Thought it was difficult leaving home? Trying leaving a tiny village at 13 to resettle in a big city, figuring out what your future is going to be, and doing all this whilst also being a witch! That’s the exciting life that young Kiki and her black cat Jiji can’t wait to start at the beginning of the hugely popular movie: Kiki’s Delivery Service.
If you were in any doubt that this was a coming of age movie then the opening 15 minutes sets the tone. We’re introduced to an exuberant Kiki hurriedly packing to leave for the city, as per witch tradition. She shrugs off her fussing family, bounds into the sky with broomstick betwixt her knees (gracelessly bouncing off a few trees) and the world glides under her like a blanket of possibility. From bopping to the radio she’s brought along or flying in formation with geese, the excitement of what is to come perfectly encapsulates the giddiness of a shift into pre-adulthood.
Kiki’s Delivery Service is constantly gorgeous to look at. It eschews obvious beauty shots by instead reveling in the every day. Kiki’s flying is so matter of fact and yet the silent grace of her gliding around tight city streets only to burst out into the airspace is like the screen taking breath. The colour palette is strong with the trademark Studio Ghibli (My Neighbor Totoro) blue skies and green fields so that everything feels like a glorious spring day. Whilst we only see part of the city you always feel like it is fully realised, just out of shot, which is testament to the set design and art direction.
Of course, just arriving in the city and actually making something of yourself are two different things. Kiki, overwhelmed by the reality of starting a new life, is taken in by heavily pregnant baker, Osono. Kiki and Jiji, mostly living off pancakes (amazing how that first wad of money doesn’t last, isn’t it, Kiki?!) decide to use her flying ability to start a delivery service. Plenty of subsequent vignettes flesh out the movie; such as two old ladies living together who want to have a fish pie delivered to their ungrateful granddaughter; and a tiny toy black cat that gets dropped into a birds nest defended by an angry crow. Kiki’s everyday adventures make for heart-warming viewing.
At first, it seems like this will be the movie: a series of delivery bits. But Director Hayao Miyazaki’s emotionally mature story develops as Kiki’s childish glee sinks into a slump. “We fly with our spirit,” she says whilst explaining how the magic of the broom works. So when, after missing a party and being dismissed by a rude customer, her ability to fly ebbing away is a clear metaphor for a crisis of confidence. The titular Kiki isn’t a young girl having a merry adventure. She is a young woman finding that adulthood brings confusing emotions, self doubt, and lack of direction.
A western movie would probably have its protagonist be pushed forward by some external incident. They would have to rise to a challenge or goal and grow as a result of that. The delight in Kiki’s Delivery Service is that Miyazaki acknowledges a more realistic angle: maturity comes through endless uncertainty. Like many of us, Kiki finds new life in forging new relationships. Her burgeoning friendship with free spirited artist, Ursula, revitalises her confidence. The (rather dogged and therefore dated) pursuit of her by rambunctious flight enthusiast Tombo drives through a whole range of new and sick-in-the-stomach emotions that she cannot even explain to herself.
Sure, there is a big exciting scene at the end involving a crashing dirigible, but Kiki’s finding of herself is the real apex of the story. Resolution isn’t re-establishment of the status quo. Life is different. Kiki is changed. And we get to witness her often floundering journey. Kiki’s Delivery Service broke box office records on release and is a beloved movie in Japan. Its themes are universally relatable and it still looks and sounds great today. So jump on your broom and let it sweep you away.
Words by Michael Record