While Hayao Miyazaki, one of animation’s greats, has produced and directed a wonderful body of work, Kiki’s Delivery Service (1989) is a masterpiece in his filmography. The gentleness and charm with which he tells the coming-of-age tale create a heartfelt and timeless experience that resonates with us. The magic of the film lies in its blend of playfulness, benevolence and vulnerability in its portrayal of the ordinary, deeply relatable woes of testing one’s mettle and finding one’s place in the world. Based on the 1985 novel of the same name by Eiko Kadono, the film is centered around the protagonist Kiki (voiced by Minami Takayama), a lively trainee witch who is on the cusp of adolescence.
The plot follows her road to independence and maturity, as she grapples with regular teenage issues — honing her skills, finding her identity and the like. According to the old customs of witches, she must leave home at 13 and find a witch-less town to spend a year of training in on her own. Accompanied by her witty talking black cat Jiji (voiced by Rei Sakuma), she sets off on a rocky start and eventually arrives in the idyllic port city of Koriko, where people have only heard of witches, never seen them in flesh.
Finding a place to stay proves to be difficult at first, and while she searches, she is pursued by Tombo (voiced by Kappei Yamaguchi), an aviation enthusiast boy who admires her flying ability but whom she is prickly towards. After a chance encounter with the pregnant baker Osono (voiced by Keiko Toda) though, she is offered accommodation in exchange for helping around the bakery. And kicks off her titular delivery service! She flies around on her broomstick turning in orders, and her business gradually flourishes.
As she meets new people, warms up to Tombo, and gains new experiences, a shadow seems to hang over Kiki. She feels out of place in her plain black dress, the dress code for witches. For instance, in moments where she gazes longingly at modern feminine wear or feels diffident. Suddenly, she finds herself in a slump when she loses her powers to fly and to understand Jiji. Not only does this mean that she has to suspend her delivery service, it also threatens her identity and self-esteem.
“If I lose my magic, that means I’ve lost absolutely everything,” she says dejectedly. She struggles to accomplish what she was so used to doing and grows resentful.
It’s heart-breaking to watch the otherwise animated Kiki lose her spirit, but I, like many other viewers, could also relate to her. We’ve all been in a place of despair, and it is then that we, like Kiki, need to delve deep and find our inner strength. As Kiki picks herself back up, the people whom she’s been kind and respectful to in turn support and look out for her, becoming loving mentors and friends in a new community that she has found by herself.
Although it’s subtle, or perhaps because it is, I especially adored the scene where Osono’s husband Fukuo (voiced by Koichi Yamadera, who barely speaks but that’s the charm of his character) paces around at the window waiting for Kiki to return home safely, and when eventually spots her flying, shyly rushes to the back to hide.
It is in these authentic moments of kindness and warmth that we’re reminded of the value of human connections. Kiki is able to regain confidence because she draws on both her strength and support from the people around her.
Visually, the film is stunning. The animation is lush, with vibrant colors and close attention to detail that really capture the environment and little mannerisms of the characters well. Miyazaki portrays the landscape with a beautiful painterly style immersing you in the picturesque scenes. Combined with a clever use of camera angles, the animation delightfully depicts the highs and lows, the turns and tumbles of Kiki’s flights, evoking a giddy sense of wonder in an otherwise ordinary environment.
When she flies over a long distance, the way her skirt flows and hair ruffles depict the gentle, steady movement of the wind. In a scene where she flies alongside some crows, a strong gust of wind blows them away, and the change in perspective to a worm’s eye view places the audience in the position of the wind rushing towards Kiki, which heightens the sense of disorientation and speed. Furthermore, there is a lot of life in the characters’ expressions, like when Jiji’s nervousness is portrayed through his sweating and fur standing.
The film is also accompanied by a beautiful music score by Joe Hisaishi. It’s all at once light-hearted, calm, nostalgic, and tinged with a melancholy quality, befitting for the themes of struggle and growing up.
The performances of the voice actors are brilliant. I didn’t know that both Kiki and Ursula are voiced by Minami Takayama until I looked it up! Takayama perfectly expresses the earnestness of Kiki and the free spirit of the older sister figure Ursula. Rei Sakuma’s snarky tone as Jiji also injects humor in various comic moments. I haven’t seen the English dub, but I hear the cast there is fantastic too
The only gripe I have with the film is that it ends on a slightly abrupt note, and more scenes that bring a final wrap to the characters’ stories play during the credits instead, which makes the ending feel a little less satisfying. However, that doesn’t take away from the overall experience of the film which is remarkable in several other aspects.
At its core, Kiki’s Delivery Service is a delightful adventure and a heartwarming journey of growth that speaks from and to the heart. No matter how old you are, you’ll find yourself connecting to its reflection of real world experiences, and it remains a solid testament to Miyazaki’s flair for storytelling.
Where to watch: Netflix