How does a girl become a witch? This, for me, is a key question in unpacking the spookiness of witchcraft – although in some cases, the answer isn’t spooky at all. In Hayao Miyazaki’s delightful 1989 film Kiki’s Delivery Service, the solution is simple: at the age of thirteen, each young witch must leave their home (and the witch community) for one whole year, using magic to make their way in the world. Only then will their training be complete.
And so it is that Kiki, a plucky thirteen-year-old girl with a black cat and a broomstick, sets out at midnight on her first great adventure.
In a first for this blog, Kiki is not a wicked witch. Despite wearing a purple-black robe and flying on a broom, Kiki is defined by her kindness and her work ethic – a strange reversal of the usual witchy tropes. Weirdly, and perhaps even disappointingly, she only ever exhibits two specific powers: the ability to fly a broomstick, and the ability to talk to her cat familiar, Jiji. Upon landing in her new seaside town, the resourceful Kiki thus starts a broomstick delivery service, using the income to pay for room and board.
There may not be a lot of magic on display, but like all of Miyazaki’s best films, Kiki’s Delivery Service is primarily a story about girlhood. The swooping broomstick chases are exciting, but it’s Kiki’s small moments of insecurity that stayed with me when the film was over. I cringed in fear at the scene where Kiki walks past a trio of chatty, popular girls, scared that they might comment on her “ugly” witch dress. My heart sank as she flew home in the rain, already knowing that she wouldn’t be able to meet her one new friend because her clothes were now soaking wet. Kiki is so good, so noble, that I’m genuinely tormented by the setbacks she faces, however small. How can bad things happen to such a nice witch?
Bizarrely, Kiki’s Delivery Service ends long before the set period of one year has passed, and so we never see Kiki complete her witchy training. Most of Miyazaki’s films knowingly defy narrative conventions (often to wondrous effect), but more than any of his other movies, the lack of closure here feels jarring. Did Kiki learn any new spells? Did she return home safely? Did she become a real witch? These questions seem so important that it took me a while to appreciate Kiki’s Delivery Service as much as the rest of Miyazaki’s filmography. In the end though (with some effort), I managed to accept that the magic in this story simply isn’t the most important thing. What’s important is Kiki: a girl who always strives to do the right thing, and who eventually succeeds in being proud of who she is. She just so happens to be a witch – a good witch, with a good heart. And there’s nothing wrong with that!
— Kiki’s Delivery Service is based on a 1985 book of the same name, written by Eiko Kadona. She also wrote five sequels. I guess if I really wanted closure, I could learn Japanese and read the whole series. Hm…
— Although Kiki’s training is supposed to occur in isolation, we do briefly meet two other witches in the film: Kiki’s mother, who specialises in potions, and a haughty fellow trainee witch, whom Kiki meets mid-flight on her journey to the sea. The haughty witch tells Kiki that her speciality is fortune telling, although she can clearly fly a broomstick as well. So what other spells can Kiki learn?
— Broomstick riding is also something of a mystery. Kiki’s mother insists that Kiki uses her old broom on the night Kiki leaves, because she can “rely on it time after time, in any kind of weather.” Later, when her mother’s broom snaps, Kiki is seen crafting a witch’s broom of her own. But then, at the climax of the film, Kiki commandeers a normal broom from a street sweeper, and is able to fly on that broom as well. So where is the magic coming from? I know I’m not going to get any answers to these questions, but I want them just the same!
— If you watch the English dub of the film (which I did), that’s Kirsten Dunst voicing Kiki. Also, Phil Hartman voices the cat Jiji, and Tress MacNeille voices the baker Osono, which sometimes makes the film feel oddly like an episode of The Simpsons.
— I consider myself a big fan of Hayao Miyazaki, but I must admit I’m yet to see his three earliest feature films: The Castle of Cagliostro (1979), Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind (1984), and Castle in the Sky (1986). Of the films I have seen, my favourite is My Neighbour Totoro (1988) – which I loved so much that I now declare it one of my (three) favourite films of all time.
— Hayao Miyazaki is a co-founder of Studio Ghibli, but not all Studio Ghibli films are Hayao Miyazaki films. At present, I’ve only seen the Miyazaki-directed movies, but I really need to get around to watching Grave of the Fireflies (1988), which is supposed to be equally fantastic (but also quite harrowing).
— Earlier this year, I spent two weeks in Japan, and decided to buy myself a Totoro plush toy as a souvenir. Every toy store I went into had a big Studio Ghibli section, and Totoro was always the most popular toy there – but Jiji the black cat was always running a very close second!