Warning: Not an overly complex plot to spoil but there will be some spoilers.
I haven’t done a film review in a while, and I was so…confused by the overwhelming response to Kiki’s Delivery Service, a 1989 animated film from Studio Ghibli, that I was compelled to write about it.
Maybe some of it has to do with age. As an adult versus being a preteen, which is when this film should be watched, it spoke to me differently. My introduction to the work of Studio Ghibli and Hayao Miyazaki was Howl’s Moving Castle, a dark and strange film but intriguing and beautifully drawn. The studio has a glowing reputation, so much so a theme park dedicated to their films is planned for 2022, and after Howl’s I wanted to watch more. With the disappearance of video rental brick and mortars, finding these imports via streaming services was difficult until HBO Max finally brought them stateside.
Kiki’s Delivery Service is the story of 13 year old Kiki, who according to tradition, must spend a year away from home to train to become a witch. With her friend-cat, Jiji, Kiki finds herself in a seaside town reminiscent of various European towns set in the 1950s. Kiki’s story is a coming of age tale, the desire for independence and social acceptance while learning to embrace what makes you special. While all of this is well and good, the glaring problems overshadowed the simple plot, and I couldn’t get over them the entire movie.
The film is based on a novel, so maybe some of the issues I have with the story are better explained in the book but this is a film review, so we’ll work with said material.
Kiki is preparing for her yearlong study abroad when the film opens. Her mother remarks that she hasn’t had time to train her and her father asks her to write to them, if she can. This led me to believe that wherever Kiki was going, she would most likely be busy and ill prepared. What we learn is that there is no real preparation for Kiki’s training. There is no guardian awaiting her arrival, no school to attend, not even a mentor or senior witch waiting to teach her their knowledge or skills. She doesn’t have a place to stay lined up, nor even an inkling of an idea as to where she’s going. She is just sent out into the world under the guise that she will teach herself what she needs to know wherever she ends up.
Her only witch talent is flying, and initially she isn’t even very good at that. The only other indication of any special ability is that she can communicate with her cat.
Fate clearly plays a part in her journey as it allows her to find herself in a nice place with kind people who look after her, but I couldn’t get over the fact that her parents sent her away without knowing if she would be okay, for a year, with a sandwich, a bit of pocket money, and the promise that she would write when she could. This was problem number one for me.
Problem number two – how do you train to become a witch without someone to advise you? How do you discover your talents or abilities without someone challenging you to explore what you’re capable of? She has no teacher, not even a book to use as a reference, and apparently her mother ignored the lessons she was supposed to impart, but sure, go out into the world and be a witch.
Problem number three – she isn’t given any challenges where she might learn another ability, or at least attempt to discover some hidden talent, she just flies on a broom, which is fine, but given the premise of the film, she should be learning more. I understand that this is probably a metaphor for finding your place in the world, just as you are, but I just think that with a character defined as a witch, she should have been more inclined to magic.
She creates her “delivery service”, a business delivering goods around town using her flying in order to survive in this new place. She meets new people who challenge her and introduce her to new things, and as she comes of age, struggling to maintain her confidence and her desire to fit in, which are universal themes, she stumbles and has to ask herself a question that often plagues us – are we good enough?
While I appreciated the themes, I think they could have been executed differently. As a writer, I often wonder how a story could have better approached a topic because it’s a world I want to be a part of. I could not get past the problems which I found to be irresponsible, bordering on dangerous. At one point, Kiki hitchhikes with a woman who lives alone in the woods. What sort of message is that?
Now, I understand this is an animated tale, and fantasy at that, but the audience for which it is intended is impressionable. I may be overly sensitive. While I didn’t hashtag the MeToo movement, I do have a number of my own stories, and sending a child out into the world without any protections, under some misguided pretenses, is just not a story I can get on board with.
Well, that’s a whole lot of ramble and I didn’t even get to a couple of the things I had initially planned on.