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A silhouette of elands grazing in the plains with raising sun in the background inside Mas
  • Writer's pictureBryce Chismire

Kiki's Delivery Service

Updated: Aug 24, 2021

It’s funny. I recall having a much vaster taste in anime at a young age than I would have expected. I grew up on shows like Pokémon and Digimon, and I was just too enthralled by each show to care where they came from. It wasn’t until much later when I discovered that these shows came from Japan, that the English voices I heard from them were voice dubs, and that they were generally called anime, a term used to describe animated films and shows made in Japan.

At the same time, though, I remember having a VHS of this film, Kiki’s Delivery Service, but somehow never got a chance to see it. Until now.

To those of you who may have never even known about this movie, I’ll spell it for you. It’s about a 13-year-old girl named Kiki and her little black cat, Jiji, who set out on their own to settle in a foreign town of Kiki’s choice. Kiki just so happened to be a witch, and traditionally, at the first full moon after their 13th birthday, witches like Kiki were supposed to depart from home and vacate in a new town or city of their choice and settle there for a whole year as part of a witch’s training. And after Kiki departed from home on her mother’s broom with Jiji, they both settled in the seaside city of Koriko. At first, the townspeople were a bit indifferent - and a bit battled - at the idea of a witch settling in the town, much to Kiki’s shock, while a young boy named Tombo had a thing for her at first sight. But soon, Kiki had a little luck when she helped a pregnant, kindly baker named Osono by delivering a pacifier to a customer who left it behind by mistake. In gratitude and catching on to Kiki’s dilemmas, Osono decided to give Kiki and Jiji a place to stay, and they both got settled soon after.

Shortly after that, Kiki and Jiji engaged in all kinds of adventures in Koriko. Of course, there were some lovey-dovey events afoot, like with Jiji when he got acquainted with a white cat from next door, and even with Kiki when she and Tombo continuously started to run into each other. Other times, they involved social affairs, like when Kiki met an isolated painter who lived in the middle of the woods named Ursula and a kindly old woman named Madame. But the most significant engagement Kiki had with the community came forth when she founded a delivery service, where she would have gone out and helped some folks in town deliver various goods from one place to the next.

All these adventures that Kiki was to engage in, of course, were nothing compared to the idea of being so far away from home and trying to fend for oneself, as Kiki was to discover for herself soon.

The first time I saw snippets worth of this film, it was in either the previews or even at the beginning of the movie, and I remembered it looking very colorful and cute, and nothing more. At the time, I was not familiar with Hayao Miyazaki, and I didn’t realize until much later that he was one of the most heralded animators in Japan and gained a reputation as the Walt Disney of that country. So, I started looking into some of his films, like My Neighbor Totoro, Princess Mononoke, and Spirited Away. I was blown away by the amazing artistry put into each film, from the animation to the backgrounds, colors, characters, and even the story. The collective aesthetic from each film by Miyazaki was genuinely mesmerizing and went without saying why Miyazaki was such a spectacular animator and filmmaker.

When I finally watched Kiki’s Delivery Service after so many years of almost no familiarity with it... boy, was this no different from Miyazaki’s other films.

I will say that the animation is some of the richest and most fluid that I have ever seen, either in general or even from anime. Although I’d say that of Miyazaki in general, the animation was just that good and amazing. The linework on the characters and the shapely proportions and movements accompanying them felt so in tune with how ordinary people or animals talked or walked, almost as if it could be a live-action film and it would have made no difference how the functions could have gone. And the way the backgrounds can move... wow! Sometimes, they made me feel like the background elements were given as much hard work working the right way as the foreground elements were. And that gave the movie a more natural, elegant feel.

The characters were just wonderful. They all left some unique impressions throughout the film, which added to its collective charm. For example, Osono, the bakery lady with whom Kiki and Jiji stayed, was a delightful, sweet lady who often showed a nurturing side to her as far as Kiki was concerned. Plus, she was prone to pull off a wisecrack or two on occasion, too, so that only made her more delightful.

