You know those movies from your childhood that you used to watch all the time? The ones that still put a little fear in your parents’ eyes if you mention the titles now? The last review I shared about Rock-A-Doodle was one of those movies for me, and another one absolutely was- and still is- Kiki’s Delivery Service. Every time I watch it, even now at 28, it resonates with me more and more.
“Kiki’s Delivery Service” is based on a Japanese novel of the same name by Eiko Kadono in 1985. Although the novel is less plot driven. It’s more episodic, following a witch named Kiki on her adventures in a fictional northern European village. It has almost none of the bigger conflicts that become plot points in the movie later on, which would cause for a clash between Kadono and Studio Ghibli, who picked up the novel to produce as an animated film with Hayao Miyazaki. But despite Kadono almost pulling out of the deal, everything worked out in the end and the studio was able to move forward with the movie.
Another animation giant that was interested in the film was Walt Disney Studios. It’s because of a partnership between them and Studio Ghibli that we would thankfully get the popular 1997 English Dub of the movie in English speaking countries, which includes voice acting from a young Kirstin Dunst, Phil Hartman, and the incredible Debbie Reynolds. That version is currently available to watch on HBO Max, which is where I watched it this time, although I'm a proud owner of a DVD copy.
Now I don't think I’ve hit many big spoilers yet (unless you didn't know that Kiki was a witch- whoops), but as always with my reviews I’m going to provide a little synopsis of the film with INTENSE SPOILERS ABOUT LIKE EVERYTHING. So this is where I suggest that if you haven’t seen the film you either STOP READING NOW and go watch it on HBO Max and come back to this article, OR if you don’t care about spoilers, please, continue on and live dangerously.
We start the film with a flash of the gorgeous ”Kiki’s Delivery Service” logo and then we’re set down in a field of flowers by a pond, where Kiki is laying down and listening to her radio, with the wind rushing around her. The radio states that tonight is going to be clear skies with a full moon, and Kiki runs straight home, telling her parents excitedly that “Tonight is the night!”. The perfect night for her to begin her journey as a witch trainee. In their world, as her mother explains to a woman she's mixing a potion for, each young witch must leave home to complete her training in a new town after she turns 13. Kiki’s mother is the witch for their small town, and seems nervous about letting her daughter go, but Kiki is confident in her decision.
The family prepares for her departure. Kiki packs her bag as her very sarcastic black cat, Jiji, objects to leaving so soon. But Kiki is determined. While her father calls relatives to let them know about her departure, Kiki’s mother gives her a beautiful dark purple dress. She thinks that she would look better in Lilac, but her mother tells her this is the color witches have been wearing for a very long time. She has a heartfelt scene with her father, where he swings her around in the air like when she was little, and then tells her she’s “grown up too fast” and that she can “always come back home” if she needs to.
At midnight, relatives and friends are gathered together to watch her take off on her broomstick, which is a little shaky, and doesn’t make her mother feel confident. But once Kiki is high up in the air, everyone feels assured that she’s going to make it. Once in the air, she tells Jiji, the cat, that they’re heading south, towards the ocean. They turn on the radio and a small title sequence ensues as she flies.
After an encounter with another witch who looks close to her age, and ends up being pretty unfriendly, Kiki gets caught in a storm and is forced to land on the ground, since she can’t stay up in the rain. She and Jiji crash land into cargo train that’s stopped for the night. Thankfully they crashed into a large pile of hay, which they get comfortable in so they can sleep. When morning comes, the train is moving, and when Kiki pops her head out she sees that the train has brought her South, by the ocean! Exactly what she was dreaming of. She spots a large oceanside town nearby, and they take off again, flying in the direction of all of the buildings.
As she glides through the streets, it all feels idyllic at first, until she almost gets hit by a car! Thankfully no one is hurt, but Kiki spins out of control and comes to a crash landing once again. Then she is met by somewhat unwelcoming townspeople, an annoying boy on a bike, and a run in with a police officer. After a rough day wandering through the city, she realizes that it’s going to be harder for her on her own than she thought.
