It's slightly unusual by Miyazaki's standards, probably because it's a book adaptation instead of him writing it from scratch. There's no environmental theme. It's not epic. Some of the character designs are a bit more cartoonish than usual. It's still clearly a Miyazaki film, but unusually for him at times you could almost think it was regular anime rather than a Ghibli film. I was reminded of Lupin III
The film even has a theme tune! Strictly speaking it's just the music playing on Kiki's radio during the opening titles, but it's also a jaunty little number by a musician who's become a big enough name that they couldn't negotiate the song rights for the Western DVD release and Disney had to record a replacement song instead. These days she calls herself Yumi Matsutoya, but then she was going as Yumi Arai. Studio Ghibli films all have music, of course, but it doesn't often sound this bouncy. I liked it a lot. I also couldn't help noticing the incidental music, despite not being a musical person. Miyazaki's using tunes, not just movie mood chords. It's lovely stuff, but what I liked best were the moments where he turns it all off goes in the opposite direction. The film's two most dramatic moments play out in silence. They're crucial turning points, quite close to each other in the finale, and the Hollywood version of this film would have underlined them with a triumphalist fanfare. Miyazaki doesn't and it's interesting to see how much more effective they are for it.
The film's production history is of interest. The original novel by Eiko Kadano came out in 1985 and Studio Ghibli bought the rights to adapt it two years later, even though at that point their two main directors, Hayao Miyazaki and Isao Takahata, were both busy with other projects. At that point, Kiki's Delivery Service was only going to be a sixty-minute special. Miyazaki became the film's producer, but he disliked the script of the writer they'd commissioned and in the end started writing a screenplay himself. They visited Europe and Australia to research landscapes and other things about the setting, which is apparently in a fictional country in northern Europe. Eventually they chose to do it in the 1950s in a parallel universe where the two World Wars never happened. Meanwhile Miyazaki was also making changes to Eiko Kadano's storyline, which made her unhappy enough that she threatened to withdraw permission for them to use her book at all. She relented after being invited to the Ghibli studios. In July 1988, Miyazaki finished his rough draft of the screenplay and only then decided that he'd put so much work into the film that he'd direct it after all.
What's odd is that the film's story, such as it is, was beefed up from the novel's. This might surprise anyone who's seen the movie, since it barely seems to have a story at all in the Hollywood sense. There's no antagonist, no villain and almost never any danger. Kiki is a 13-year-old witch and apparently it's customary for witches at that age to leave home and fly off to another town to learn about the world. This Kiki does. She finds a place to stay, makes some friends and sets herself up as a flying delivery service. That's more or less the entire film. There's a bit towards the end about her magic fading temporarily and a friend of hers getting into trouble on a dirigible, but even that much is all Miyazaki's additions. The original book has nothing like that, being much more episodic and apparently just a bunch of little stories about Kiki going about her deliveries.
The results of all this are rather sweet. It's similar to Totoro in its apparent plotlessness and gets away with it almost as effortlessly. Personally I think Totoro works better, but that's because it's more primal and aimed at much younger children. This film is still charming in its depiction of an old-fashioned world and people you want to spend time with. Its magic is treated as matter-of-factly as an ability to swim really well or something. Kiki's family home is completely normal and her mother's witching duties involve nothing more extraordinary than making medicines for their neighbour's rheumatism. You'd never know there was anything different about Kiki at all if it weren't for her broomstick and her talking cat, Jiji.
Talking animal sidekicks are another anime trademark, by the way. That's another reminder that we're rubbing shoulders with Sailor Moon
and Cardcaptor Sakura
. Admittedly Jiji's motion and body language are more feline than you'll see in other comparable anime, but his face is definitely cartoonish. That's probably influenced by the original book's illustrations, mind you. In comparison it's interesting to see the realism here of Miyazaki's birds and dogs, for instance, but all of this film's cats (not just Jiji) exist in a halfway house between Disneyfied cats and real ones. The fact that he can talk is obviously another pointer here, but apparently there's a thematic point I missed tucked away in that. Kiki loses the ability to understand Jiji as her magic fades, but we don't see her get this ability back when her magic returns. Once Jiji's started meowing, he never speaks again. Disney's English dub apparently throws in a line towards the end contradicting this, but Miyazaki had intended Jiji to represent Kiki's immaturity and so over the course of the film she simply outgrows talking to him. That's quite clever, with its connotations that we lose a little magic in the necessary process of growing up, even if it went over my head while I was watching.
Thematically, this is a film about a young teenager growing up and finding her place in the world. Kiki earns money to support herself, worries about her responsibilities towards her customers and has to worry about her future. She even has to deal with boys, or rather one in particular who wants to see her broomstick and thinks she's cool because she can fly. Miyazaki handles that one delicately. No one's thinking below the waist and there's much entertainment to be had from Kiki's attitudes towards this uncouth male, but he and his friends are driving a car and Kiki's capable of getting annoyed and walking away for reasons she doesn't understand.
There have been two English dubs made of this film, both of them apparently quite good as these things go. The first one was made in the early 1990s by Streamline Pictures for showing on Japan Airlines flights and I hear that it was rather well done and more faithful to the original than the 1998 Disney one. It's never been available to buy except on the Japanese laser-discs, but oddly enough the Streamline dub script is what you'll get when you turn on the Western DVDs' subtitles. Meanwhile even the Disney version sounds better than a lot of them, with the only big change being the casting of a Saturday Night Live alumnus (Phil Hartman) as Jiji. The dub's dedicated to his memory, since it was recorded the same year Hartman was murdered by his wife. Mind you, it still has incomprehensible changes like Kiki's coffee becoming hot chocolate on the grounds that Disney thought children drinking coffee was inappropriate. And we call Japan weird...
This is a charming movie, but it's not a big deal. The first time I watched it, I called it a "was that all?" kind of film, but endearing. It has flashes that feel very Miyazaki indeed, usually when we're seeing the seaside city in startlingly realistic detail. He also clearly loves the bakery and those old fire-burning ovens. However to be honest, I think this clearly wasn't one of his soul-baring crusades, or anything like that. It's certainly got laughs, boundless warmth and all the man's staggering craftsmanship, but I think that by his standards this was a relatively relaxing film to make. Personally I appreciate that. Kiki's Delivery Service is an effortless film to watch, pleasant and sweet even if perhaps also a bit lightweight.