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Classic film review: 'Kiki's Delivery Service' is magically sublime

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Kiki's Delivery Service

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Hayao Miyazaki's "Kiki's Delivery Service" is all about Kiki's black cat, Jiji. Not in the sense that Jiji is the main character or that the story revolves around him but that the main thematic core that Miyazaki is trying to get at lies in what happens with Jiji. He starts off as the wise-cracking sidekick of Kiki as she first stumbles into the big city and ends up being, well, a normal cat. This is a Japanese animated film directed by one of the most prestigious filmmakers in the world; if this sort of story were created stateside on a budget three times as large, Jiji would remain talking and would insist on blathering out jokes that forcefully try to be hip to the fads of the times rendering the jokes obsolete within a month. No, Jiji becomes a cat at a point in the film when Kiki begins to have primal doubts...and he stays that way after Kiki has regained her strength and powers. But how and why does Miyazaki choose to do this? For one, this film, despite its claim to fame, is not really about witches and witchcraft. Secondly, Miyazaki cares more about letting his protagonist steadily grow and confront the absurdity of growing up and the fears associated with it. "Kiki's Delivery Service" is magically sublime in it's coming-of-age plot because of the nuance and gentleness that is given to the star of the film.

Kiki is a thirteen year old witch who is old enough to leave home for a year so that she can make a living in another city and find a skill that compliments her training as a witch. Her mother is a pharmacist who has made a name for herself as a witch in their town. Kiki flies to a sprawling city that is a fantastical meshing of Monacan and French architecture with a dollop of German mystique. She settles here in hopes to finding a new skill yet, right from the start, it is not easy. She causes a car accident due to her carelessness and must evade the police all while trying to find a place to stay for the night. Kiki eventually finds that her flying abilities can be served to run a delivery service out of a local bakery story owed by the motherly Osono and her quietly tender husband. Naturally, things don't come easy for Kiki as she tries to adjust to this more responsible lifestyle.

Miyazaki is keen on capturing all the moments of Kiki's growth, from the gargantuan to the subtle, though the subtle moments are the ones that really propel much of the protagonist's change. Kiki as a character perfectly embodies the strangeness of growing up and the fears, anxieties, and uncertainties that arise. The film observes many little moments that formulate such a strangeness: the way Kiki pulls down her dress as she meets up with another, more experience (and snotty) witch or the way she walks around with a blank gaze on her face in times of social anxiety. Sometimes, the filmmakers made the choice of only employing diagetic sound and we are left to gaze upon Kiki's ambiguous feelings, feelings she cannot even understand. When she storms off from her friend Tombo after a fun excursion because other friends eventually show up, it is not like we fully understand why she did that. She doesn't either, but it is all part of growing up and the ability to come to terms with these new feelings and to substitute confidence for any uncertainties that arise whether it would be vocational, financial, or even with relationships. The scene, though, captures this fearful moment in time and the shots follow her aimlessly as she robotically walks along a busy street back to her home, where she falls flat on her bad in muddled anguish. The pacing of these scenes are on average slower than other scenes again allowing us to ponder her actions and attempt to understand what she feels.

These fears and anxieties of the real world are seen to have bombarded Kiki's sense of purpose and her vocational aspirations of being a successful witch. A masterstroke for Miyazaki, the film does not treat witchcraft as a gimmick to suspend the whole film leaving the viewer with a shallow plot. Rather, witchcraft is seen as a vocation, a passion, that can be studied and practiced and perfected with enough determination; the manifestation of the traditional Japanese mentality. Kiki is first worried about the practicality of her skills and soon is worried about retaining her skills altogether and Miyazaki infuses the story with many parallels like the aforementioned Osono and her love for baking as well as a painter who teaches Kiki about determination and inspiration. The artful approach the film takes creates weight to the witchcraft and gives it a passionate purpose.

Along with the moments of silence this film is filled with gentle comedy and other moments that literally force you to wear a smile on your face: Kiki running from the bathroom back to her room so no one will see here, her overnight stay on a train carrying cows, and a slapstick episode that involves Jiji posing as a fake cat and an old dog who is most understanding of Kiki's plight. These are careful and crafted moments that amplify a world inhabited by colorful figures (both figuratively and literally) and curiosities to be explored. The viewers go along this adventure with a girl trying to figure things out for herself.

There are many other things to contemplate about in this film: the setting and it's traditional cosmopolitan presentation, the famous Miyazaki motif of flying, and even more about those silent moments of anxiety and uncertainty. This film, along with Miyazaki's masterpiece, "My Neighbor Totoro," represent a time in the animators career where he made simplistically subtle films or films that held much subtle content in the framework of a simplistic premise. These two films articulate feelings that can easily be generalized but, with some admiration and inspiration, also be imbued with potent themes that both kids and adults can enjoy. This film is about how Kiki can balance her newly realistic view of the world with her idyllic fantasies still fresh from her ending childhood. It is charming and intelligent all without losing any notion of ambiguity. So let's get back to Jiji: here is a character that essentially, for lack of a better term, loses his character yet remains just as crucial to the story. Jiji's transformation not only represents Kiki growing up and her looking outside childhood normalcy to seek friendship and consolation but also her acceptance for this change and larger responsibility to initiate such a process. Jiji is the Jiminy Cricket that is no longer needed and does not need to be a reflection of Kiki's thoughts. She is individualized and she acts as her own agent. What an ambitious move by Miyzaki. What a brave and rewarding move by a master filmmaker. This is the magic of "Kiki's Delivery Service."

"Kiki's Delivery Service" | 1989 | 102 minutes | Rated G

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