REVIEW: 魔女の宅急便 [Majo no takkyûbin] [Kiki’s Delivery Service] [1989]

Rating: 7 out of 10.
  • Rating: G | Runtime: 103 minutes
    Release Date: July 29th, 1989 (Japan)
    Studio: Studio Ghibli / Toei Company / GKIDS
    Director(s): Hayao Miyazaki
    Writer(s): Hayao Miyazaki / Eiko Kadono (novel)

Just follow your heart and keep smiling.

Every witch upon her thirteenth birthday must leave home for a year abroad to hone her witchcraft skills. She must find a community without witches and establish herself within it via a career based in the magic she provides—through whatever form is unique to her. It’s a time for excitement and trepidation as she’s forced to advance towards adulthood extremely early with no support system but the one she hopes to uncover wherever she lands. While some surely feel a bit of both emotions straight away, however, Kiki (Kirsten Dunst) has too much optimistic energy to even think about fearing the potential struggles she might face. So despite telling her parents she’d be leaving next month, tonight’s clear sky and full moon proves too perfect to ignore.

Off she goes with her black cat Jiji (Phil Hartman) to find a coastal city to call her own without a care in the world. Barely able to keep upright during flight and constantly bouncing off trees and buildings, fate does Kiki a favor when the train she decides to sleep in begins moving towards a place that looks and feels just like the ones she’s been dreaming about. Whereas everyone at home loved witches and understood their value, however, the people here aren’t sure what to make of her. They hadn’t seen one in many years and most were too busy to think twice when she rode by on her broomstick. Rather than treat her like an esteemed guest, Kiki became just another tourist in the way.

This is the realization that ignites Kiki’s awakening to discover who she is beyond a “witch” in Hayao Miyazaki‘s Majo no takkyûbin [Kiki’s Delivery Service]. Based on the novel by Eiko Kadono, the filmmaker sought to speak on the disparity that existed between independence and reliance in Japanese girls. Where tradition shelters children her age in school from personal responsibilities outside their familial sphere, Kiki can’t wait to become her own woman and provide a service to better her neighbors like her mother does back home mixing potions. Without yet knowing what her “thing” is, she can’t hit the ground running as expected. And if no one is willing to open his/her door and supply time to figure it out, she might have to turn back.

Luck therefore shines down again while gazing off into the distance and considering Jiji’s plea to find another city. Just when this stop seemed a dead-end, out comes Osono (Tress MacNeille) to shout after a mother turning the corner that she forgot her baby’s pacifier. On a whim and in accordance with her infinite wealth of amiable charity, Kiki volunteers to fly it over for her. It’s both a kindness and a miracle (Osono had never seen a witch travel by broomstick) that cannot go unrewarded. So Kiki finds herself with a room and a telephone to perhaps build a client list and open a delivery business out of her landlord’s bakery. With an increase in happy customers, she’s no longer just “that strange young witch.”

But she isn’t sitting pretty either. She’s thirteen. For every welcoming embrace is a selfish ego. For every fun thing she hopes to do is a reminder that she only has so much money with food proving more essential than a second dress. So while she’s delivering baked pies with love from a grandmother (Debbie Reynolds‘ Madame) to an ungrateful granddaughter, she’s wishing her family was just around the corner to send her a fraction of what’s being wasted on those around this affluent town. And her days only grow more frustrating when juggling a personal life (Matthew Lawrence‘s aviation nut Tombo is infatuated with her ability to fly) against work and understanding the sacrifices adults must make to survive alone. It’s enough to lose faith.

And that’s where Kiki’s main conflict arises since the story is more or less a snapshot of the humble beginnings of her new life devoid of any true antagonist beyond herself. Can she balance a career with still being a kid? Is she ready to give up on the freedom that comes with a safety net to lean into the gift she has been given and foster it with everything she’s got like a painter friend (Janeane Garofalo‘s Ursula) living by herself in the forest to work without distraction? These are questions many of us don’t have to ask ourselves until we’re in our twenties. We’re afforded the luxury of just going off on an adventure without having to worry about being accountable for anything in the meantime.

Kiki is conversely dragged down by that burden before experiencing the chance to live, make mistakes, and discover her identity. She doesn’t know what she wants to do as a witch before leaving home and is unsure about being a delivery girl now that it’s fallen in her lap. And the more her intrinsic sense of worth and duty pushes her to fulfill others’ wants and desires above her own, the spark that drove her just weeks previously starts to fade. If you’ve ever tried to turn the thing you love into a career, you should know this feeling completely. Suddenly the electricity of your compulsion dissipates to leave nothing but a chore behind. Kiki’s enthusiasm wanes as her perpetual smile frowns and her magic goes away.

This crisis of faith resonates as ambivalence inevitably replaces joy. Kiki had hoped to find a place where her witchcraft would be lauded as this special thing everyone loves only to discover it’s no more unique than any other vocation or skill. She’s being paid to provide a service like the baker and the dressmaker. Her talent isn’t thus some esoteric notion of unparalleled genius, but a similar byproduct of hard work and effort. It’s an important lesson for children to learn because it simultaneously teaches them that they aren’t all special butterflies while also explaining that their worth demands compensation. Because whether you’re giving someone happiness with a painting or reaching out a hand to rescue them from falling, you have the power to save a life.

And if someone as genuinely earnest and fallible as Kiki can figure that out and rekindle the self-esteem and strength to move mountains in her way, so can you. It’s not about muscles or intelligence. It’s not about money either. Kiki succeeds because she is likeable to a fault, tenacious in the pursuit of her dreams, and proud of her abilities without a shred of arrogance. We laugh with her rather than at her when things go awry and know the pain of what she’s going through when small inconveniences feel like insurmountable catastrophes. Because she’s willing to help those around her, however, they in turn do whatever they can to help her. That’s the human value and empathetic compassion we need right now. Our success happens together.

courtesy of GKIDS

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