The best children’s films are the ones that can be savored by wide-eyed innocents and crotchety old people and highfaluting 20-somethings alike. Pixar’s projects admirably promote mature themes like loss, grief, loneliness, and death—but they are often mired in sentimentality and bound by cheerful Western expectations. Disney has the same problem.
Studio Ghibli’s animation is different. The stories Ghibli produces are strange, frightening, labyrinthine. They’re comforting, to be sure—but the comfort comes in the purity of the natural world, from neon green fields and white clouds tearing across the sky, not from the apparent goodness of people’s hearts or bullshit feel-good plotlines.
Best of all, the work of Ghibli and master animator Hayao Miyazaki recurrently features pre-pubescent and teenage girl protagonists who go exploring (Spirited Away, My Neighbor Totoro, Princess Mononoke, Howl’s Moving Castle and Kiki’s Delivery Service, to name a few). While these stories are structured around fanciful elements, a more shrewd, feminist magic comes in the force of the female characters’ vigor and audacity.
Kiki’s Delivery Service (1989) was released July 29th in its native Japan; this year marks the film’s twenty-eighth anniversary, and it briefly returns to theaters on July 23 and 24 as part of Studio Ghibli Fest 2017. Based on a novel of the same name by Eiko Kadono, the animation follows a plucky thirteen-year-old witch who leaves home to study abroad, a right of passage with her kind. Kiki decides to settle in a city-by-the-sea called Koriko, an impossibly fresh and radiant municipality based on Stockholm by design, with a whiff of San Francisco in its steep inclines and 360° overlooks. Koriko feels like a coastal town, even in two dimensions; seagulls soar overheard, blue water twinkles around every corner, and characters’ hair billows in a ceaseless ocean breeze.
Kiki finds room and board at a bakery run by a kindly lady, and augments her airborne skills by making deliveries around the city via broomstick. Flying high, carrying packages and messages, she bypasses traffic jams and commuting and all the worst aspects of urban survival.
Although she’s a witch, Kiki’s tale is one of normalized enchantment. Sorceresses in this world are unusual, but not unnatural. City folk are impressed by Kiki’s flight, and she doesn’t have to hide her powers or run from prejudiced villagers like other movie witches. Donning a perky red bow and the customary black dress of her brood, Kiki is a typical pre-teen, just livin’ her life.
Above all, Kiki is eager for independence. Although homesick, she’s determined to make things work in her new city. But she’s self-conscious too, as sensitive adolescent types often are—especially around boys. Tombo is a bespectacled guy who is fascinated by aviation, admiring Kiki’s penchant for flight; but our heroine is hesitant and even sulky when it comes to befriending him. Other girls in town are catty, and when some of Tombo’s pals mock her odd style, Kiki feels like an outsider. Her confidence plummets to the point where she loses her powers and can’t fly or communicate with her familiar and best friend, a talking black cat named Jiji. In the English dubbed version of the film, Jiji antagonizes, complains, and frets in the voice of comedian Phil Hartman (Kiki is voiced by Kirsten Dunst). In the Japanese original, Jiji is voiced by a non-sarcastic lady with considerably less to say.
Kiki’s Delivery Service isn’t whimsical like Totoro, epic like Mononoke, or spooky like Spirited Away. It’s small and safe and very practical. No darkness lurks in the shadows (as it does even in Totoro, with a mother’s mysterious illness). The action is minimal and the stakes are low. You expect threats, but they never come. Everyone is exactly what they seem, and no one nurtures sinister intent. The worst person we encounter is a little girl who doesn’t appreciate her grandmother’s pies (to be fair—what a bitch. Just eat the pie and pretend to like it, as I always did with my Polish grandmother’s weird soup).
The narrative’s lone external drama is a dirigible crash, wherein Kiki has to save Tombo from falling to his death, all the while flying on a faulty broom. This is probably the film’s weakest sequence; luckily, it all happens within the last ten minutes, almost haphazardly tacked on in order to the satiate the public’s desire for a traditional climax and denouement.
Movies move faster than they used to. There are shorter shots and more cuts. Kiki’s Delivery Service harkens back to a gentler spirit, one the newest generation of children are presumably less familiar with—and more’s the pity. Kids might be conditioned to crave chase scenes now, but the desire for rapid pace is hardly innate. In place of instant gratification, we’re missing films with slow build-up. Winnie the Pooh, for example, is an unassuming children’s saga about friendship between stuffed animals in a tranquil English forest; but when Disney released a film version in 2011, though well-reviewed, it didn’t perform at the box office. Pooh doesn’t have 3D technology or big name actors or anything flashy to crow about.
Far too many mainstream contemporary kid’s films are unoriginal sequels or reboots (Cars 3, Despicable Me 3, Ice Age: Collision Course), parading special effects and heart-stopping action sequences, rendering characters and quests intangible or distant from the real world (The Jungle Book, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them). The top films at the box office last year didn’t necessarily relate to people’s lives at all (Captain America, Rogue One, Batman v Superman, Suicide Squad). Flights of fantasy are wonderful sometimes—but what if children were given more cinematic role models mirroring their real lives and problems?
The simplicity of Kiki’s Delivery Service is what makes it so good. The primary conflict isn’t about magic—it’s internal and invisible and wholly human: Kiki’s brief period of lost motivation and artist’s block. She gets it back when she wants to help Tombo, whom she loves. Simple as that. She doesn’t have to wage an epic battle to prove her worth, as even the protagonist of Disney’s Moana eventually did (a lovely film, all the same). “Without thinking about it, I used to be able to fly. Now I'm trying to look inside myself and find out how I did it,” Kiki says, describing the tricky disconnect between having inspiration strike without reason or compliance, and trying to figure out where it disappears to when it leaves you again. That’s certainly not a struggle only witches can relate to.
Kiki gets her power of flight back in the end, but her ability to conversate with cat Jiji is a little more complicated. In Mami Sunada’s Studio Ghibli documentary Kingdom of Dreams and Madness (2013), Miyazaki is shown having a casual chat with his assistant while he storyboards 2013’s The Wind Rises. “Why couldn’t Jiji speak at the end?” his assistant asks shyly of Kiki’s conclusion. “When they’re together at the end, there’s nothing to say,” Miyazaki tells her (without a whiff of condescension).
In the Japanese original, though Kiki gets her power of flight back, she and Jiji are never able to communicate again. Contrastingly, the 1997 American dubbed version implies they get their common language back, too. It seems Miyazaki himself intended for the cat and girl to lose their understanding permanently, as Kiki has grown up and away from her childhood companion. Jiji has moved on as well, with a new family of his own, a pretty spouse and several kittens. If this were a Pixar or Disney production, Jiji would utter some touching line emblematic of all the lessons they’ve learned to close out the film, and Kiki would hear and appreciate it. But Ghibli is smarter than that.