Over the past few months, I’ve been catching up on Studio Ghibli’s legendary catalog of anime films. For almost 30 years, they released some of the most highly acclaimed animation and with incredible consistency. They co-produced last year’s The Red Turtle, and I’ve heard rumors that they will be coming back from their hiatus in the near future. Until then, though, I have plenty more to catch up on; my most recent experience has been with one that I have heard a whole lot about – 1989’s Kiki’s Delivery Service.
In this film, a young witch named Kiki (Takayama/Dunst) has just turned 13, the traditional age for her to leave her family and train her magic on her own. With her black cat Jiji (Sakuma/Hartman) at her side, she sets off and ends up in a large coastal city. There, she finds work at a local baker, befriends a lively artist, and catches the attention of an energetic boy named Tombo (Yamaguchi/Lawrence). As she struggles to find her purpose, she has to learn to make something of herself in a place that doesn’t seem to have much use for witches.
This has got to be one of the most charming movies that I’ve seen in a while. Through the combination of story, music, and Kiki herself, director Hayao Miyazaki creates a tone similar to that of his childlike masterpiece My Neighbor Totoro. We see Kiki’s enthusiastic personality take her from place to place, and through the score and some good visuals, we feel every bit of this with her. Kiki proves once again that Miyazaki is an absolute master of character.
One aspect that I respect about this movie is that to show us Kiki’s life and personal growth, it doesn’t follow a standard plot structure and instead tells its story emotionally. We follow Kiki in her everyday life as she responds to different situations and learns more about herself and the world around her. I described the plot of the film in just a few sentences above; I honestly wouldn’t have much more to say in terms of particular moments, but that is part of the magic of this movie. Kiki’s Delivery Service is a story about Kiki herself, and the fact that the film doesn’t send her along common plot points keeps the focus entirely on her.
The movie is also grounded, given its mystical elements. It takes place in essentially our world, only people are used to the existence of witches – some are fascinated, and some don’t care at all. In one scene, Kiki lands on a street corner and enthusiastically shares her goals to the few people standing there, who then continue with their day as usual. You are given a real sense of the size of the city and how little Kiki seems capable of at her age, despite her high ambitions.
At its core, this is a very down-to-earth movie about a teenage girl figuring out her place in the world and struggling with her conflicting desires of comfort and independence. At 13 years old, she wants to do so much, but she often finds herself inhibited by other kids, by her emotions, and by the environment surrounding her.
Long-time Miyazaki collaborator Joe Hisaishi wrote the score for Kiki, and this is in my opinion one of his best. Each piece uniquely contributes to the character of the film and provides an emotional backbone without smothering or controlling the viewer’s experience. I recommend listening to “A Town With An Ocean View” online to get a sense of not only the score but for the tone of the film as a whole.
Overall, Kiki’s Delivery Service is a wonderful coming-of-age story about a girl finding herself in a strange place. This movie probably won’t work for someone who watches anime for amazement, but it is just about perfect for lovers of people and their stories. I really wish that I had discovered Studio Ghibli’s movies before they went on hiatus. In my experience so far, the quality of their films ranges from good to some of the all-time best, and this one in every way deserves its status as a classic.