Hayao Miyazaki’s Kiki’s Delivery Service is a family film in every sense: it is a bright, friendly, delightful story that is easy enough for children to follow, and it is compelling and mature enough, to the point of being conspicuous, that adults should have no trouble staying interested as well. The movie is a classic, and this beginning-to-end delight deserves not simply to be watched but to be cherished and highly valued.
The story is as simple as can be: Kiki, a thirteen-year-old witch (the ability seems to run in the family somewhat), is ready to leave home to begin her independent training and to make her place in the world. And so her clumsy but devoted parents help her pack her things, including her black cat, Jiji, before they and her friends see her off.
Kiki’s development as a character begins very early on the film: as one might expect of a teenager, she is in a hurry to do things her own way and to see unfamiliar places, but on the other hand, she is also a remarkably responsible young woman who is willing to listen to her elders. This is first evidenced when she agrees, without much hassle, to take her mother’s old but faithful broom instead of the personal but largely untested one Kiki crafted herself. It is this mix of childlike and adult qualities that guides Kiki throughout the film and makes her a largely wonderful role model for young viewers.
One thing to be noticed from the start is that this is largely a very contemporary film: while some of the technology might seem outdated to modern viewers, this is still a story universe where witches and magic coexist alongside personal vehicles and portable radios. The magic itself is very understated: there are no fireballs or transformation spells being thrown about, but when special effects are used in the story (sparingly), each is made memorable by being an important part of the story.
As it happens, Kiki and her cat wind up inside a train instead of en route to their planned destination, and the city they eventually come to is quite possibly the most gorgeous thing I’ve ever seen in a hand-animated film. The European-looking architecture tells of a city that is caught somewhere between urban modernization and the traditions of the past. The same should be said of Kiki herself: upon causing a bit of minor trouble while flying around on her broom, she meets the boy Tombo, a sort of “stalker with a crush” (whose own mother refers to him as a clown). Kiki demonstrates that she can be old-fashioned as well as free-spirited, and she is immediately put off by this new boy–friendly and well-meaning if nothing else–making for quite an amusing first impression.
Kiki’s broomstick flight around the city seems to delight others more often than surprising them, suggesting that these people are used to the general idea of witches, if perhaps not the frequency. Indeed, she isn’t exactly lucky finding other witches to loan her room and board, and so she ends up helping around the shop of a mundane but kindhearted baker (Osono), who herself is nearly ready to have a baby.
It is here that Kiki’s talents as a witch are put to practical use: a customer and her newborn child have walked off without the child’s pacifier, and even if Osono were in any position to be exerting herself, she would never reach the customer in time. Kiki selflessly volunteers to return the item, but as she jumps off a high wall on her broomstick, Osono understandably worries for the girl’s safety until she is seen flying off unharmed. Simple moments like these really make the city’s various inhabitants all the more interesting.
After Kiki returns, errand completed, Osono loans her the use of a dusty but generous attic, and as the two exchange favors, they develop a relationship that becomes somewhat like a mother-daughter bond. (Kiki still has to learn not to run out into traffic, though.)
It should be noted that at this point, the music (itself French-sounding, maybe?) is absolutely gorgeous, and it complements the artwork perfectly; as with Seven Samurai, though, the uses of music and sound are very minimalist: scenes that do not need these things do not have them, which is wonderfully refreshing for the viewer’s ears following the hustle and bustle of city life (the city itself is full of people believably coming and going).
Onward the story goes, as Kiki lays the foundation for her delivery service, which she tends to when her bakery work is taken care of. She is an amazingly mature girl, repeatedly volunteering to help in any and every way she can, and she is an inspiration in a way unmatched even by some adults. Throughout the film, in ways too amusing to spoil, her cat Jiji provides wonderful comic relief and himself is full of personality, making him a perfect foil for his owner’s relentless enthusiasm.
The movie is not about her being a witch or, really, even about Kiki running her delivery service: She “grows stronger” in the sense that she quickly finds her place in the world–serving others–and does everything she can to meet that goal, time and again. Throughout most of the film, the “conflicts,” such as they are, are self-contained and altogether innocent, not so much part of a plot that really isn’t there: Kiki’s perhaps short on time to make a delivery, as might be common in this line of work, and the very idea of failure is unthinkable.
The movie’s pacing in all of this is absolutely phenomenal, as while the story never becomes complicated or difficult to follow, every single scene in this movie feels important for something and seems to be crammed with substance, whether in story, character development, art, or sound. The architecture just gets more and more gorgeous, the music remains amazing, and Kiki continues to be one of the most compassionate film heroines I’ve ever seen.
Not all of the situations Kiki runs into really have easy answers, and indeed, some of her conflicts with certain more unlikeable characters feel at least somewhat unresolved by the movie’s end. Those, however, are not the primary point, as opposed to her becoming a mature, confident, and responsible adult.
There is also another valuable lesson any of us can benefit from: at one point Kiki meets a character who serves as something of a mentor for her, and something Kiki learns again and again is that she must understand the why of what she does. She must develop her own sense of motivation, just as this character had to, and the analogy between the two situations makes for an extremely effective “bridge” between the rules of the magical world and our own.
While a few of the things the main character does might not seem particularly bright, not once does the film force her to do something stupid just for the sake of tacking on additional drama. Such moments are few enough, even if they go somewhat unaddressed, that they really don’t damage the overall plot. The movie thankfully avoids painful romantic cliches, with the exception of a sickeningly sweet subplot that does not involve Kiki. She and Tombo make a deeply interesting acquaintanceship, but his well-meaning if somewhat boring personality stands in utter contrast to her take-charge lifestyle.
The movie, while generally lighthearted throughout, takes a very different turn in mood and atmosphere toward the close as Kiki’s abilities are needed once more, in a scene that might honestly be rather scary for younger viewers. There are no monsters or evil witches to contend with: the “problem situation” is indeed one that can hit very close to home for us normal humans, and this very believable crisis, as a result, becomes that much more uncomfortable. This ending segment is incredibly sincere and well constructed, however, and it provides an excellent showcase for a display of magic that becomes powerful on many levels.
(In closing, I do want to point out that this film contained many more shots of Kiki’s bloomers than I ever would have expected, but since she is a young girl in a children’s movie, her dress remains otherwise modest throughout the story. At one point her clothes are seen hanging on a line, but she is completely covered up in bed. Some viewers may want to know this ahead of time, however. Other than some potential awkwardness of these scenes, there is little objectionable content aside from a single-word innuendo that’s easy enough to miss if you aren’t paying close attention.)
While some scenes might seem strange to some viewers, Kiki’s Delivery Service is still a wonderful and imagination-inspiring movie that deserves to be enjoyed at any age. It’s a timeless tale of caring for others that, to be frank, doesn’t waste time waiting for the main character to grow up. That, and the film by extension, is an absolute delight.