With the upcoming release of Miyazaki’s 12th (and possibly final) film, How Do You Live?, we at Flixist will be taking a look at Miyazaki’s career over the decades. By going through each of his films starting from the pre-Ghibli days, we’ll see how the man has evolved as an artist and helped shape the landscape of anime for generations to come. This is Miyazaki Marathon!
The whole reason I proposed that we start covering Miyazaki’s films wasn’t just because How Do You Live? is releasing this year. For me, I wanted to rectify the fact that I haven’t actually seen all of the acclaimed director’s filmography. I’m obviously familiar with his work and have even seen a few of them in theaters for their English dub debuts, but there were a ton of blind spots for me. I had never seen Nausicaa or Castle in the Sky, for instance.
Kiki’s Delivery Service is completely different. The first time I saw this film was on the Disney channel many moons ago when Pixar had acquired the international distribution rights to Studio Ghibli’s films. I’ve been familiar with this film since my teen years and it has stayed with me ever since. As Jesse described in his lead in from his My Neighbor Totoro retrospective, Kiki’s is maybe the most comfortable film Miyazaki has directed. That’s not by mistake, either.
Kiki’s Delivery Service is an adaptation of a Japanese children’s book titled Majo no Takkyūbin, which literally translates to Witch’s Express Home Delivery. Written by Eiko Kadono, the novel is a coming-of-age story with very little in the way of direct conflict for its protagonist. Kiki faces hardships in the book, but they are more relatable situations such as having imaginary friends, trying to find independence in your teenage years, and figuring out how to talk to boys. There are no world-ending threats or dire consequences here.
By its very nature, Kiki’s Delivery Service was always going to be a rather comfortable film. We saw Miyazaki tackle this in My Neighbor Totoro, but one of the major themes here is that of childhood innocence. Kiki is at a point in her life where she is leaving behind her distinct childhood years to transition into her young adult phase. As she settles into her new home, she starts to shed her naivety and learn how to open her heart to people that might not be as receptive to her kindness.
Where things get truly interesting with this film isn’t in its story or characters but in the development of the project. Kiki’s Delivery Service was not intended to be a Miyazaki film. In 1987, production company Group Fudosha asked Eiko Kadono’s publishers for the rights to adapt her recently published novel into a film to be directed by either Miyazaki or Isao Takahata. Both were busy with My Neighbor Totoro and Grave of the Fireflies, so they had to pass the buck to someone else within the company. Miyazaki attached himself to a producer role, though, so he helped shape the pre-production of the film while a search for the director went on.
Eventually, artist Sunao Katabuchi was chosen. Miyazaki had previously worked with Katabuchi on Sherlock Hound, so he trusted the artist to do justice to Kadono’s work. Ghibli had appointed Noboyuki Isshiki as scriptwriter, but when Miyazaki wound up rejecting the first draft of the story, he basically started to assume control of the project. Over the next year after doing research on European architecture and deciding this version of Kiki would face tougher challenges than her novel counterpart, Miyazaki took over as director. He even expanded the film into a feature film from an originally planned 60-minute duration.
While entirely coincidental, this production history sort of follows the path that Kiki faces throughout the film. While the novel features a segment where Kiki loses her powers and starts to doubt herself, the loneliness that she suffers is more pronounced in the film. Kiki also winds up saving a friend of hers from dying, which is way more high-stakes than anything the novel contained. During the pre-production phase, Miyazaki spoke about his changes for the film by saying, “As movies always create a more realistic feeling, Kiki will suffer stronger setbacks and loneliness than in the original.”
The official reason has been detailed, but I have to wonder if Miyazaki doubted himself when it came to directing Kiki’s Delivery Service. He had already directed four films at this point and Totoro had become a national icon, so what else could he achieve? In my mind, there is a reason Kiki’s wound up becoming the fifth directorial project for the artist. He was certainly well past his pre-teen years, but Kiki’s struggles with independence and her eventual self-doubt could reflect some of the internal struggles that Miyazaki was facing as a now acclaimed director.
Whether or not I’m making up some headcanon here, the reason for these meandering thoughts is that Kiki’s Delivery Service is a pretty straightforward film. Once again, the animation quality is top-notch and the characters are well-defined, but there aren’t that many deeper themes here. Maybe this is because the film is 34 years old, but we’ve seen this story countless times since and they all follow the same blueprint.
That doesn’t make Kiki’s Delivery Service bad, but you also don’t need to watch it multiple times to figure out what the message is. It is gussied up in the typical Studio Ghibli way where characters are expressive, themes aren’t represented literally, and there is magic within every hand-painted scene, but even more so than My Neighbor Totoro, Kiki’s Delivery Service is quaint.
As a teen, this film resonated with me so much because I was currently going through the same issues that Kiki faced. I didn’t have a job, but I was just starting puberty and I had problems fitting in with others my age. I didn’t know if the changes happening to me were good or if I’d be able to ever find independence in this world. I, too, had imaginary friends in the form of WCW wrestling plushes that I would make talk in funny voices. If only I could make a broom fly, I could have mistaken this colorful world for my very own.
That, I think, is the true magic of Kiki’s Delivery Service. There is definitely more to gleam than just surface-level nonsense, but a lot of that won’t be evident to children. The real charm of this film is how it transports you to a vaguely European village and puts you firmly in its established world. The side characters that Kiki meets are jolly and inviting, the stakes are never so high that you feel truly threatened, and the plot resolves itself through self-reflective action on Kiki’s part. It’s almost like therapy.
When you look deeper, you can find a ton of allegories just ripe for the picking. Jiji, Kiki’s talking cat, is actually how Kiki deals with her loneliness at first. While Kiki is donned in a black dress as per traditional witch garb, she adds personality with her red bow and shoes, thus rejecting tradition. Her loss of powers can be construed as her body changing due to puberty or even as a girl experiencing her first period. It’s a well thought out, if familiar, trope in 2023.
So, I completely understand if people say this is their favorite Ghibli or Miyazaki film. It’s just wholesome and fun. Me, though, I think I crave a bit more from my movies as I’ve gotten older. Kiki’s Delivery Service will always be that reminder of the child I once was and is even a good reminder of how to tackle situations that feel bigger than they really are. As I’ve been digging through Miyazaki’s works, though, I feel like this is maybe the weakest one overall.
I suppose the production history explains why this doesn’t exactly feel like a true Miyazaki film: it was never meant to be one. Miyazaki has left his imprint on many scenes here, but at the end of the day, Kiki’s Delivery Service feels like an adaptation more than an original work (for good reason). Some may prefer that, but I find myself gravitating more toward films that are unbridled in their Miyazaki-ness.
Join us next time as Jesse Lab takes a look at one of Miyazaki’s most personal movies, Porco Rosso.