We open on a shot of the clouds passing by, and then cut to a young person gazing up at them, their own unknowable future staring back. It’s not the latest Richard Linklater movie – it’s Hayao Miyazaki’s tale of witchhood. Young Kiki has to set out on her own (with her cat, Jiji, and via broom, of course) to find a new town, where she’s to hone her magical craft. Before she sets off, Miyazaki’s eye for observational nuance and idiosyncratic detail takes its own flight. Her room is littered with knickknacks and ornaments, and Kiki’s last look at it all – at the life she’s built, and is leaving – quietly devastates. It’s a telling precursor: The film may revolve around flying, but it’s emotional core is earthbound.
She ends up on a seaside, which Miyazaki renders a living watercolor painting. Anticipating the palette he’d employ again in PONYO and THE WIND RISES, he emphasizes pastels; casting clouds as blobs of paint, and lingering on impressionistically drawn skylines throughout. An iconic Joe Hisaishi score underlines the montages that recur throughout the film: Miyazaki cutting from the birds flying overhead, to the rooftops, to the crowds bustling below, moving in harmony through farmer’s markets and street corners – the poetry of the everyday.
Which is not something Kiki is able to enjoy right away. She’s almost run over crossing the street, for one thing – what’s a country witch to know about crossing signals? That puts the cops on her tail, and soon enough she’s dashing through dark alleys, without money to her name, or a roof over her head. So her character arc doesn’t concern her witchcraft much, even if her powers do fuel the business that gives the film its title. What Kiki desires is not power or pleasure or even romance, but merely a place in those urban landscapes that Miyazaki has so lovingly crafted. Here’s a city symphony for an imagined city.
The narrative is episodic: Passages see Kiki struggle on her own through unrelated tasks and assignments, only to come out winning once she’s able to procure help from a neighbor or friend. An entrepreneurial mother-to-be gives her lodging, and helps her start her delivery service. A 20-something artist befriends her, offering spiritual advice. A kindly grandmother offers her regular work, with large tips to boot. In one of the film’s few ‘episodes,’ she even finds herself reliant on a client’s dog.
But the workaday nature of her delivery service wears her down, leaving Kiki in a depressive funk. Her ability to fly wanes. And her cat – which normally speaks fluent English (or Japanese, or whatever language you’re watching the film in) – can no longer converse with her. This continues until the climactic sequence, which crafts a scenario where the community needs to call on Kiki for help instead. As with all the fantastical elements of the film, the sequence exists only to further accentuate the drama occurring within Kiki: the push-pull between accepting charity and valuing self-reliance, the desire to find a balance between independence and co-dependence. Like Miyazaki’s other masterpiece of flight,THE WIND RISES, DELIVERY SERVICE is an outsized portrait of a conflicted inner life.
Thinking back to BOYHOOD: A few critics noted that the film’s masculine focus – consciously, intentionally, or otherwise – was unfortunately reflective of the sexist slant coloring the whole of culture. And many of those criticisms rightfully wondered when somebody would get to work making a film about the complexities of a young girl’s adolescence. A film that tracks a young girl internally more so than externally. A film that’s attuned to the quiet rhythms of her upbringing (the pangs of desire brought on by a pair of shoes, say, or struggling with shifting affections for a barely known boy,) more so than melodrama. Studio Ghibli already created such a film, and it even has the same opening compositions as BOYHOOD. It’s KIKI’S DELIVERY SERVICE.