Swaying grass, rippling water, towering trees, cobblestone streets, and of course magic: from these elements Hayao Miyazaki and his animators crafted the world of Kiki’s Delivery Service (1989). They provide such a rich backdrop for the tale of teenage witch Kiki, a girl for whom witchcraft is both vocation and an emblem of outsider status. Just as in other Miyazaki movies like Spirited Away or Ponyo, magic functions here as metaphor, as the storytelling device that sets a young woman’s bildungsroman into motion. These movies may be enchanted fantasies on the surface, but at heart they’re all about a small set of real-world issues: family, responsibility, maturation. They’re driven not by supernatural contrivance, but by the simple fact that life is difficult.
Kiki can fly on a broomstick, an action the film exploits for maximum spectacle. And she can talk with her black cat Jiji, who (in the fine tradition of witches’ familiars) acts as her foil and confidante. But beyond these powers, she’s like any other 13-year-old girl thrust out to live on her own. She’s still a little childish, a little naïve, but also resourceful, hard-working, empathetic. When two old women need help baking a pie for her to deliver, she throws herself into the labor of stoking a fire—not because she has to, mind you, but because she enjoys putting her skills in the service of these newfound friends. She’s still anxious, still self-conscious and vulnerable, but over the course of the film she grows. She overcomes her fears and develops a series of new, supportive relationships.
It all makes for a ideal example of how to write a complex female protagonist. The film explains how to animate her, too: with four quiet colors and a round, expressive face. For a supposed “kids’ movie,” everything about Kiki’s Delivery Service is executed with a startling amount of subtlety and restraint. I especially love the rhythm of the film’s editing. The pace is relaxed, just enough room to breathe, drawing the audience in with its graceful classicism. The same philosophy informs the sound design, which grows simpler as narrative tension mounts, even descending into total silence at the height of the film’s airborne climax. Miyazaki crams power into every detail and every elision.
One detail in particular walloped me with overwhelming emotional force. Late in the film, Kiki experiences some mild depression, losing her self-confidence and her magical abilities with it. She can’t fly and Jiji no longer speaks. It takes some soul-searching and a life-threatening crisis, but pretty soon she’s back on a broom and up in the air. Yet even after every loose end is tied up, Jiji doesn’t say another word. He’s a normal cat now, with a girlfriend and a litter of kittens. I know that this counts as a happy ending, I know that he’s still around and that Kiki has human friends now, but it still engenders a deep sense of loss in me. But then, that’s growing up. That’s magic used as a poignant metaphor. That’s the kind of unremarked-upon detail that makes Kiki’s Delivery Service truly special.