There’s this one truism about adulthood that I regularly struggle with, and that’s the notion that everyone, on some level, is “faking it ’til they make it.” Intellectually, I get this. No one has all the answers, and most people are making the best decisions they can, while hoping against hope that they don’t ruin everything around them in the process. Everyone is, to some degree, pretending they’re not breaking a sweat having their act together. Yet, I can’t get over how good most people are at pretending. They make being a grown-up look so effortless, while I like to think I’m the only one hanging on for dear life.
I like to think that revisiting Kiki’s Delivery Service came to me at the right time, as virtually no other film captures the anxieties of being young and striking out on one’s own. Hayao Miyazaki is known for his fantastical and leisurely storytelling, and though Kiki’s Delivery Service is about a (non-Sabrina) teenage witch flying around in an alternate-reality Europe, this may be his most grounded story yet, in no small part because of how nuanced and keenly observed–even for Miyazaki–Kiki’s struggles as a newly independent young person are. Though Miyazaki’s primary focus is given to the fits and starts of growing up, Kiki’s Delivery Service is no less lovely, and no less spellbinding, and ranks comfortably among the celebrated animator’s strongest work.
Thirteen-year-old Kiki (Minima Takayama) literally cannot wait to leave home. As a rite of passage for witches her age, Kiki is to spend the next year in a new town, training and honing her craft. As soon as there’s a full moon and the sky is clear, Kiki is off with her black cat Jiji (Rei Sakuma). And really, Kiki’s drive that carries her through. For as excited as she is to be on her own, Kiki is repeatedly confronted by her own inexperience, both as a practitioner of magic, and as someone who can’t perfectly handle every relationship with those around her–the latter point expressed through Kiki’s relationship with local aviation enthusiast Tombo (Kappei Yamaguchi). Kiki catches a break early into her stay into her new town, as local baker Osono (Keiko Toda) gives her some a room and a bit of work. Right away, Kiki starts her eponymous delivery service, and is just as quickly met with resistance.
Miyazaki is not particularly interested in Kiki’s bewitching adventures beyond the figurative equity of the conceit. Kiki is a young woman with potential that others see in her, and that no one can possess for her. The veneer of magic could be supplanted with any number of variables that express something similar. Rather, Miyazaki is interested in what being a witch means to Kiki and those around her. For instance, Kiki still works a normal job, where she watches out the storefront of Osono’s shop, as day-to-day citizens go about lives that she longs for. She worries about money, about cooking well, and she longs for things that she can’t afford. She silently resents the kids her age, who wear nice clothes, who are enjoying their privileged childhood, who have relationships with one another that she is outside of. Miyazaki is one of, if not the most empathetic storytellers in cinema, but even here, his ability to keen in to Kiki’s insecurity, often manifested in envy and petulance, with such specificity is uncanny. Though Kiki is a thirteen, her problems are closer to those of someone roughly a decade older, which almost seems purposeful, as if to
Perhaps the most self-referential touch, at least on Miyazaki’s part, comes late in the film’s second half, as Kiki’s powers begin to fade. Kiki is stuck in a depressive episode. She can no longer hear Jiji speak to her after he shacks up with a neighbor cat, and she can no longer fly. Aided by Kiki’s older artist pal Ursula (Takayama, once again, in a pretty sly bit of double casting), in one of the films more overt points of exposition, framed here as a sort of artist’s block, Kiki learns just how mercurial one’s talents or passions can be. Even though she loves flying, forcing herself to use her abilities to make a living changes her relationship with something that used to be so exciting. In that sense, Miyazaki illustrates the double-edged sword of newfound independence. Kiki can go out and do whatever she wants, but the work she has to put in to maintain that freedom is exhausting. All of this culminates in a stunning set piece. As Tombo is caught in a dirigible crash, Kiki finds a way to fly again, finding resolve when she most needs to.
If Kiki’s Delivery Service wanted to settle on being a treatise of young adult ennui, the film would undoubtedly be very good–Studio Ghibli co-founder Isao Takahata would find similar magnificence in women finding themselves in the throws of adulthood. Yet, lending flights of fancy to what would otherwise be a fairly ordinary story is simply the only way Miyazaki can be–not even The Wind Rises can escape this. Kiki’s Delivery Service remains one of the most beautifully animated features ever made, with Miyazaki letting his love for flight grace the film’s most memorable sequences, and the threat of loss linger. The Paris-meets-Stockholm architecture that occupies the background of most of the film is as lively and ornate as only Miyazaki could render, with Kiki herself fitting in seamlessly. In totality, the film flows with the fluidity and instinctive pace that comes from Miyazaki’s unscripted process, storyboarding bit by bit, and allowing the story to unfold naturally.
Above all else, Kiki’s Delivery Service is an out-and-out joy. A funny, thoughtful coming-of-age story that is patient when needed, and kinetic in equal measure. Though often considered among Miyazaki’s middle-tier works, I would go to bat for this as one of his handful of masterpieces–alongside Princess Mononoke, Spirited Away, and The Wind Rises. Though not as immediate as those works, Kiki’s Delivery Service speaks to me on a level I haven’t been able to previously appreciate, offering a comforting portrait of being caught in a liminal place in one’s life. Kiki’s Delivery Service is not as grand or bombastic as most other Miyazaki’s films, is as expressive and exquisitely brought to life as his most accessible works, and is often his smartest and heartfelt.