Thursday 24 July 2008

Kiki's Delivery Service (1989)

A decade after The Castle of Cagliostro, Hayao Miyazaki wasn't just some new guy any more. He'd made Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind, which would have been enough for anyone, but then he followed up with Castle in the Sky and My Neighbour Totoro. The man could do no wrong, and then he went on to greater and greater heights with every release. There's a wonderful message board thread on his page at IMDb where people talk about what they feel Miyazaki's best film is, and it's very telling that not just every one of his films gets votes from someone, but half of them also get the accolade of best animated film of all time. Miyazaki really is up there at the pinnacle of his profession. There's bad animation, mediocre animation, good animation, and then somewhere above all that there's Miyazaki for everyone else to look up at and marvel.

Two hours ago I thought I'd finally seen all of his features when I caught up with The Castle of Cagliostro, but it seems that he caught me on the hop by releasing Ponyo on the Cliff in Japan four days ago. Not only am I now one short again but I don't even have the option of going to see it. I saw all but this one as they should be seen: in original widescreen and in the original Japanese language, with English subtitles. This one was my first Miyazaki but I caught it on an Encore channel in full screen and dubbed into English. Subseqently it became my least favourite. Now I've finally seen it properly, I can appreciate it even more but it does still seem a little lacking when compared to some of the others.

We kick off in northwest Koriko, where Kiki is about to leave home. She's a thirteen year old witch and when a witch turns thirteen, tradition has it that she leave home for a whole year for training and to effectively find her place in the world. So her mother hands down her own broomstick and off she flies to parts unknown, with her cat Jiji in tow. She definitely has plenty of learning to do and hasn't even worked out her special skill yet. In fact she didn't even know that she had to work out her special skill until she met up with another young witch in the air, who tells her so.

They shelter from a storm in a train carriage full of hay, only to find that the train moves on while she's asleep and she ends up in a big town on the coast, where people aren't quite used to witches. They keep asking to talk to her parents or for her to provide identification and obey the law. A young boy on a bicycle distracts a cop who's asking plenty of questions long enough for her to escape but that just makes her mad at him, and she escapes from his questions on a quest for somewhere to be.

Outside a bakery called Gutiokipanja, she finds her place. A mother accidentally leaves her baby's pacifier in the bakery, so she chips in to fly down and deliver it before the baby wakes up. Suddenly, courtesy of the owner, a lady called Osono (who isn't large, she's pregnant), she has an attic to live in and to run a business from, a phone to use and free breakfast, all for the price of helping out in the bakery. Hence Kiki's Delivery Service is born.

There's a lot of magic here. Miyazaki has a knack of making simple films that are full of reality that it knocks our socks off and we can't help but fight back a tear or a gasp or some other reaction that we're not supposed to feel any more as adults. Like most of his lead characters, Kiki is young and discovering who she is, and we get to discover along with her. It's not just about independence, though that's the heart of it; it's about maturity and confidence. There's a major thread of the story where Kiki loses her confidence and with it her magical powers. The scene when she finds she can't understand Jiji, her cat, is a peach.

On her voyage of discovery she meets a set of delightful characters: Osono, who runs the bakery while she's pregnant; a young artist who lives in a forest and paints crows from her cottage roof; Tombo, the boy with the bicycle, who has dreams of flying. My favourites may well be the pair of doddering yet adventurous old women who make herring and pumpkin pie, only to have said pie disdainfully discarded by the young relative to whom Kiki delivers it, after much effort and heartache. It's down to either the old women or the sleepy dog, who rocks.

There's action here too, not just introspection. You can imagine what happens when Tombo flies off into the air, attached to a cable trailing from a runaway dirigible called the Freedom Adventurer. He always wanted to fly but this isn't quite how he'd envisaged it and it's up to Kiki to help him out. The name of the dirigible is important, as the incident for Tombo equates to merely travelling to this town for Kiki. Thirteen years old and spending a year away from home in a place where she doesn't know anyone... that definitely sounds like a freedom adventurer.

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