Though I've rarely met an anime I liked, there are exceptions; a year ago yesterday, I wrote about my positive (if somewhat confusing) experience with Howl's Moving Castle. Though I liked Howl's quirky characters and amusing situations, and the Japanese style of animation is undeniably beautiful, it and the plots are usually too abstract for my tastes. No matter how many times I tried, I continuously failed to see the appeal.
Part of my problem was that, in seeking out representatives of this genre, I'd glommed onto titles that were all by the same writer and director, Hayao Miyazaki. I didn't realize that all the big-name titles I'd heard about, like Spirited Away and Princess Mononoke, shared more popularity, so it made sense that if I didn't like the styles and motifs of one film, I'd find them to be common among all his films. I again succumbed to that same ignorance when I recently, accidentally watched another Miyazaki movie — but this time with surprisingly different results.
And really, what's not to like about Kiki's Delivery Service? Predating the other Miyazaki films I'd seen by a decade, this anime tells of a teenaged girl who leaves home as part of a one-year independent study on the path to become a full-blown witch. As rare as such women are in this fantasy world, each is still unique by taking on a special skill, such as divination or potion-brewing. But inquisitive and endearingly awkward Kiki is practiced only in flight, a trait common to all witches. In her eager attempts to capitalize on her few strengths, she finds herself partnered with a matronly baker who needs a delivery girl. Thus is born Kiki's Delivery Service.
The charm of the film is in its inherent innocence and marvel. Kiki is a sufficiently uncommon that everyone around her is in awe of the flying girl — while flight is the only thing Kiki takes for granted. Truly a country mouse, she must adapt to living in a city, fending off the attention of boys, and being on her own: in short, the trials and tribulations of growing up. She optimistically assumes the best in people and is rarely disappointed — but when she is, it's absolutely devastating. Just as Kiki brings out the best in others, the audience finds themselves immediately sympathetic when anything should trouble this girl. It's a simple tale that lacks the politics, antagonism, machinations, or complications that mark Miyazaki's later work.
I'm always impressed by the big-name talent willing to lend their voices to these niche projects, and Kiki is no exception. The protagonist herself is played by a young Kirsten Dunst (always the damsel in distress!), while Debbie Reynolds and Janeane Garofalo voice a pair of guardians. The late Phil Hartman plays Kiki's cat, Jiji, with the same wry pessimism that Billy Crystal to a similar role in Howl's Moving Castle.
Kiki's Delivery Service is a funny, sweet film that inspires some of the same wonder as the original Superman: you will believe a witch can fly. And if anime still isn't your thing, the 1989 film will reportedly be adapted to a live-action movie for a 2009 release.