Vintage Film Review: Kiki’s Delivery Service (1989)
Kiki’s Delivery Service is an animated coming-of-age tale of a young, teenage witch out to make her way in the world and find her purpose. The film is Studio Ghibli’s fourth animated feature and is one of this reviewer’s personal favorites. I love this film so very much. I have watched it again and again, at various points in my life, and it never gets old, and it never ceases to uplift and inspire.
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Kiki’s Delivery Service is an adaptation of a novel of the same name by Eiko Kadono. Hayao Miyazaki writes, produces and directs this adaptation. Joe Hisaishi makes the music, the wonderful score. Japanese pop-country star, Yumi Arai, provides two absolutely swinging, toe-tappingly, head-boppingly good songs for the opening and closing credits.
“Rouge no Dengon” (Message of Rouge), played during the opening credits, is a rockabilly, J-pop classic, with a doo-wapping ’50s vibe. And the film ends to the country-folk-pop twang of Arai’s “Yasashisa ni Tsutsumareta nara” (Wrapped in Kindness) with its slide guitar and her clear, beautiful voice. Unfortunately, the English dubs have often dropped these tunes and replaced them with inferior translated renditions, so I can only recommend hearing the originals in their original language. I have no idea what Yumi Arai’s singing, but it swings!
And after that fangirl gush, it’s time for a very biased review of Kiki’s Delivery Service.
A Witch Rite of Passage
It is witch tradition that, at the age of thirteen, witches leave home for a year-long sojourn of discovery. In this absence from home, they are to seek their purpose, find out what they are good at, and begin to make their way in the world.
Kiki is the daughter of a witch; Kiki’s mother excels in herbal medicine. Now thirteen, Kiki too must make this journey of self-discovery, like her mother before her once did and her mother before that and on it goes. A matrilineal rite of passage. So, by the light of the full moon, one warm summer’s night, Kiki hugs her friends and family farewell and flies off into the world on her mother’s broomstick with her black cat Jiji onboard and her little, red radio belting out music.
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Kiki is effervescent, excited, optimistic – the hopefulness of youth. Jiji, her talking cat, is wry and jaded and skeptical – the cynicism of maturity. They make quite the pair. After much travel, Kiki and Jiji fly into a large city on the edge of the sea. Kiki is entranced with the busyness, the sea air, with everything. Quick inquiries inform her that there is no witch currently living in the city, so Kiki decides to put down roots here.
A heavily pregnant bakery owner, Osono, and her silent baker husband, Fukuo, take Kiki in, offering her room and board for helping out in the bakery. Kiki accepts, and it is while working in the bakery that Kiki lands upon an idea for what she could do. She could use her flying powers to deliver parcels and letters. And, thus, it starts – Kiki’s Delivery Service.
A Crisis of Confidence
It’s a shaky start for Kiki. There’s a city she doesn’t know her way around in. There are winds and weather, which are outside of her experience. She meets peers but is unsure of how to create connections and friendships. And, as plucky and positive as our dear heroine is, she finds herself steadily sinking into self-doubt and uncertainty, mired by thoughts of pointlessness and of just not being good enough. She slips into bedridden depression, which is only expounded when she loses her powers.
One day, Kiki can no longer speak with Jiji. Jiji’s voice of skepticism has been replaced by her own. And with her own pessimistic thoughts, her ability to fly is curtailed. Kiki is grounded, literally and figuratively. She feels worthless and alone.
There are no external villains in Kiki’s Delivery Service. No big bad guys. No evil forces at work. The great dragon that Kiki must slay is her own crisis of confidence. Kiki’s Delivery Service is a tale of a girl trying to find her way, trying to find herself. It’s a story of expectations, internalized and externalized, and of trying to forge your own way in life, irrespective of what others may think, or what you think others may think.
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It’s been many moons since I was thirteen, but Kiki’s struggle still reverberates in this middle-aged me. Expectations – life has many of them – and finding your way through the mire is a lifelong and daily struggle. We all need a little Kiki in our lives, because – despite all her failures and doubts and fiascos – that effervescent Kiki finds a reason to soar, to fly her own way. Which is kind of the point of life, is it not?
Content Note: Rated G. Nothing to come after.
Where to Watch: DVD.
Photo Credits: Studio Ghibli.
“The stuff that dreams are made of.”