This review was originally published in 2014 on the author’s old blog.
A young witch coming of age arrives in a seaside town to master her abilities. To do so she has left behind her family and her home, with nothing but a broom, a bag, and a cat by her side. The girl is a romantic and a bit of a klutz, longing for the ocean whilst crashing into trees. She is taken in by a kind woman on the verge of motherhood, who gives her a job and a home. An enthusiastic and indefatigable boy falls for her and pesters the young woman to be his friend. The witch makes pancakes. It is wonderful.
Kiki’s Delivery Service is certainly one of the most low key films director Hayao Miyazaki has created. While at its center is a protagonist with magical powers, the film is more often concerned with the minor moments in life that we all face, meeting a new person, getting over an illness, being bored behind a counter. There are no cat buses or cities in the sky. No one turns into a pig, a scarecrow, or a giant forest god. More than any other movie, this Miyazaki film is about people. Most of them are strong, independent women of varied experience and expectations. All of them, every single character, even the non-humans, are richly developed. Think of Jeff the dog, a fleeting character who gets two minutes of screen time at most, much of that unconscious. The care in conceiving and animating the altruistic animal’s movements tells us more than we could ever hope to know about a hound.
The animation throughout Kiki’s Delivery Service is, in a word, astounding. The Ghibli backgrounds are all frameable, a series of lush masterpieces depicting ornate cityscapes, quaint storefronts, and cozy houses. Miyazaki’s undying passion for flight is on magnificent display as well. The attention to detail in Kiki’s windblown skirt and the physics of making midair adjustments is second to none. Much of the enjoyment comes from the little nods to intricate care that Miyazaki sprinkles throughout. The brief pause as Kiki’s dad lifts her up, adjusting for more weight than he expected; Kiki’s brief slip as she rounds a corner running to save Tombo; even the mere inclusion of a once motionless train car falling into line as the cars preceding it begin moving is beautiful.
One of the most enjoyable elements of Kiki’s Delivery Service is how practical it is despite the existence of magic. Sure, Kiki can fly and talk to cats but she still has to clean her room with a bucket and a brush. There are no Disney creatures popping out of the woodwork with a song and a helping paw. This is work. The assured dedication to one’s goals is a common theme throughout the film. Kiki demands to help out around the house of an elderly woman and her caretaker after they pay her for a delivery that is canceled. Tombo boasts of how hard he needs to train in order to get his legs in shape to power his flying contraption. Ursula spends her days in the forest, sketching crows, and dedicating the entirety of her life to art.
Whilst sitting on the beach with Tombo after crashing his bicycle-plane, Kiki confides that although she used to love flying, the passion is gone now that she does it for a living. Upon returning home after this confession, the young witch discovers that her magic is missing. It’s tempting to read Kiki’s subsequent existential crisis as an allusion to Miyazaki himself, who by this point in his career had painstakingly finished his passion project, Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind, and released what to this day is still his most beloved film, one whose title character went on to become not only a global phenomenon but the icon for the animation studio that he founded. Was Miyazaki burned out? Did he think at this relatively early stage in his career that his best ideas were behind him? It is unclear.
What is known is that Miyazaki did not originally plan on directing the film but got so invested in the screenplay process that he jumped in head first immediately upon finishing My Neighbor Totoro. Kiki’s Delivery Service was released a mere fifteen months later. When recently discussing his retirement, Miyazaki mentioned that each successive film is taking longer to complete than the last. It is astounding that at one point in an animation director’s career, one who in particular, also writes his own screenplays and does much of the drawing himself, managed to knock out two indisputable masterpieces so close to one another. So this is what it was like to live during the same time as Mozart or Shakespeare.