by Mel Valentin
Hayao Miyazaki's "Kiki's Delivery Service," released only a year after the critically and commercially successful "My Neighbor Totoro," just may be the perfect family film, surpassing its predecessor's achievements in animation and storytelling. Thematically, Miyazaki's film centers on the need of young adults to develop individual identities outside of the family, develop social ties, and with them social responsibilities (i.e., to work, friends, etc.). Technically, Miyazaki combines a coming-of-age story with visually striking compositions, an exceptional color palette (e.g., reds, blues, greens, and purple for Kiki's dress), and, of course, the repeated images and scenes of flight (Kiki's principal distinction from non-witches is her ability to fly).Set in an imaginary Europe apparently untouched by war (the level of technology suggests the 1950s, however), Kiki's Delivery Service opens on an idyllic summer afternoon, with Kiki, eyes turned heavenward, daydreaming as a breeze gently washes over her. A radio report announces the weather for the evening, clear skies and a full moon. The report also mentions the “Spirit of Freedom,” a giant dirigible journeying across the country. According to tradition, Kiki must leave her home and family for one year once she turns thirteen. Kiki is eager for independence and the new experiences that leaving home will bring her, but apprehensive about an uncertain future. Her parents are no less anxious, bound by tradition, but also by the unconditional love of their daughter.
"May just be Hayao Miyazaki's best family-oriented film."
Kiki leaves her family and home, of course, accompanied by a talking black cat, Jiji, agreeing to take her mother's broom only to mollify her mother's fears and anxieties. Drifting heavenward into the inky blackness, Kiki shares the sky with a passenger plane and another witch just completing her one-year apprenticeship. A storm sends Kiki scurrying for shelter in a railway car, and from there, to the bustling seaside town, Koriko, where, with little hesitation, she picks as her new home. Koriko is a town of red-tiled roofs, busy intersections, a clock tower, and fishing boats docked at the nearby marina.
After an inauspicious beginning that leaves Kiki's overwhelmed by her new surroundings, she meets Osono, a pregnant bakery owner, who decides to give Kiki room and board in exchange for help in the bakery. Kiki, however, needs an additional means of income, and turns to what she knows best, flying. But each delivery, simple on its face, has its hazards, from a gust of wind that sends Kiki into a confrontation with angry crows, to another, much worse rainstorm, that interferes with her plans to attend a party.
But even as reversals, complications, and obstacles erode Kiki's self-confidence (which leads to the external manifestation of her doubts and anxieties, an idea used in Spider-Man 2), Kiki comes into contact with several caring, compassionate characters, including a painter, Ursula, who lives alone in a cabin in the woods, an older, wealthy woman with an oven problem, and Tombo, a young boy Kiki's age, who quickly becomes infatuated with Kiki (and her flying ability), despite Kiki's lack of warmth toward him. Tombo, it seems, is a member of the local Aviation Club, and, following the pattern for similar characters in other Miyazaki films, Tombo's youthful obsession with flight has led him to design and build an airplane of his own (here, Tombo hopes to build a human-powered plane).
Images and scenes of flight are rarely off screen for long, with Miyazaki and his team of animators lingering on nighttime landscapes, cities and towns arranged in colorful geometrical patterns, Kiki flying through and above the streets of her adopted town, and, the first of several shots of the lovingly detailed dirigible, docked in Koriko for repairs. The dirigible, incidental at first, comes to play an important role in the incident that resolves Kiki's character arc. Miyazaki cleverly weaves in references to the dirigible, via ongoing radio reports, before we actually see the dirigible for ourselves. He later shows the dirigible on a 50s-era, black-and-white television screen.
On another level, Kiki's Delivery Service, interweaves themes of self-confidence (and empowerment), community, social responsibility, and personal growth organically into the narrative, with Kiki as the focal point. As a result of Kiki's initial decision to leave her family, Kiki eventually learns self-sufficiency and self-reliance. But she also learns or relearns the benefits of friendship, trust, and the value of community outside the family structure. There's little sermonizing here, with the exception of the stronger female characters, mother, bakery owner, painter, reaffirming their belief in Kiki's ability to discover her inner character and inspiration for herself. These themes are, of course, related to the complications and problems inherent in early adolescence, e.g., in-group/out-group dynamics (Kiki's purple dress marks her as an outsider to members of her own age group) and the first attachment to a member of the opposite sex, tied more to common interests than to physical attraction.Those expecting a weightier examination of environmental themes should look to Miyazaki's other, more adult-centered films (e.g., "Princess Mononoke," "Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind"). Miyazaki's environmental message gets a small role here, in the opening credit sequence as Kiki flies over a smog-producing industrial park. Even high above the ground, the pollutants make Kiki cough (she speeds away, of course).
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originally posted: 05/28/05 16:05:36