Back before Amazon.com we ordered our stuff from plucky heroines

Kiki's Delivery Service (1989) Japan_1

Thus does our Miyazaki marathon come to an end with the 1989 flick, Kiki’s Delivery Service. Of his 80s movies, Kiki is an anomaly, being the only one directly adapted from someone else’s source material (a novel of the same name by Eiko Kadono), and in being a project which Miyazaki didn’t helm from the start. For reasons which I don’t feel like getting bogged down on, he was only supposed to be the film’s producer, but wound up backing into the roles of writer and director as well.

I mentioned Inside Out in my previous post, but if Pixar’s latest success is going to be compared to any Miyazaki film, Kiki is the closest analogue. Both films are about growing up, and both center on a 13 year old girl.

But the comparisons quickly drop away, as Kiki is a 13 year-old witch, and, as the opening of the film tells us, it’s tradition for a witch to spend her 13th year living away from home, learning how to be industrious and resourceful. Again, there are the themes of work – this time with a much stronger emphasis on discovering one’s vocation. But also the rite of passage recalls a time before adolescence was a culturally recognized thing, when you simply graduated from childhood to young adulthood.

So Kiki flies south on her mother’s broom along with her talking black cat Jiji. And, in a brilliant use of diagetic music, the opening credits play as Kiki listens to an infectious 70s bubblegum pop song on her radio:

The next day she settles for a large town by the sea. This being one of those Miyazaki movies taking place in some indeterminate fantasy Europe, the sea is never specified as the Mediterranean or anything like that. Anyway, after a couple of misadventures, she sets up a delivery service from the back of a friendly baker’s house, and the rest of the film is largely devoted to the attempt to get her small business off of the ground.

And this is still a work in progress by the time the credits roll. The events of the film are only meant to represent the beginnings of Kiki’s maturity and independence, and so, like Totoro, they don’t accumulate to any real climax; instead the individual episodes are used to examine these themes from different angles, with the final one being dramatic enough to end things on an exclamation mark.

So we get a lot of looks at Kiki’s anxieties over responsibility, Kiki coming to grips with the uncertainties of life, Kiki doubting herself, Kiki’s awkward social life. All this stuff would, in lesser hands, bore me to tears, but they’re all approached with a subtlety that manages to be quite affecting.

For instance, there’s a great sequence in the middle of the film where Kiki is given an invitation to a party later on in the day, but must complete a couple of deliveries beforehand. The second is with a kindly old woman who is baking a casserole for her granddaughter’s birthday party. Things wind up taking longer than expected due to a broken oven, but Kiki goes above and beyond to help her out. When she finally delivers the food, she finds out that the granddaughter is an ungrateful brat. And she gets caught in a storm and misses the party. The heartwarming scenes with the old woman abruptly end in disappointment and misery, which all too often happens in real life.

Kiki herself is notable as one of Miyazaki’s famous plucky heroines. Given that a lot of anime out there has a fair amount of women, it’s worth looking at why Miyazaki’s characters stand out in this regard. The first is that they aren’t ridiculously sexualized – an admittedly rather low bar which much of the industry nonetheless fails to meet. But also that there’s a tendency by otherwise well intentioned people to write a, “strong female protagonist,” who winds up being more of a token cliche than an actual well rounded character. But Kiki is allowed to be a 13 year old girl. She’s a frank, honest depiction which isn’t trying to pander to any crowd or prove any particular point. It’s just good storytelling.

Ok, so most 13 year old girls don’t fly around on brooms, but you get my drift.

Then there is Kiki’s cat, Jiji, who is second only to Pinocchio‘s Figaro when it comes to animated portrayals of felines. If they can even be ranked: Figaro is a masterpiece of realism, while Jiji caricatures the haughtiness and finicky behavior we associate with cats:

jiji(Another note about Jiji is that his dub voice is actually one of the last vocal performances of the late Phil Hartman. That it’s such a fun, energetic performance makes it all the more poignant in light of his tragic end.)

Once again, Joe Hisaishi does an excellent job with the score – this time very languid and mellow.* And, like Laputa, some versions of the dub contain an alternate score, although this time the changes were made a different composer and frankly sound a little too busy (the original opening and closing credits music is also swapped out).

And….I’m spent. I’ve crammed a lot of Miyazaki into these past 72 hours; I’m surprised things happened as quickly as it did.

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About Josh W

A Catholic; an occasional writer.
This entry was posted in fragments of culture, Our Allies in Nippon, pop culture and its discontents and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Back before Amazon.com we ordered our stuff from plucky heroines

  1. jubilare says:

    This film fascinates me because it shows how an effective film can be written without a true Villain. Most comming-of-age stories have some sort of bully or authority figure that has to be overcome, but Kiki’s story is much more true to reality, I think, despite said broom-transport. 😉

    “The first is that they aren’t ridiculously sexualized – an admittedly rather low bar which much of the industry nonetheless fails to meet. But also that there’s a tendency by otherwise well intentioned people to write a, “strong female protagonist,” who winds up being more of a token cliche than an actual well rounded character. But Kiki is allowed to be a 13 year old girl. She’s a frank, honest depiction which isn’t trying to pander to any crowd or prove any particular point. It’s just good storytelling.” Well said. ^_^

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