"Without even 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
If you've seen Princess Mononoke, you know the depths of despair, violence, and tension that Miyazaki can reach with his animation. Though it maintains the high quality level of other Studio Ghibli films, Kiki's Delivery Service is a sweet story with a decidedly less intense ambience. The story is simple and basic in its appeal, an excellent foil to the violence and psychedelia that populate anime. If you want a gentle introduction to the merits of anime, or simply enjoy tales of fundamental goodness, Kiki's Delivery Service is a great choice.
Facts of the Case
Kiki (Kirsten Dunst, Minami Takayama) is a 13 year-old witch in training. She doesn't have a firm grasp of magical principles, but she accepts the centuries-old traditions of her family. Tradition dictates that a 13 year old must live alone for one year to put her skills into practice. Kiki lays in the grass on a balmy summer night and decides it is her time to leave.
Waving to her worried but accepting parents, she sets off into the night sky with her broom, backpack, radio, and familiar, a black cat named Jiji. (Jiji was voiced by Phil Hartman/Rei Sakuma. Incidentally, Kiki's Delivery Service was the last performance given by Phil Hartman; the US version is dedicated to him.) Jiji is loquacious, decidedly ambivalent about Kiki's plans, but ultimately devoted to her.
Kiki sets her sights on a city by the sea. After verifying that no witch is currently in residence, Kiki promptly begins standing out like a sore thumb. She flies into traffic, freaks people out, and generally behaves different from everyone else. She is aware of her outsider status, and it bothers her, but she resolutely stays put.
When she returns a baby's pacifier to him via broom-mail, a matronly baker offers her a room. Kiki tends the bakery and starts a delivery service. In doing so, she learns what it means to grow up and accept responsibility. Kiki is getting by but is not truly happy. When life deals her another blow, Kiki must summon every ounce of inspiration to overcome it.
Kiki's Delivery Service is deceptively simple. The plot is straightforward to the point of being irrelevant. Kiki is a delivery girl, but she only makes three deliveries in the entire film. She gears up for a party with the in crowd, but the party never materializes. She meets would-be rivals, but never encounters them again. There is no villain, no central conflict, and the film doesn't build towards anything. In short, Kiki's Delivery Service lacks the traditional elements of drama, action, conflict, or climax that American audiences are accustomed to. If you watch it for the surface layer, you will be bored and frustrated.
That would be a tragic mistake. According to the classic proverb, getting there is half the fun. Kiki's Delivery Service is the embodiment of that wisdom. The strength of the work is its warm characters, lines, and shading that seem to have a soul. It is quiet moments of tranquility and relaxation. It is the reality of human emotion, or the glint of light off the water, the beauty of stucco buildings in the sun. It is the majestic impression of flight, soaring above the unknowing world. It is the pain of losing your inspiration or your closest friend and struggling with that loss. Kiki's message is one of humanity and growth, internal struggle rather than external conflicts. The lines and colors construct a girl, and reveal the emotion of her inner world. This is the quiet but unmistakable genius at work.
If I had to draw a coarse parallel, Kiki's Delivery Service is like an animated Amélie. The strength of Amélie is not in the plot, but in the sweetness of the main character and the emotion that ebbs and flows through her life. Like Amélie, Kiki feels alone even when surrounded by kindness. She is brave and resolute though she is whirling inside. She wins you over through gentle strength and kind personality, not glowing fireballs or mystical energy.
The world depicted in this story is rich and somewhat puzzling. The characters behave as traditional Japanese would, but the town seems European. The array of characters on the signs is staggering. (It looks like Japanese, Cyrillic, German, and English. I'm no linguist, so perhaps someone more tutored could decipher the markings.) Witches are accepted, if seldom seen. Their magic draws looks of wonder, but not disbelief. Dirigibles still master the air. There don't appear to be any scars of war or pestilence, but the people aren't entirely nice either. It seems like an alternate history to our own world.
The animators use a naturalistic visual language to convey meaning. Kiki does not show fear by trembling, popping her eyes out of her face, and jumping under the rug with her butt wagging around. She doesn't do much at all, but when she looks in the mirror her expression is haunted. She doesn't show her interest in the boy next door by batting her eyelashes while hearts flutter above her head. Instead, she greets him with stiff formality and watches his back as he walks away. The cues are not handed to you. Miyazaki does not tell you when you should laugh or cry or feel apprehension. He tells a story, and you feel how you feel.