And I’m not kidding, there was also a coworker at Osono’s bakery who was physically built, did the heavy lifting of all the loaves of bread and rolls, gave off semi-intimidating impressions whenever he was onscreen, and he never spoke a word outside of just one line. And I mean, outside of just one line. However, he also gave off expressions throughout the movie, especially with Jiji, that hinted that he was a very noble man underneath his rough image.

Ursula, the painter Kiki met in the forest, was a slightly mysterious but equally quirky character. She had quite an eagle’s eye for capturing certain natural scenes, as demonstrated with the crows she usually liked to draw. And she seemed to share a vague interest in the qualities of witches and how they were like. So, diving into her lifestyle, mainly that of an artist, was always fascinating to see.

Madame, one of the old ladies whom Kiki helped out with on her delivery to one of her grandchildren, was brimming with interest. Because she had a servant to help her with things, even if it’s because of her age, it made me wonder a bit what her role in the Koriko community was like many years before Kiki ever came along. And this alone was interesting to ponder when you put her relationship with her granddaughter into perspective. The first time we met them through Kiki, they both felt like complete polar opposites, with the granddaughter coming across as snobbish, dismissive, and...wanting independence? Or did she and Madame have an estranged relationship once upon a time? I don’t know. In contrast, Madame was just a gentle, sweet old lady who always greeted people like Kiki with open arms.

Tombo, the boy who had the hots for Kiki and an obsession with flight, was a delightfully eccentric kid. While, sure, he and Kiki got off on the wrong foot, the way those two started to look past their barriers to see each other for who they were just made their chemistry feel much more natural and adorable. And when Tombo was not busy gushing over Kiki, his ways of working with flight tools and inventing flight patterns from them left me feeling bewildered about what more he can dish out thanks to his knowledge of flight. One of the inventions he made was a bicycle that had a plane propeller in the front, which, at one point, flew for a minute. That was pretty cool to see, honestly.

Jiji, the black cat that tagged along with Kiki on her journey, was pleasant in his know-it-all attitude and sarcasm, for he was the common-sensical of the duo at times. It led to some witty remarks from him now and then, and the nice thing about him is that while he first appeared as the closest thing to Kiki’s sidekick as he could’ve been, he started to show growing independence and feelings of his own, too, and not just Kiki. It all began when he began hitting on the white cat who lived next door, Lily. From that point on, he started to grow more distant from Kiki, not because he didn’t care for her, but because he was that fascinated with the white cat that captured his heart.

And another thing, while he was still memorable for his witty one-liners, he was subject to some good physical humor as well. In the book, Jiji was responsible for the doll getting lost and decided to fill in as the doll to make up for his mistake. That felt touching. In the movie, he and Kiki lost the doll after a hurdle they had with flocks of geese and crows, and Kiki asked Jiji to fill in, much to his protests. And the scenarios Jiji was in as he tried to stay still while trying not to draw attention or move, whether it’s around the birthday boy or even from the elderly dog, led to some genuinely hilarious moments revolving around him. They felt just priceless.

And finally, you have Kiki herself. She felt about as naturalistic, realistic, and multifaceted as a character as you can get from someone who turned 13 and set out on her terms. She quickly showed excitement when she had an opportunity to prove herself as a capable witch, she expressed uncertainty when she had to put up with the unpredictable natures of settling into a new town, as well as a new job, after stepping out of her comfort zone to do so, and she showed some slight stubbornness whenever she was around other people who were either causing trouble or nosing around. These characteristics slowly but surely showed a budding young woman who was on the verge of forging her own identity and path in life, but not without the trials, tribulations, and slightly painful elements that came with it. All those qualities to Kiki’s character, coupled with her childish natures, made her just a joy to watch, and it was always fascinating to see how she reacted to the unprecedented life situations every step of the way.

One thing unique about this movie that I should note is that though Kiki and Jiji managed to speak to one another in the first half, as the movie progressed, Kiki could now have only heard Jiji speak in meows. It wigged Kiki out because she suspected that her powers of witchcraft were starting to wear off. However, it turned out this was all a part of Kiki growing up and growing out of a few things that were part of her childhood elements. It was never the case in the book, where Kiki and Jiji were able to talk to each other just fine throughout the entire book.

