frustrations in a couple of moments.
The release includes the Disney-dubbed version, an honourable effort with a sweet-voiced Kirsten Dunst as Kiki and Janeane Garofalo as a feisty Ursula (a decade before Garofalo's turn as a formidable French chef in Pixar's Ratatouille). The Japanese version, incidentally, has both girls played by Minami Takayama, now the voice of Detective Conan. The dubbed Jiji, voiced by the late Phil Hartman, is fascinating as an attempt to “Disneyfy” Miyazaki, making the cat much more patriarchal and sarcastic, a surrogate adult to supervise Kiki, rather than a fellow traveller. Judged on its own terms, the performance is great fun for a time, but eventually becomes a one-note heckle. It could only have worked if Disney had been able to re-animate later scenes, giving Jiji a more active role in the plot than Miyazaki allowed him. The dub's replacement opening and closing songs are integrated far more happily. Written and performed by Sydney Forest, they chime excellently with the film's spirit.
Apart from the documentary on Kiki's locations, which runs about half an hour, the other extras on this edition are short featurettes, including several new interview clips with Miyazaki and his producer Toshio Suzuki. They include a few useful info-bites, including the reminder that Kiki was Ghibli's (and Miyazaki's) first feature to be a hit in Japanese cinemas, and that Kiki's character was partly inspired by Suzuki's daughter.
Overall : A
Overall (dub) : B
Overall (sub) : A
Story : A-
Animation : A
Art : A+
Music : A
+ As Kiki approaches its quarter-century, it's not really aged at all. A true classic, now given a fresh lick of paint on Blu-ray.
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