The story is told visually, and the proof is in the pudding. The sheer detail of the world is amazing. Sunlight filtered through leaves dapples the ground below. The rough texture of brick is rendered so well that you can sense how it would feel. When Kiki is flying, you can practically feel yourself move. People, though not precisely realistic, feel real and alive. Fair warning: after seeing animation this masterful, you may be spoiled for lesser efforts.
The transfer reveals the animation in pristine glory. Contrast, black levels, saturation, and detail are without fault. This animation is a work of art and it is treated with due respect. [Author's Note: I originally viewed this DVD on a smaller TV than my ususal setup. A second viewing has revealed egregious edge enhancement.]
Though not as obvious, the sonic elements of the film are crucial in creating the environment. The 5.1 mix is outstanding in its subtle effectiveness. The believable impression of flight is possible only because of the slight "whoosh" in the surrounds. Atmospheric effects filter lazily through the left and right mains, perfectly capturing the muffled tone that distance brings. If you could fly through the clouds on a balmy summer night, it would sound like this.
Music and dialogue are distinct and full. The soundtrack is a captivating blend of transcendence and old-world harmony. Concertinas commingle with chimes in a lilting but melancholy opus. The score reflects the alternate European world, with a classic yet quirky appeal.
The voice acting, both Japanese and American, is superlative. The eastern and western leads are simply amazing, carrying the narrative with emotion and believability. The two versions paint different veneers. The American version is peppy (with a very sardonic cat), while the Japanese version hints at greater pressure and sadness. The sweetness is intact in the western version, but some careful shades of meaning are lost. For example, the Japanese version translates as "I still feel sad sometimes." This simple but powerful statement is demonstrated in many different ways by the original Japanese trailers (included in the extras). The trailers have different styles, but the central message is always the same: "Mom and Dad, I'm doing okay. I still feel sad sometimes." Watching these trailers enlightened me, and I immediately reconceptualized the film. When I went back to watch the American version, the pivotal line was something to the effect of "Mom and Dad, things are fine here. I still get a little homesick, but I'm doing okay." The difference is subtle, but that is my point: subtle differences are lost. Does it ruin the American version? Not at all. The American version is funny and charming in its own right.
I mentioned the cat, Jiji, voiced by the late Phil Hartman. He lent his voice talent to many animated characters, but this one is closest to his own spirit. In the featurette "Behind the Microphone," Phil explains that he identifies the most with Jiji out of all the characters he's played. That explains the unforced dryness of the humor. Jiji nearly steals the show and definitely pilfers a few scenes. When Jiji enters Kiki's new digs, he tracks paw prints in the layer of flour that dusts everything in sight. "If you wake up tomorrow and find a white cat, that's me," he disdainfully remarks.
Aside from the trailers and featurette, disc two is devoted to storyboards. A whole DVD for storyboards? Indeed, since the entire feature was carefully detailed in advance. The second disc has the same soundtrack and subtitle options as disc one, but the entire story is recreated in the original drawings. This feature is crucial to understanding the animation process. It isn't flashy, but it does reveal the depth of planning and detailed execution in the main feature. Some boards show the same character in three stages of motion. Miyazaki may have delegated the actual animation, but his sure touch directs each frame.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Though it is a G-rated film, teenagers and adults are the demographic that will most benefit from viewing Kiki's Delivery Service. Kids may enjoy the film, and there is nothing objectionable in it, so it can safely reside on a kid-friendly shelf. But the deeper themes of despondency, apprehension, duty, loss, and growth require the hindsight of maturity to appreciate.
I have to present this argument, although I don't agree with it. Being anime, Kiki's Delivery Service is conceptual and requires thought to understand the message. Some people simply find anime boring or headache-inducing. If you haven't enjoyed other animated films, you might like this one. It is non-violent, non-weird, and mature. However, you might view it and still not like it. Nothing ventured, nothing gained.
The film begins with a brief introduction by John Lasseter, who assures us that we will like the movie. This intro is condescending and sends the wrong message. "Hey, it's pretty far out, please give it a chance before you turn off the TV in disgust." How many movies have you seen recently where a spokesman comes on beforehand to tell you you're gonna like it? I could have done without this "extra."
Delightful music, compelling characters, heartfelt emotion, and a realistic plot make for an outstanding animated experience. Kiki's Delivery Service is an exemplary anime movie with a superb DVD treatment. I have given this title very high marks in all categories, even though I don't consider it Miyazaki's best work. That should indicate the respect due to any title by Studio Ghibli. If they've produced a dud, I have yet to see it.
The court awards Miyazaki a medal of honor for his lifelong dedication to his art. The casts on both sides of the Pacific are commended as well. Everyone involved is welcome in my courtroom anytime.
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Scales of Justice
• Introduction by John Lasseter
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