Anime Feature Film Review – Kiki’s Delivery Service (1989)



The Kiki of Kiki’s Delivery Service is a sweet-natured, 13 year old witch with an entrepreneurial spirit. Following an old witches’ custom, she leaves home to live on her own for a year to develop her magical talents and gain independence. Her only companion is her familiar, a sassy black cat named Jiji. She settles in a large seaport town where she starts the titular flying broomstick delivery business. A small town girl, Kiki is at first in equal measures excited and daunted by her new home. However, she adapts quickly with the aid of good people who befriend her: a nice young couple who own a bread bakery; an adventuresome boy named Tombo who dreams of flying; an eccentric young woman artist; and a grandmotherly customer.

Kiki’s Delivery Service was directed by Hayao Miyazaki from his own screenplay based on a Japanese young adult novel. Whether it’s because the novelist was a like-minded storyteller or because Miyazaki put his own stamp on the material, the film exemplifies his recurrent interest in melding feminism and traditional social values. Kiki is an admirable feminist heroine; she is intelligent, independent-minded, resilient, ambitious. At the same time, her success in business and in life springs directly from her personification of traditional Japanese values of social courtesy, especially respectful courtesy to one’s elders, and a strong work ethic.

The story takes a pronounced turn towards the prosaic in the last third after Kiki loses both her ability to fly and her ability to converse with Jiji in human speech. In its earlier parts, the story had followed Kiki settling in at the bakery, on some of her more exciting delivery jobs, and through the adolescent push/pull of her relationship with Tombo. As the focus shifts to the physical and emotional changes represented by her newly uncertain grasp of her powers, the film turns away from magical adventures and into a parable of puberty. It becomes less episodic and more serious in tone, and also less delightful. Jiji’s transformation into a normal cat is particularly regrettable. Funny, original, and wonderfully well-drawn, Jiji is the film’s preeminent supporting character, yet to all intents and purposes he disappears from the story as soon as Kiki – for symbolic reasons – is made unable to understand him.

Kiki’s Delivery Service shares a number of common elements with Miyazaki’s third feature film Laputa: Castle in the Sky. In appearance, the characters are Europeans of indeterminate ethnicity and the quaint seaport town is an amalgam of picturesque European locations. The setting is familiar, yet unreal; fashions and technology suggest a fantasy version of a bygone era, in this case the 1950s. Branching out from Kiki’s old-fashioned broomstick, Miyazaki indulges his love of aviation with a propeller-powered bicycle and a dirigible, the latter the subject of a climactic air rescue.


Review Series – Directed by Hayao Miyazaki

Previous: My Neighbor Totoro (1988)
Next: Porco Rosso (1992)

8 responses to “Anime Feature Film Review – Kiki’s Delivery Service (1989)

  1. This is one of Miyazaki’s best films, by far. His visions of Europe are glorious and the colours cause frothing at the mouth.
    Watching Kiki fly on her broom while seeing the world beneath her fully realized is why Miyazaki is a household item all around the world.

    Plus I feel a certain nostalgia watching this film…

  2. The flying scenes are really lovely. Landscapes and colors are among the most reliable pleasures of a Miyazaki film, and I really enjoyed the light comedy of those sequences as well, like Kiki’s penchant for bouncing off treetops in her early flights and the entire sequence of the cat plush toy delivery job (“that marvelous dog” indeed!).

    I don’t rate the film quite so highly however. The narrative transition from light episodic adventures with a serious undercurrent to full-bore coming of age angst is awkward, and I simply found the film less interesting in the “adolescence is rough” segment. (Great ending though!) The exploration of serious real world themes is one of the strengths of Miyazaki’s body of work, but the integration of theme with story and fantasy genre elements is defter in other films, such as Porco Rosso (pacifism), Nausicaa (environmentalism), and the close kin Whisper of the Heart (growing up).

  3. I believe “Nausicaa” to be his greatest masterpiece to this day and then probably followed by “Lupin the 3rd: Castle of Cagliostro”. “Nausicaa” for its message and, obviously artistic direction and “cinematography”, and “Cagliostro” for its sheer exuberance and the fact hat every Lupin episode and film is fantastic; Monkey Punch’s writing is awesome. I like “Kiki” a lot and also “Mononoke Hime”.
    And speaking of message films, “Pom Poko” is fantastic.

  4. We really go different directions in picking Miyazaki’s “best” film (and the runners-up), but isn’t it wonderful that his filmography is so amazing that we can make serious arguments for so many contenders for the title?

  5. Yes. Yes it is.

    Also, “Tales from Earthsea”, directed by Miyazaki’s son is pretty good. I was expecting it to be the fantasy adventure the books are based on but it turned out to be a ridiculously well drawn and animated drama in a fantastic realm.

  6. I think you shouldn’t get so hung up on the apparent “ethnicity”, you also mentioned this in the Nausicaa review. All anime follows a certain art style, including anime stories clearly set in Japan. It’s just the style, and has little bearing on the actual identity of the characters. Other ghibli films with Japanese characters in Japan look identical to those in Kiki.

  7. @theowne: I can’t agree that character design isn’t a meaningful element of an animated film or that Miyazaki’s films don’t have a distinctive visual style. It’s interesting to look at character design across Miyazaki’s body of work (for instance, the marked aesthetic evolution from Cagliostro to Ponyo, or recurrent motifs like using exaggerated disparity in physical size to emphasize the protagonist’s youth and innocence), as well as to make comparisons to other Studio Ghibli films. The threshold analysis however is of the film taken by itself; specifically, character design as a visual design element that contributes to the creation of the world within the film, alongside landscape, buildings, costumes, and the color palette.

  8. I don’t understand where I said that character design plays no part in animated film. What I said was that trying to discern ethnicity from the anime style as you’ve done is fruitless. Otherwise, one would argue that Totoro’s characters are Caucasian, as some reviewers actually think, even though they are clearly meant to be Japanese people in a Japanese rural town. One would also think that 99% of all anime characters are not Japanese. It is simply part of the anime style.


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