Kiki's Delivery Service - Novel
Updated: Mar 10
One of the most whimsical, charming, and delightful animated films ever made by Hayao Miyazaki, Kiki's Delivery Service charmed its audiences with its magical but otherwise relatable story of a young girl who - in addition to being a witch - had to find her place in the world. Would you believe it if I told you that the movie was based on a children's book? Well, since, to be frank with you, I haven't seen the movie yet, I decided to give the book, written by Eiko Kadono, a whirl.
My first impression? I was indeed delighted and charmed by this story.
Let's get into go into more detail on it. Published in Japan in 1985 and having made its American debut this past year, it's about the young girl, Kiki, who just turned 13 years old, and being a witch, she was expected to come of age starting on the first full moon that rose after her 13th birthday. Traditionally, witches like her were supposed to come of age by venturing out on their own into a town or city of their choice and residing there for a whole year. So, Kiki, along with her best friend, a black cat named Jiji, ventured out onto her broom and settled in a seaport city called Koriko. There, she came to live with a kindly baker named Osono, and shortly after that, she started to develop her own business, which Osono helped her name - you guessed it - Kiki's Delivery Service. Through that business, Kiki would've flown on her broom and delivered anything carriable to the townspeople, sort of like an aerial mailwoman. Kiki got that idea from the notion that witches, when helping out a community, expected to be returned favors for their services.
What impressed me about this story was that it explored a sense of magic, that is that it was about a witch who can fly on her broom to go from place to place, and yet, the story told of both her and her adventures was very grounded and expressed with a sense of warmth, homeliness, and mellowness. This allowed the story to focus less on the magical aspects and more on Kiki's journeys. And much like MASH and To Kill a Mockingbird, Kiki's Delivery Service was told in an episodic format, ensuring more focus on the handful of events Kiki went through as she adjusted herself to her new surroundings.
While I'm on that subject, let's talk about the characters, starting with Kiki.
She was a very modest, if also a little rambunctious, little girl who felt determined to prove her worth as a witch, especially as she got set for all it took to come of age. But, as she soon found out, that was easier said than done, especially for someone her age. For starters, as soon as she settled into Koriko, the townspeople were flabbergasted - indifferent at worst - about the idea of a witch coming to live in their city. This shocked Kiki since the townspeople from her hometown were used to having witches around, down to the repayments that were accustomed to witches. The point was further hit home by Osono, who mentioned to her as they were naming her business that whenever people thought of a delivery service run by a witch, the first thing they would think of was packages expected to cast spells on whoever opened them. But the neat thing about her is, whenever an issue did arise, she would've tried to take care of the situation. I think it was demonstrated beautifully in the chapter where she was asked by a shy, almost mysterious girl to deliver a poem to someone she liked. Out of uncertainty, suspicion, and curiosity, she opened the letter to read it, but then, the wind whipped it out of her hand and left the letter to rest on a riverbed. So, just before she had a chance to deliver the poem, she and Jiji came up with a solution to rewrite what they remembered about the poem on a leaf, and then, once they sealed it up, they would've delivered it to the girl's crush. Little moments like that showed how much Kiki had yet to learn about the real world, and yet, she was still willing to rise to the challenge and do whatever she felt was needed to get the job done. This showed signs of her maturity as she progressed further.
Jiji, her pet cat, was a pretty fun character. Sharing Kiki's exact birthday, he mostly acted as the voice of reason as he often responded to what was going through Kiki's head with wisecracks that seemed to verge on sarcasm. But that only made him also feel charming, just in a different way from how Kiki was charming. How Kiki and Jiji were able to even understand each other, I don't know for certain, but what I do know is that led to some endearing and funny banters between them both. I simply found him to feel like a soft-spoken, more conscientious Iago. Interestingly, he wasn't without his bumps in the road, either. At one point, when Kiki was in the process of making her first delivery in Koriko, which was a black cat doll for a young boy on his birthday, Jiji was curious by the doll inside the cage they carried, but he accidentally opened the cage, leaving the doll to fall away from him and Kiki and into the forest far below them. As ordered, Jiji pretended to be the black cat doll himself, which meant that he had to stay stiff, not breathe, not blink, and just stay in that exact position until Kiki found the doll. Despite him being ordered to undergo such strenuous acts, the idea that he, out of contrition, was willing to withstand that posture until Kiki was successful in her search clued me in that he was just as fallible, and in a way, equally as identifiable, as Kiki.
