Kiki’s Delivery Service is Studio Ghibli’s Coming of Age

American children’s films have made me bloody cynical.

Thanks to Disney and their ilk, I’m suspicious of nearly every character in Kiki’s Delivery Service – Studio Ghibli’s delightful coming of age tale about the titular young witch as she goes out into the world for the first time. Seriously – her employer/landlord/mentor Osono, every time she winked, my Disneyfied brain screamed “run, Kiki! She’ll betray you or exploit you as child labor!” Or the two kind old women who need Kiki to deliver a fish pie only for their oven to break. As soon as I saw the old coal oven I immediately though they were going to try and cook the little witch. I nearly called the fucking police! But it wasn’t just my broken brain that made Kiki such a weird viewing experience. It was also something beautifully unexpected.

I’ve been in a Ghibli mood this week for the first time in years. Like so many before me, when I discovered the studio, I went for the hits. I was slightly confused and weirdly moved by My Neighbour Totoro (my advice to anyone coming to these films for the first time: don’t start here, it goes down better the more familiar you are with Studio Ghibli’s style), utterly terrified by Spirited Away (seriously, am I the only one who understands that this film is the reason therapy exists), delighted with the simple pleasures of The Cat Returns (a lesser work but still one of my favourites), and blown away by both Howl’s Moving Castle and Princes Mononoke. Then I left it. Like someone who only reads The Handmaid’s Tale and foolishly thinks that they’ve got all they’re going to get out of Margaret Atwood (this is my cack-handed way of telling everyone reading this to read more Margaret Atwood. She’s the best. Seriously).

So, in part due to my brother’s love of Nausicaä: The Valley of the Wind, I decided to plug the gaps of my Ghibli knowledge. I really didn’t think I would write about it (after all, I don’t write about everything I watch, I watched The Big Combo and the movie Martin on the same night as Kiki and I know no one wants to hear about them) but Kiki’s Delivery Service really took me by surprise. I was completely captivated by Nausicaä, a better version of Dune than any currently released (you heard me!), and Castle in the Sky might have been even better; I haven’t decided on that just yet. 

Kiki’s Delivery Service is the fifth film released by Studio Ghibli and, in a strange way, it’s the most and least ambitious work the studio produced at that point. It was far less epic than Nausicaä and Castle – two of the most accomplished adventure films ever made – it isn’t as dark as Grave of Fireflies, and it isn’t as abstract or as mythical as Totoro. These four films make up the first bunch of classics, and I believe that Kiki’s major differences to all of them are what make it the fifth classic in a row.

They key is simplicity. Kiki is about a young girl dealing with her adolescence – the fact that she’s a witch is window dressing to a very heart-warming coming of age story. Also, before we go any further into the brainy bit, I fucking love Jiji and I realise that I only love him because he’s a cat. If he were, say, a crappy looking snowman, or any one of Disney’s insufferable breakout characters with the exact same script every single time, I would hate him. I love cats, I even love my cat and she isn’t witty at all. Except for here in this article, obviously.

The films before Kiki played out on a much larger scale with quests, magic, apocalyptic threats, the big stuff,and the success of those films allowed director Hayao Miyazaki to try his hand at a smaller story. The success of Kiki meant that films like Ocean Waves, From Up On Poppy Hill, and A Whisper of the Heart (which arguably perfects a lot of things Kiki brought to the table) brought variation to what Studio Ghibli was capable of. 

Kiki is a character study. She’s a young girl who can’t wait to grow up and put her mark on the world but it isn’t as easy as she wants it to be. The film, even with it’s whimsical delivery set pieces (the children of this city are dicks), is more concerned with Kiki’s interior changes than the exterior. This is a kids film where the hero experiences social anxiety even when she is thriving in other places; as someone who can barely get out of bed some days, I cannot understate how huge that is. Kiki was dealing with themes of identity, anxiety, and insecurity almost thirty years before Inside Out, but the conversation Hayao Miyazaki is having with us is far more complex.

Kiki’s skill is flying, though she actually has a lot of skills that have nothing to do with magic, and it’s flying that allows her to go into business for herself. She loves to fly, but begins to doubt this love the more she uses it for her job. This is something I think that every creative person (and by that I mean everyone – creativity isn’t just about art) has dealt with when they try to turn that skill into a means of earning a living. Perhaps Miyazaki himself was feeling creatively exhausted with his high concept and vividly detailed earlier films that he decided to make Kiki about that very thing. Inspiration, passion, and the need to keep a roof over your head are not easily compatible states. I love writing about movies, but I’ve had weeks and months where I’ve felt like an organ grinder churning and churning out content so I could eat and sleep indoors, which is the actual reality of freelancing rather than the sexy starving artist type. Trust me, there’s nothing sexy about the glee of finding just enough change on your bedroom floor that you can have the luxury of a bottle of coke.

I digress. Kiki’s Delivery Service has had a profound effect on me, as a creative person, as an anxious person, as a person-person. I only finished it an hour ago and I had to write about it. It’s a family film about real things that we all deal with. How childhood can be blunted by the adult world, how work can be a little soul-destroying, and, of course, that everything a cat says is hilarious. Even when it’s not. 

(header image via The Guardian)

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