And, according to Ursula, as far as Kiki’s talents wearing off were concerned, they could just as well have been on a temporary relapse until she gained just the right inspiration to have it in working order again. This was worth contemplation, as anyone going through relapses of their own could take a cue from this.

The story itself felt very tender and creative as well. Believe it or not, Kiki’s Delivery Service was based on a book written by Eiko Kadono. Having read it in advance, I always thought it carried some neat elements of magic occurring in a more mundane, ordinary world. And this movie did the same thing. Like Miyazaki’s other films, it presented a steady dose of magical elements into the mix, but never in a way where it felt too obvious. It felt as natural as if it occurred on a day-to-day basis. But for all its magical themes, it instead focused on the collective rite of passage in store for Kiki when she arrived in Koriko. The idea of seeing her leave something so familiar behind to fend for herself for a good portion of time would inevitably have posed challenges for Kiki. But the rewards that were to also be in store for her when she accomplished something or learned her lessons were no less exciting to watch.

I also liked how the movie touched upon hurtful social dilemmas in Koriko, such as snobby girls, like those who accompanied Tombo and especially Madame’s granddaughter, but never bothered to dwell on them for too long. Sure, Kiki got visibly uncomfortable whenever she was in their company. But while she still caught on to the negative feelings that came with seeing them around, she knew better than to get into their business.

Honestly, though, there was only one thing in the movie that bugged me a bit. And that was how, whenever Kiki had to put up with either Tombo when they first met or any of the snobby girls, Kiki kept all her problems to herself. By that, I mean I was bothered with how private she was about her issues with them instead of opening herself up about them to people she trusted, like Osono, Ursula, Madame, or even Tombo, aside from Jiji. I found that kind of silly.

At the same time, of course, I was also aware of how she was new to Koriko and how, because of that, she was careful about who to put her trust in and whose business she would have allowed herself to be roped into. So that kind of made sense, and the implications here felt more positive and resolute than they seemed. But I still couldn’t help feeling like this quirk on Kiki’s end nagged me a little.

Speaking of the story, I decided to read the book before I finally gave the movie a shot. For that reason, there were plenty of intriguing things I caught between them both regarding creative changes. Among them were:

  • The book on which this movie was based was more episodic, with the story chronicling Kiki’s adventures in Koriko. In contrast, the movie’s plot felt more streamlined, with an obvious beginning, middle, and end.

  • The original book covered the entire first year of Kiki’s residence and training in Koriko. But here in the movie, the events that occurred felt like they happened within the first three months, maybe four.

    • Heck, Osono felt her first baby bump while Kiki wrote to her parents at the end of the movie, whereas they both occurred halfway through in the book.

  • The only story from the book to be directly carried over in the movie, besides the beginning of both the story and Kiki’s adventures, was Kiki’s first delivery venture in Koriko. A woman asked her to deliver a black cat doll to her nephew on his birthday, only to drop it by accident and discover it within Ursula's reach.

  • While Kiki’s delivery of the pie for Madame was exclusive to this film, parts of it reminded me a bit of the bellyband story and how much the mother made them for his son, who was the captain of one of the ships, despite him refusing those bellybands at first.

  • Another interesting detail I can’t help but point out is that in the book, the dress that Kiki’s mother insisted that she wear was pitch black, as per the traditions of witches. In the movie, even though they say it’s black, the dress looked more like a dark purple than it was pitch black.

  • Because the book was more episodic than the movie, it included plenty of stories of Kiki’s adventures that never surfaced in the movie. You can read my review to see which ones remained exclusive to the book.

  • Strangely enough, Kiki’s biggest adventure in Koriko both involved the clock tower. In the book, the mayor asked Kiki to fix the clock tower so it'd function in time for the city’s New Year’s tolling until Kiki thought of a clever solution to fix it. In the movie, Kiki flew to the clock tower once a famous dirigible, The Spirit of Freedom, crashed onto it due to a lack of helium. She also did so to rescue Tombo, who hung on for dear life from a rope hanging from the blimp.

