When Kiki flies into town on her broomstick, black cat in tow, what’s surprising is that the city isn’t particularly surprised. In fact, she’s considered passé. She’s clad in a plain black dress and wears a big red bow. She’s a country bumpkin unused to city life. Her entrance into town backs up traffic and nearly causes several wrecks, simply because she doesn’t know how to navigate the streets. (It’s possible that she’s never seen a stoplight before.) City social codes elude her as well—she doesn’t talk to boys unless they’ve been properly introduced to her. The girls her age (she’s thirteen) talk with the latest slang, wear the coolest clothes, and ride around in convertibles. Kiki, meanwhile, is so unhip that she could be your grandmother.
No one in the big city—a dream-world vision of a European city, with German architecture rubbing up next to French bakeries and pastry shops, all overlooking a sea that feels more Mediterranean than anything in the interior—is shocked by the arrival of a witch-in-training. (It’s the offhand bemusement that New Yorkers and Angelenos have—“Seen it all, wrote the TV special.”) She’s considered antiquated, part of a folklore and lineage that’s centuries out of date. She’s not special to them. Witches exists. Magic exists. Talking black cats exists. These things are part of daily life, like the aroma of fresh bread in the early morning, or the ebullient yells of garbagemen making their daily rounds, or newspaper pages whipping around on the sidewalks, or a bee alighting on a blooming flower. No big deal.
As a result, the heroine of Kiki’s Delivery Service has to adjust and do the unthinkable—get a regular job, find an apartment, pay the bills. She sets up a delivery service above a bakery. It’s the perfect job, as it allows Kiki—no, forces her—to learn the city. And that’s really it for the plot.
Kiki’s, like Spirited Away, is less interested in a propulsive plot than in atmosphere. The movie pauses and lets the eye wander, just as Kiki does. It tracks the social evolution of the girl with such care, though, that the movie is electrifying. Throwaway details give us jolts. A gradual evolution in how she talks to her beloved cat Gigi breaks our heart, in part because we know it has to happen in order for her to evolve. Her frustrations and anxieties give us pause, because they’re almost too sharply drawn. In every cel, Hayao Miyazaki rewards us for paying full attention, but also demands it. Like those stray animation details, the silent pauses in conversation and the things left unsaid (and unfinished) are incredibly important here. Kiki’s doesn’t pander to children’s intellects—instead, it dares to leave things unexplained (or explained subtly, rather than through obvious exposition), and allows us to fit the emotional pieces together. It’s not a movie you watch while doing the laundry.
It’s slow but never less than fully engaging. Kiki engages in dogfights with flocks of crows, survives a lightning storm, gets lost in a forest, sees a zeppelin for the first time, and stages a daring rescue that even the locals have to applaud. Because we’re so absorbed in her life, seeing it in such high definition, every act she does has weight and carries suspense. That’s impressive, for there’s little here that’s life-threatening.
It’s a girl-centric bildungsroman, which is ultimately why Kiki’s is not just enchanting but provocative. Throughout the film, Kiki depends upon the kindness of women—men are mostly silent or comic foils—and learns how to support herself emotionally and financially. She runs her own delivery business, sure, but it’s made possible because she’s given her “office” space by a woman in exchange for her occasional help in the bakery. She befriends a woman artist living on her own in the forest outside town, who in turn teaches her to value her own beauty and quirks. (In a touching side note that underscores Miyazaki’s tenderness, the artist’s gorgeous, experimental paintings were actually painted by a junior high class of Japanese handicapped students.) Kiki helps two elderly women bake a herring pot pie for a girl who doesn’t appreciate it.
That last girl is significant. Kiki’s is filled with women helping women, finding sustenance through action more than idle gossip, but it isn’t afraid to show girls being smug, mean, or unappreciative. The panoply of women here show that it takes all kinds—from the mothers to the barren, from the kind to the wicked, from the young to the elderly—to make the world run. The feminist ethos is not wielded like a blunt instrument—I think Miyazaki would roll his eyes at the words “feminist ethos”—but its undercurrent sharpens everything in the movie.
For all this, Kiki’s is in some sense a conservative picture. (Again, I see the filmmaker cringing.) Miyazaki loves Kiki and the girl is a traditionalist, both in dress and morals. The fact that she’s initially considered old-hat is a sign that the city has lost touch with its traditions and roots in favor of technological progress. People put their noses in the air around the girl, and that wounds us.
But Miyazaki’s tricky. He shows just how useless the labels “conservative” and “liberal” are in everyday life. As Kiki grows as a witch, learning to fly better and cast spells, she grows into the city. She figures out a way to blend city living with village values. The movie gets at the point with a single symbol: Kiki’s broom. At the beginning, it’s the raggedy, makeshift kind that all traditional witches use. By the end, she’s switched, in a moment of desperation, to a janitor’s broom with perfect right angles, a rectangular base, and evenly cut whisks. It’s manufactured rather than handmade, but it suits Kiki better than the old model.
The city’s consciousness seeps into her, but her consciousness—nature-loving, ecstatic, gentle—seeps into the city as well. They change each other. By the movie’s end, she’s become a sort of icon. Little girls dress like her and aspire to be like her. I can’t think of a better role model.