But suddenly, she meets a very kind woman who owns a bakery, Osono, and helps her deliver a baby’s pacifier back to a mother who had left it at the bakery, and was now too far away to hear Osono call to her. Once she’s back at Osono’s house, she offers Kiki a room to stay in, and things in the town don’t seem as scary anymore.
Things afterwards aren’t the easiest for Kiki, but she keeps positive about it all. After supplies to live in her new town cost more than she expected, she gets a delivery that doesn’t go very well, causing her to get attacked by crows. But she does make a new painter friend on the trip, Ursula.
She gets invited to a party by the boy from earlier in the movie, Tombo, who keeps popping up at the worst times, and she reluctantly agrees to go with him. But just then she also gets a delivery request that requires her to fly out of town. She finds a grand house where Madame, an elderly woman, doesn’t have her delivery ready yet because it’s not baked. She can’t get her oven to work, and she apologizes for the delay.
Being the ever polite and courteous character, Kiki says “No problem!” and helps Madame to get an old built-in wood burning oven working, which cooks the pie much better than the original oven would have, but takes more time. While they wait, Kiki helps Madame with things around the house, but suddenly they realize that time is running short, and if Kiki doesn't hurry, she’ll be late for the party she was invited to.
Dark storm clouds are already heavy as she flies off with the pie for delivery, and although Jiji urges her to land, she pushes on through the pouring rain and thunder, driven by the fear that she’ll be late. She arrives to her delivery destination, Madame’s granddaughter’s ritzy birthday party, where she delivers the pie they worked very hard on to an extremely ungrateful girl who is about her age. She flies home, sad, cold, and soaking wet. As she gets to the building she seems Tombo walking away, and Jiji says she could still catch him, but she’s too soaked and upset, and just goes to her room.
The next morning she wakes up very sick from the storm, but Osono helps to nurse her back to health. Once she’s better, Osono “helps” more by setting up a delivery that's secretly going to Tombo, in an effort to set Kiki up on a date with him. The plot works, and they take a ride through the town on Tombo’s bike that he’s modified to have a giant propeller, in an attempt to fly.
He shares that his ultimate dream is being able to fly like Kiki can, but she admits that flying hasn’t felt as fun lately since it had to become her job. Suddenly a car of kids drives up and calls out to Tombo to join them. He wants Kiki to come with him to meet them all, but she recognizes one of the girls as Madame’s granddaughter, and feeling very different from all of the other kids, Kiki gets angry and says she has to go, she’s very busy.
Once she gets home, she slumps on the bed, depressed. She realizes in horror that she can’t understand Jiji anymore and he can’t understand her. He's just meowing like a regular cat. Suddenly wondering if this hindrance is also affecting her powers and grabs her broomstick to find that it is. She can’t fly anymore either!
Finding that her magic is leaving her for some reason, she tells Osono that she has to stop her delivery business, but Osono agrees to let her stay in the room they’ve given her and continue to help with the bakery. She tells Tombo to leave her alone and ultimately is living in a sense of defeat.
It’s at this time that her painter friend from the first delivery, Ursula, comes to visit her at the bakery. Feeling instantly that Kiki has changed, and is much sadder from the girl she met before, Ursula suggests that Kiki come to stay with her in her cabin for a few days, out of the city. She’s a little reluctant, but she agrees.
Through their journey back Kiki’s personality starts to shine through again, and when they get to Ursula’s cabin she’s inspired by the paintings all around. Ursula, feeling inspired by Kiki, asks if she can paint a portrait of her. At the end of the day, they huddle together in front of the fire, and Ursula tells Kiki that when she decided to be a painter it was her favorite thing to do, but over time, she couldn’t see her talent anymore. She felt like her paintings were uninspired, or looked like copies of other paintings. It wasn’t until she was able to find her own style and inspiration from her own spirit that she was able to paint again. She assure Kiki that her ability will come back, and she’ll fly again. She just has to find her inspiration.