Miyazaki himself said that for all his admiration of Kiki’s achievements in the book, he wanted his take on the character and her story to dive more into the themes of loneliness, alienation, and coming of age. Where he came from by the time he made the movie, and that was in Tokyo, he said that many girls, arguably around Kiki’s age, were trying to find work that would have kept them active. But it wasn’t making them feel like they were as satisfied spiritually as they were materialistically. He knew that anyone who left the nest to do their own thing, especially regarding work, was bound to express some shades of uncertainty and homesickness sometime. If anything, that might have helped the movie achieve its level of grounded empathy, and it shows.

Since this movie was an animated movie from Japan, it was also bound to get some international dubs correlating with the country it came in. Here, we have three separate dubs for the movie: the original Japanese version (obviously), the 1998 dub supervised by Disney, and the 2010 dub, AKA the 1998 dub but with the extra dub lines trimmed to keep it more faithful to the original Japanese cut. I took the liberty to see all those versions of the movie, and it was fascinating to see which one worked, which one worked better, and if I have a particular preference for one of them. Let’s start with the 1998 dub.

The voice cast assembled for this dub was just astonishing. If there’s one thing I found impressive about Disney’s English dubs for Miyazaki’s films, it’s that they managed to rope in big-name stars to voice the characters for American audiences, which in this sense, only added to the mainstream nature and accessibility of anime, starting with these films. And Kiki’s Delivery service was no exception.

Among such actors were Jumanji’s Kirsten Dunst as Kiki, Matthew Lawrence from Mrs. Doubtfire as Tombo, Tress MacNeill as Osono, late comedian Phil Hartman as Jiji, pre-Ratatouille Janeane Garofalo as Ursula, and, of all such actors, legendary actress Debbie Reynolds as Madame. And thankfully, all of them felt flawless in their performances. Well, almost.

Phil Hartman had plenty of witty zingers as Jiji, but they tended to be hit-and-miss. While most of them were good, others felt either out of place or went on too long. But when other such lines worked, they really worked.

There is, however, one line that didn’t work. As I mentioned, Kiki was starting to hear nothing but meows from Jiji, when usually they understood each other just fine before. In the ’98 dub, and at the end of the movie, we heard an extra line from Jiji as he approached Kiki after she rescued Tombo. It implied that this, too, was only a phase Kiki had to overcome in relearning her witchcraft and that talking to Jiji happened to be part of that. And it just didn’t fit.

Long story short, although Phil Hartman’s performance was not perfect, it was more hit than miss.

Kirsten Dunst embraced every childlike sensibility she could’ve conjured with Kiki. She captured the excitability whenever Kiki was ready for an adventure and the moodiness and underlying observations of a girl who started coming to grips with how life worked. Matthew Lawrence managed to convey the boyish tendencies, as well as the occasional dorkiness, of Tombo. Every time he came on screen, like Dunst, he also excelled in giving Tombo his sense of glee whenever he and Kiki had a moment together. Janeane Garofalo gave Ursula a fittingly reclusive attitude as Ursula: nurturing and welcoming, but also occasionally sarcastic, contemplative, and witty. These facets in Ursula’s character, as only Garofolo can provide, added to her likability in general. Tress MacNeille, like Garofolo, also gave her character, Osono, both a sense of humor and a nurturing side to her. But whereas Garofalo applied a more “big sister” type persona to Ursula, MacNeille gave Osono a motherly demeanor to her. And Debbie Reynolds was terrific in conveying Madame’s sense of homeliness and her conscientious behavior. Whenever she portrayed Madame the way she did, Madame always felt like a kind old woman you could easily call a good friend. Believe me, I was there, and I felt those emotions with Madame the same way.

And, unlike in the Japanese or new English dub, the ’98 dub had a couple of songs sung in English, such as “Soaring” and the closing theme, “I’m Gonna Fly,” both performed by Sydney Forest. They all sounded nice, but somehow, they just felt a bit second-rate compared to everything else the movie in and of itself had to offer.

