FIRST TIME WATCH: Kiki’s Delivery Service (1988)

The truth is I have not seen enough Studio Ghibli productions. The works from the famous animation studio are critically acclaimed and massive international box office successes, but there is a rich tapestry of films here that have somewhat fell through the cracks for me. The inclusion of all but one of the films onto Netflix this year has finally provided me with an excuse to finally watch so many of these films.

Not through lack of trying, admittedly; they have always been given accessible theatrical screenings in cinemas, more often than not have their own section in the likes of HMV, and have been frequently a mainstay on the Film 4 schedules, usually around the holiday periods when kids are off school.

Ironically, the one film that hasn’t made its ways to Netflix is Graves of the Fireflies, one I have seen, a powerful account of World War II-torn Japan told from the point of view of two children that may very well be the most emotionally devastating film ever produced. Rights issues have prevented Netflix from streaming the film it seems.

With the release of eight films every month, and the final eight being put up a few weeks ago, I settled in to finally watch some of the Ghibli productions that I have missed out, beginning with Kiki’s Delivery Service.

You know that feeling when you watch a film for the first time and it’s so good that you’re upset you never watched it before, but you’re also just a little sad that you’re never going to be able to watch it for the first time again, but it then subsides into happiness because you finally watched it and can see its genius; well those were the feelings that I went through watching Kiki’s Delivery Service.

Released in 1988, the film is a bundle of pure joy the likes of which I do not think I’ve ever experienced before. In fact, the feeling of positivity that emanates from the screen when watching Hayao Miyazaki’s fantasy is so unique to it that it can only qualify, at least in terms of tone, as a true original.

Kiki and Ursula, a brilliant example, in any medium, of female friendship

Watching the first ten minutes or so and the image of a teenage witch and her black cat companion, I couldn’t help but be reminded of Sabrina: The Teenage Witch, but the comparisons are purely cosmetic. Kiki, her movie, and the character charts her own path in life and in narrative.

Instead of having a concrete story as such, the film is more character driven, with smaller stories taking up a large chunk of the running time, before culminating in a grandiose set piece involving an out of control airship and, in a lovely piece of narrative subversion for 1988, of which there are surprisingly many especially for an animated film, a female lead character saving the life of a male.

Female lead characters are very much at the forefront of Miyazaki’s work, with Spirited Away and My Neighbour Totoro also putting young female protagonists front and centre in stories that deal with coming of age in a fantasy setting. Where those movies dealt with those characters learning of themselves and of the strange world around them, Kiki is very much determined to learn her way of the world and herself right from the opening moments of the film, which makes her incredibly progressive for a female character of any age from a film in 1988 where, with a few exceptions, most female characters were frequently cyphers and trophies for male characters.

Yes, she has her moment of physical and mental weakness in the second half of the film, and that stretch applies the angst in a quietly devastating way without sacrificing the good nature of the film, but it builds up to a brilliantly powerful conclusion and the effect of the film is feel good in a way that is so damn wonderful.

What’s even more incredible about that stretch of the film is Kiki’s developing friendship with local artist Ursula, another incredibly subtle and progressive part of the film in that it deals with female friendship on terms that surely pass The Bechdel Test with flying colours. Yes, there is a boy involved in the story, but where Western storytelling, and in particular Disney animations, involve princesses or female characters finding love with the prince or whomever the male lead is, Miyazaki avoids all that and has the story be about Kiki finding herself and is all the better for it.

The atmosphere and nature of everything about Kiki’s Delivery Service is so charming that it’s one of those movies that you kind of come to believe could not truly have been thought up by a singular mind, something that is part and parcel of Miyazaki (the level of imagination and surrealism in Spirited Away leaves you thinking something similar).

The small town nature, the supporting cast of characters, the animation, the gently handled themes of kindness and friendship, respecting our elders and everyone around us, coupled with a lovely atmosphere fuelled by gentle fantasy and comedy make the film a classic that I’ll probably be returning to again and again.

Kiki’s Delivery Service is available to stream on Netflix.

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