Hayao Miyazaki, “the Walt Disney of Japan,” is one of the world’s most respected animation filmmakers, and is known for his gorgeous painterly style and gentle humanistic stories.
Another characteristic of many Miyazaki films is their use of imagery and motifs inspired by the spiritual heritage of the filmmaker’s Japanese culture. Discerning Christian viewers may be able to appreciate the rich, essentially pagan imagination at work in such films as Spirited Away on the same level that they would the pagan myths of the Greco-Roman world. For young viewers, though, an otherwise age-appropriate film such as My Neighbor Totoro is deeply problematic due to overt pagan themes, such as doing homage to tree-spirits.
Kiki’s Delivery Service is not only one Miyazaki that’s essentially free from such entanglements, it’s also one of the filmmaker’s gentlest, most heartwarming, most accessible films, one appropriate for all ages. A loosely structured coming-of-age story, Kiki’s Delivery Service features one of Miyazaki’s most personable protagonists, a delightful cast of supporting characters, and a rambling, episodic storyline full of charming incident and irresistible imagery.
Viewers wary of Harry Potter may be concerned that Kiki (dubbed in English by Kirsten Dunst) is a broomstick-flying young witch in training, an anime counterpart to Wendy the Good Little Witch. Yet Kiki’s Delivery Service couldn’t be more different from Rowling’s tales.
Critics have noted that in Rowling’s world rules exist to be broken, rivals to be humiliated, and work to be blown off (except by Hermione). Only magical adepts and the doings of the magical world matter; Muggles are virtually all buffoons or worse.
By contrast, Kiki’s Delivery Service celebrates such virtues as courtesy, service, hard work, respect for elders, responsibility, maturity, modesty, and gratitude. Because the story requires Kiki to strike out on her own for a year, family doesn’t play a big role, but her parents (a witch mother and non-magical father) are warmly and sympathetically portrayed.
As for the supporting cast, readers will search Rowling in vain for Muggle counterparts to such characters as Tombo (Matthew Lawrence), an ingratiating neighborhood boy who’s captivated by Kiki’s ability to fly, or Osono (Tress MacNeille), the good-humored, very pregnant owner of a bakery who offers Kiki a spare room in an unfamiliar town.
Kiki’s Delivery Service is also entirely lacking in the menace and grotesquerie of the Potter stories. There are no villains or monsters; Kiki does meet some children who exhibit rude or obnoxious behavior, but neither she nor the film has any interest in paying them out. And the only magic Kiki ever does is fly, so there are no classes in spells, potions, etc.
For the most part, the story’s momentum has to do with Kiki’s gradual acquisition of self-confidence, experience, and maturity. Although Kiki is unfailingly polite and gracious to adults, like many gifted children she seems less comfortable around other children her own age. In particular she adopts an aloof line toward Tombo, ostensibly because she objects to his forwardness, though the real cause, it’s eventually clear, is her own nervous immaturity.
Eventually, Kiki faces a more serious issue — a loss of inspiration that leaves her grounded. Like a creatively blocked artist, Kiki must look within herself to discover what resources she may have in this difficult time, and try to figure out how to recapture her former magic. Will the right moment come? Or are there times when one must do whatever one can, even at the risk of failure?
Visually, Miyazaki creates a picturesque world as lovely and compelling as in any of his films. The relatively down-to-earth proceedings don’t offer the obvious opportunities for all-out fantasy and imaginative invention that adorn the likes of Castle in the Sky or My Neighbor Totoro. Yet the very ordinariness of Kiki’s surroundings makes Miyazaki’s virtuoso use of perspective, point of view, and spatial relations in portraying Kiki’s flying among the most magical effects in any of his films.
Copyright © 2000– Steven D. Greydanus. All rights reserved.