On her way back from Ursula’s, she stops by Madame’s house, to pick up another delivery for her, when a news bulletin on the TV tells them that a boy is in danger, hanging by a rope from a flying blimp. She realizes the boy is Tombo, and in a panic, she runs off to save him.
Once she’s closer, not knowing quite what to do, she asks a man if she can borrow his broom, which he reluctantly gives to her, and she concentrates all of her energy on regaining her powers and being able to fly. She does it, and soars off towards the blimp and Tombo, which is quickly heading towards a collision with the city’s clock tower.
In the end, Kiki is able to regain her powers and bravely saves the day- and Tombo. The final scene is a heartwarming montage during the credits, which shows that Kiki and Tombo flying around the town, as life continues moving forward, as it always has, and always will.
Kiki’s Delivery Service is a fun, magical, and beautiful film, but it also holds a lot of deeper themes within it, sometimes hidden in the smaller moments of the movie, rather than in the spoken lines. I'm sure you can find many, but I'm just going to touch on a few of the more important ones.
First of all, a strong theme that’s very obviously threaded through the story is the ides of independence. Kiki’s drive is to be confident, strong, and able to show everyone that she can take care of herself. She is helped by many people, but her core attitude is “I can handle it”. I've had to tell myself many times throughout life that it's okay to accept help. It’s still hard though, admittedly, especially when I’m feeling embarrassed.
Going hands-in and with this is a difficulty though adolescence that she runs into, and is very universal for many of us. I think the strongest view of this is when she loses her powers and is not able to understand Jiji. She's lost her powers because she’s lost her belief in good and her belief in herself. Her world goes dark because she’s going through intense self-doubt. Ursula is able to help her find her way again, and understand that it’s about your journey, not the others around you.
Even though she overcomes this self-doubt by the end of the film and regains her abilities, she’s still not able to understand Jiji. A sign that there are still some things we lose along the way to maturity, whether we want to or not. And that can be painful, but pain is an important part of understanding life, that can't be pushed aside.
Another very important theme is the clash between traditional small-town life and a contemporary one in the city. This is shown brilliantly through small moments that you might not notice, like with the other kids of the city. Multiple times we see them packed into cars, whisking away on mopeds, and acting recklessly, while Kiki is quite proper and polite. There’s also an economic divide being shown. Because she moved into the city from a small town and isn’t from an affluent upbringing like the other kids, she has to work for a living. This also speaks to Kiki’s general naivety about the ways of the city itself, making her feel like a fish out of water.
Another strong view of this theme is her relationship with Madame, who appreciates Kiki’s patience and knowledge of more traditional things, like the wood-fired oven and cleaning. Things that the kids from the city care very little about.
The last theme I want to touch on is witchcraft, of course. But mainly because Miyozski wanted very specifically for “witchcraft” to be a theme rather than “magic”. At that time many of the “magical girl” stories being told in his area involved a super-girl who was able to solve all of her problems with her magic and got whatever she wanted. In contrast, Kiki can't solve her problems with her witchcraft, and it doesn’t even bring her a high place of status, it's just a fact of her existence. He wanted to show witchcraft as an idea that has structure, tradition, and rules in place and wanted to bring in elements of witchcraft that felt familiar like Kiki’s flying broomstick, and Jiji being a black cat.
Kiki’s Delivery service has been one of my favorite movies since I was little. I truly can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen it, but every time I watch it I feel like I catch something new that I’ve never seen before. And at this point in my life, I feel like I relate to it more than I ever have.
When I moved to Los Angeles from Omaha, Nebraska, I thought I knew about city life, and I thought that my path would be easy, and I’ve come to find that both of those have not been true. I lost my magic for a long time, and have only recently been feeling like I’m finding my inspiration again. There are some things I’ve lost along the way, but those are experiences I’ve learned a lot from, and I’m happy to be moving forward with that knowledge. The city, and life in general, finds lots of ways to knock us down. But we are all magical, strong, and confident. It just requires finding your inspiration.