Sunday, March 22, 2009
Kiki's Delivery Service (1989)
I first saw Miyazaki's Spirited Away during my senior year of high school. It was a weekend night shortly before I graduated, and I was tired of chasing after my friends as they partied up and down the coast, so I cozied up at my dad's house, burned some Nag Champa, and popped Princess Mononoke into my PS2. I remember being amazed, but in a quiet way that I've since experienced with Miyazaki's other works as well. Mononoke energized the eighteen year-old me with its moments of raw emotion and beautifully-rendered violence, plus no teenage boy can resist badass lines like: "Now watch closely, everyone. I'm going to show you how to kill a god. A god of life and death. The trick is not to fear him."
However, beyond its adolescent-approved coolness, Princess Mononoke won me over with its strong mythic themes, universal characters, and emotional impact. It's a film filled with equal parts intensity and thoughtfulness, and these are the qualities that have caused me to have equally strong memories of my first viewings of Miyazaki's other films. Few other filmmakers produce work that leaves me both slightly sleepy and completely satisfied by the time I finish watching. And I definitely mean that in a good way.
I had avoided Kiki's Delivery Service for years because it seemed so childish, especially when compared to war epics like Nausicaa and Princess Mononoke. Much of this is no doubt due to Disney's horrid American marketing campaign, though, to be fair, the film is definitely friendlier than some of Miyazaki's others (no decapitations or bloodthirsty demons). My aversion of the film is unfortunate, as it shows the extent to which I have bought into that bad American prejudice that animated films must necessarily be children's fare unless they contain sex and violence.
Kiki is a thirteen year-old witch who leaves home in order to hone her magical skills in a new town. She settles in a sleepy port town that seems to mix facets of sparkling 1950's exuberance with quaint European charm, and from here she establishes a delivery business so that she can put her broomstick-flying skills to good use. The film maintains a domestic focus and revolves around preparing food, running errands, and going to parties. This is a world run by women, as the film features plenty full of strong female characters, while the only men all end up as lovable doofuses. The only prominent, multi-faceted male character is Kiki's cat, Jiji, who also happens to be the only character to possess any kind of sexual impulse. Even the pregnant Osono barely seems to acknowledge her husband/creepy male companion.
On the one hand, I think it's great that Miyazaki has crafted a world with such strong female characters. However, it's also a little disappointing that their lives seem to revolve entirely around cooking, cleaning, and throwing parties. Even though Kiki is an adventurous misfit, her rebellious desires center around finding a home, saving enough money to afford beautiful clothes, and performing household chores to gain the good graces of others. The film therefore exists at a curious crossroads as it simultaneously reinforces traditional female domesticity while empowering its women as active, hard-working agents of change.
Unlike many of Miyazaki's other films, Kiki's characters also primarily occupy themselves with the mundane problems of the real world. Kiki struggles to keep appointments, balance her work load, and overcome her own self-doubts. The film's climactic episode sees her working against an accident that has resulted from poor municipal planning. In a sense, Miyazaki might be too in love with the charming little world he has created, as he never creates any threats or challenges that might fundamentally upend the town's permanent order. This sets Kiki apart from other Miyazaki works, in which characters must regularly confront altogether calamitous situations. The result is that Kiki feels sleepier, cozier, and less philosophical than other films like Princess Mononoke or Nausicaa. This isn't necessarily a bad thing, though it would have been nice to see Kiki's characters confront problems with a bit more weight than figuring out how long to keep a pie in the oven.
Also, beware: the American DVD is set by default to play a Disney-recorded English language voice-over. Not only is this really annoying, but it will also cause you to miss the film's really amazing Japanese retro 50's pop opening song.