From The Castle of Cagliostro onwards, Hayao Miyazaki’s films have felt thoroughly Japanese yet also indelibly influenced by the director’s love of Europe. For instance, Laputa: Castle in the Sky is set in a mining village inspired by the Welsh countryside, yet the character animation and bonkers final act are undeniably Japanese. With Princess Mononoke and Spirited Away, the master of the medium went firmly into the realm of Japanese mythology and landscapes, but before that he made his two most overtly European films, 1992’s Porco Rosso and this, Kiki’s Delivery Service from 1989. The non-specific setting of Miyazaki’s fourth feature film is one of its strongest assets – this is one of his gentler, almost plotless films so the great joy of watching it simply comes from spending time in the wonderful world he creates. Kiki’s is a tale of a 13 year old witch who leaves home for a year on her own to train as a witch, and during this year she has to make friends, set up a delivery service and try to balance the two, all whilst exploring a beautiful city by the sea.
This city that Kiki flies to and spends her time in is deliberately not named. Ostensibly, it is based on Visby, a picturesque coastal town in Sweden that has similar tall tenements and quaint clock towers to its animated counterpart. Yet Miyazaki confesses to cheating slightly, as he put in a mishmash of influences from all around the continent: a French classical fountain here; a Mediterranean sea-front there. The great director points out that any Europeans watching it will notice the incongruous styles, but to a Japanese audience it will just look like their perception of a typical city from anywhere in Europe. That’s a telling admission from Miyazaki, as it shows he is more concerned with creating something deliberately idyllic than anything in the realm of reality. This idea is further confirmed by the lack of definite period detail: this is a film set in a world that could have been, the 1950s if WWII had never happened. Japanese post-war guilt lingered long in the collective memory and whilst sometimes Ghibli confronted this guilt – such as in Grave of the Fireflies – or moved on from it – as in the recent From Up On Poppy Hill – the studio also used their animated films to escape it, and Kiki’s is an example of pure escapism.
The timeless, location-less nature of Kiki’s world makes such escapism hugely enjoyable and imaginative. If My Neighbour Totoro – a children’s film similarly untroubled by ‘plot’ – is an example of magic being found in the countryside then Kiki’s Delivery Service uses the city, instead, as the site of the supernatural. A lot of time is just spent travelling around the city, on broom or bike, and taking it in through the wide, innocent eyes of the newcomer. Joe Hisaishi, as ever an integral part of creating the awe and wonder in Miyazaki’s films, is playful here, experimenting with traditional European instruments like the accordion, to create a particularly lighthearted score that perfectly compliments the jovial tone of the film. It all looks and sounds incredible on Blu-Ray, too, bringing out the amazing levels of detail in each shot that were previously muted beneath the pastel colours on DVD. Kiki’s particularly benefits from this as the city setting – rare for a Miyazaki – means that the frame is often a lot fuller than in his other more rural films.
Beyond the visuals, this is still an absolute delight, thanks largely to Kiki herself. This is a kind of coming of age story, only there’s no big revelation moment, it’s more about her developing friendships and slowly gaining a bit of self-confidence. She is the model of good behaviour when many of the other girls are spoilt, yet she is still real because her teenage problems are immediately relatable. At times she feels the weight of responsibility that comes with work, but often she is more concerned with her friendships with the people in the town, much like many teenagers. With short dark bob, red bow and plain black dress, Kiki feels plain and not very beautiful, but as a character she has become iconic, and there is a lovely note in the credits when a little girls walks past dressed like she is. Ghibli are famed for their strong heroines, but Kiki’s determination, kindness and charm make her one of their best. The dramatic conclusion to her story, both thrilling and thematically satisfying, cements this claim for her.
Taking in themes of pleasure and work, responsibility, friendship and self-confidence, Kiki’s Delivery Service is a great film to show young children, but a wonderful, inspiring heroine, jaw-droppingly beautiful animation and the occasional hint of magic make it one to be enjoyed by adults, too. Like all Ghibli films, then.
Extras: As ever, it’s always great to see the man himself, Hayao Miyazaki, expound a little on his work. It comes in little nuggets about different aspects of the film, but each little extra is a fascinating insight into the machinations behind the film – Miyazaki didn’t feel he could make a story about an adolescent girl, for instance. It’s lovely because, although he wasn’t originally set to direct the film, you can see that he puts his heart into it. He speaks of the daughter of one of the producers who was getting to the age where they can become ‘a bit of a handful.’ This was what inspired him to make the film, as he says ‘I was very determined to make a movie that would win over the hearts of spoiled girls like that.’ Insights like this are what extras were made for.