Director’s Series: Hayao Miyazaki: Kiki’s Delivery Service

Spoiler Warning: As before, don’t read if you haven’t seen the movie.

While it has a little more in terms of incidents and structure (as well as a thrilling climax), Kiki’s Delivery Service is another largely quiet, gentle film from Hayao Miyazaki. While we will be getting to his comparatively more action-packed stories later, I thought it was a nice idea to start off with his more soothing films. It lets me build up to the pure unadulterated awesomeness of the aforementioned films.

Based on a Japanese novel, the film tells the story of Kiki (voice of Kirsten Dunst in the Disney dub), a young witch-in-training who has just turned 13. She’s decided to leave home for her year aboard, a tradition of all witches in this world. With her faithful talking cat Jiji (Phil Hartman, in one of his last roles before his murder) by her side, she winds up in a beautiful seaside town. After a rough first day, she ends up helping out a kind, pregnant baker named Osono (voice acting goddess Tress MacNeille), and they strike a deal to let Kiki stay there and run a delivery service out of the bakery. Along the way, she makes some new friends like the artist Ursula (Janeane Garofalo), aviation enthusiast Tombo (Matthew Lawrence), and the elderly Madame (Debbie Reynolds). But her powers began to mysteriously fade, and now Kiki must figure out why if she wants to remain a witch…

Above all else, the film is a character study about Kiki. She’s a bright, happy young girl, but she has one real, overriding flaw: she wants to please EVERYONE at the expense of her own needs. What makes this slightly agonizing for the viewer is that both we and other characters DO like her a lot. But she has trouble with accepting herself for herself, so she works overtime and burns out. She eventually learns the value of self acceptance (if you like yourself, others probably will), but it takes some going. Luckily the kindness of her friends prevails, especially Ursula during a crucial late passage where she learns of Kiki’s troubles with magic and invites her to stay at her cabin in the nearby woods. Here Ursula explains that she ran into a similar problem at Kiki’s age with her art, and that she just had to develop her own style in order to keep painting. So Kiki must find her own way to live and be a witch.

It is possible I have made the film sound heavier than it really is. Most of it, like Totoro, is filled to the brim with sweetness and Miyazaki’s warm human comedy. Jiji is an especially fun character, functioning as the sarcastic, pragmatic Jiminy Cricket to Kiki’s Pinocchio. There’s a lovely little scene that subverts our expectations where, imitating a stuffed toy cat Kiki has lost and must recover from the woods, he encounters an old dog in the intended recipient’s house. But it soon becomes clear that the dog senses Jiji’s trouble, and comes to act as his protector while Kiki is away. The burgeoning relationships Kiki has with her surrogate mother Osono, Tombo and Madame are also quite heartwarming. I love the moment near the end where Madame bakes a cake for Kiki and wants to know her birthday so she can bake another one.

As I noted before, the film comes to more of a climax than Totoro did (where the drama of Mei missing was rather quickly resolved thanks to the help of Totoro and the Catbus). A visiting dirigible, set up earlier in the film with radio broadcasts, has been blown off its moorings due to high winds. But Tombo was on board, and now Kiki must summon up all her strength to fly to his rescue. She ends up having to borrow a street sweeper’s broom, and it gives her some major trouble, but everything ends happily when she successfully rescues him, the whole town rooting for her and exploding into applause/cheers. In any other film, such an exciting conclusion might seem out of place, but Kiki earns every scrap of it.

The music by Joe Hisaishi is once again terrific and perfectly chosen. The dub was the first Disney ever created for Ghibli, and so there are perhaps a few bumps in the road (the opening and ending Japanese songs are replaced with new English ones, some previously silent scenes are papered over with dialogue, though I don’t find either change to be terribly intrusive), but I quite enjoy it all the same. Getting the still-young Kirsten Dunst to voice Kiki was a great move; she brings all the highs and lows of her personality to life wonderfully. Hartman is of course brilliant as Jiji. Many of his adlibs are perfectly in-character, so much so that I miss them in the more recent DVD/Blu-ray release that cuts many of them to bring things closer to the Japanese version of the film. Damn, 15 years on, I still miss him. Janeane Garofalo only has a couple scenes as Ursula, but she does quite well in them, serving as a friend and mentor to Kiki (though I think her best voice-over role is still Collete from Ratatouille). MacNeille gives one of my favorite performances from her as Osono, so warm and motherly (I get the feeling she would get along well with a certain Minnesota police officer), Matthew Lawrence is sprightly and energetic as Tombo, and Debbie Reynolds is perfectly sweet as Madame.

In the end, while it’s not my favorite Miyazaki, Kiki’s is still such a delightful outing that I always love revisiting it. And like Totoro, it’s one of the first films I intend to show to any children I might have in the future. In addition to being entertained…I think they could learn a lot from it.

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