When I watched the original Japanese version, I followed the general story fine as I watched the subtitles and heard the Japanese audio. But the music by Joe Hisaishi? Something about it felt elegant, as if it had as much sweetness and mellowness as the movie did. Not only did it sound nice, but more often than not, this version had plenty of quiet scenes throughout the film. I mean, sure, the ’98 dub had some good music, too, plus some neat energetic scenes. But something about this version of the movie, down to the music and expressions, just felt more immersive, like I could see myself being by Kiki’s side every time she wandered or even flew about in town. Of course, the fact that the spoken language was regionally correct helped, too.

And then you have the 2010 English dub, also supervised by Disney. This one used the same lines and voice acting from the ‘98 dub, except it’s all set to the rhythms and music of the original Japanese version. As I watched it do its thing, it felt like it meshed the two versions I spoke of earlier with surprising ease. It captured the pleasantries and energy of the ’98 dub while still allowing the deeper, more atmospheric aspects of the original version to sink in.

Even Phil Hartman’s performance, in this version, maintained his classic sense of wit and sarcasm as Jiji, only since the 2010 dub trimmed down the extra lines, that included half of his ad-libs. I can’t recall at the moment if there were any excellent one-liners cut here, but thankfully, there was no lousy line I can think of from this version, either. I feel like the trimming helped the performance maintain its sense of characteristic consistency. And while it never felt laugh-out-loud funny, it was still funny in just the right spots. And that was good enough for me.

Simply put, this version was the best of both worlds, and it’s easily the most enjoyable version out of the three for me.

The only dub I didn’t manage to overview, for obvious reasons, is the 1990 dub by Streamline Pictures. Reportedly, this dub contained an entirely different English voice cast before Disney threw in theirs for this movie. I’m hoping for this dub to be available sometime, somehow, so I can see how it compares to the other three and see if it’s any better or worse than any of them.

Upon further extra viewings, I started catching on to specific details, such as within the facial expressions and even with particular characters who reappeared throughout the movie. This was where I thought the animation really shined. It excelled not just in its complexities or in its fluidity, but more impressively, in its subtleties. Looking at them closely made me realize how much more, even on the surface, was added to the movie, from the physical details to more expressive and personal details. In turn, they added to the already sweet, robust flavor I relished from this movie.

Looking back on this now, and when I think of how familiar this was to me, I’m shocked that it took me this long to finally catch on to Kiki’s adventures and enjoy them for all they pulled off. Ah, well. Better late than never. I enjoyed the characters, I enjoyed the story, l enjoyed the atmosphere, I enjoyed the animation, I enjoyed the performances; it is just an enjoyable film. And, when putting this side by side with the book, this one held onto its core values while still standing tall as its own thing.

Give this a spin. Whether you’re young or old, this movie will surely sweep you off your feet.

My Rating: A-

Additional Thoughts

  • You know, I always found it intriguing how things may have been like with Kirsten Dunst and Matthew Lawrence when they provided the English dub voices for Kiki and Tombo. For one thing, they both starred in movies that starred Robin Williams, Jumanji for Dunst, and Mrs. Doubtfire for Lawrence. So while they nailed down their vocal chemistry onscreen, I can’t help but wonder what their chemistry behind the scenes may have been like at the time.

  • In the original Japanese version, half of the radio broadcasts that had relevance to the story were heard in Japanese. But more interestingly, the other half, which didn't have any significance to the story, were English-speaking broadcasts. That's not something I expected to hear in the original Japanese version of this movie. Where could those have been broadcast from? America? Great Britain? Australia? Hong Kong, perhaps? That is just beyond curious to me.

Works Cited

Miyazaki, H. “Director’s Statement: The Hopes and Hearts of Today’s Girls.” In The Art of Kiki’s Delivery Service, Viz Media, LLC.

This was also included in the pamphlet that came with the 2017 Blu-ray release of Kiki’s Delivery Service.

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