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A New Broom: Hayao Miyazaki’s Kiki’s Delivery Service (1989) – Blu-ray review

June 27, 2013 by Simon Kinnear in At Home, Retro with 0 Comments

A story about workplace worries and teenage angst sounds heavy-going, but this is Miyazaki. The existential dilemmas float with wit, grace and cuddlesome creativity.

Kiki’s Delivery Service
(Hayao Miyazaki, 1989)

Girl protagonist. Fantasy backdrop. Flying motif. To the sceptically-minded, Kiki’s Delivery Service looks like just about the laziest thing Hayao Miyazaki ever animated, a rejuggling of familiar obsessions. Yet what appears on screen is just about the loveliest thing in the Studio Ghibli canon, a lighter-than-air family drama in which the magic co-exists harmoniously with the real world to create practically a manifesto for the Miyazaki way of doing things.

The gentle, idyllic My Neighbour Totoro had torn the director away from conventional anime adventures like The Castle Of Cagliostro and Laputa: Castle In The Sky, and the serenity of that film goes double in Kiki’s Delivery Service. There are no villains and the biggest threat comes from an accident, allowing the drama to focus on Kiki’s own personality. While the specifics are unusual – she’s a 13-year-old witch in training, fulfilling tradition by leaving home to forge her own career – there’s a universality to how Miyazaki probes his heroine’s independence and interests.

Like any student, Kiki wonders whether she is doing this for the right reasons or because it is expected of her? Unlike her Muggle friend Tombo, who is passionate about flying but still struggling to find a method of doing so, Kiki can fly as part of her powers but has stumbled into a career delivering goods because – well, what else is a teenage witch qualified to do? Yet when Kiki loses her witch powers, it’s time to decide what she wants to do… and there’s a long stretch of existential contemplation that is rather deeper than most kid-friendly animations are prepared to go. Aptly, for Miyazaki, it’s an artist who explains that everybody gets creative block from time to time – could that refer to the director himself?

Credit here goes to Kiki’s warmth and sincerity, and the skill with which Miyazaki makes us empathise with the fantastical elements of the story. It helps, of course, that flying is the director’s own passion and it is depicted here with breathtaking beauty against the picture postcard seaside resort where Kiki sets up shop. Miyazaki makes animation appear effortless, but look at what’s actually happening on screen and it’s obvious how much creativity is on display.  Compared to most cel animation, where the backgrounds are static and only the foregrounds move, Miyazaki is so ambitious he has waves crashing or clouds floating to achieve real depth of field and bring the flying to life.

Does the story have the same depth? It is, for the most part, a good-natured, episodic jaunt showing just how a witch might set up her own business: quite easily, it turns out, and because it’s a cash-in-hand business Kiki can probably fiddle her taxes, too.  But the emotional complications that come when doubts creep in – as anyone in a job will know all too well – provide genuine substance, en route to one of Miyazaki’s most jaw-dropping action set-pieces, as a rogue airship provides the impetus for Kiki to get back on her broom.

Kiki’s Delivery Service is released on Blu-ray on Monday 1st July, alongside fellow Studio Ghibli classic Grave Of The Fireflies.

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