Osono, the bakery lady who Kiki met on her first night in town, was a tender and sweet lady and was sometimes funny with how she operated her bakery or made some things clear with Kiki about Koriko's lifestyles. But outside of that, there was nothing I found particularly memorable about her outside of her being pregnant the first time she was introduced and busy with her newborn child the more times she appeared throughout the story.
Tombo, the boy who Kiki met, and who came from an aviation club, was a delightful kid who seemed to have an enthusiastic personality. The first time he and Kiki met, she was mostly at odds with him because he inadvertently stole Kiki's broom, or, technically, her mother's broom lent to her, and that it would have technically been useless unless he had witches' blood like Kiki did. And the next time they met, he was shown to be highly skilled, clever with aviation skills, and even thoughtful, as he tied some balloons onto a painter's painting so that it would've been easier for it to float in the air and for Kiki to carry on her broom to the local art gallery in town. I wished the book devoted more time to developing their friendship; the little moments they shared were awkward, yet cute.
The painter in question, who Kiki ran into as she was searching for the black cat doll - and was unnamed - was an interesting lady. During the times where she and Kiki were together, she was fascinated by her and Jiji, not just because of them being associated with witchcraft, but because she was blown away by the unique blackness of Jiji's fur; it was the kind of black she was hoping to use on one of her paintings. It allowed for some time to be spent on how an artist did his or her own thing, and it was pretty interesting to read.
Now, how about the story itself? Well, while I found the premise very unique, it benefitted from putting its focus on the emotional, personal development of the main characters, not to mention from exploring some bits and pieces of everyday life in the city in which they dwelled. Among some of the episodic stories written about Kiki's adventures were:
After doing plenty of deliveries in town, Kiki got set for another day of deliveries, only to be reminded by Osono that it was Sunday, and most people in town went out to go swimming, so Kiki went out to relax and play at Osono's request. Then, just as she was getting settled, a storm came brewing out of nowhere, and, with a makeshift broom she had with her when she couldn't find her old one, she was able to rescue a young boy who was stuck in the middle of the ocean. This then led to her tracking down, and meeting, Tombo, after witnessing him steal her broom.
One of her strangest encounters was with an old lady who sewed belly bands. Her request with Kiki was that she would send a belly band to her son, who was the Captain of one of the nearest port ships, as a token of good luck. This led to some interesting resolutions being concocted by Kiki about how to help the Captain with his ship, which was acting strange, and their cargo, which was an entire shipment of wine. The idea that the belly bands helped some of their dilemmas in both a natural and even unnatural way was pretty quirky, and it somewhat tied into the book's subtle explorations of magic occurring in a very normal world.
There was one story where Kiki met up with a band who was supposed to perform a concert later that afternoon, but accidentally left their instruments in the train they came in from. Despite her annoyance with their laziness and irresponsibility with them, Kiki and Jiji were still willing to set out so they could track down the exact train they were on, sneak into the train while it was still in motion, and retrieve the instruments for them. It wasn't easy, but their solutions were impressive, and it even led to a funny climax where Kiki and Jiji, while carrying the instruments, did some of the performance of the concert themselves, to the point where the bandmates, despite intending to go on with the show, were technically beaten to the punch by them.
The second to last story told of Kiki's adventures in Koriko, I thought, involved her most epic request yet. Unlike the animated movie, where the biggest event involved a blimp crashing into one of the city's towers, this story dealt with Kiki trying to repair the town clock tower to get it running properly for the New Year's tolling. The clock tower was supposed to ring once a year at midnight on New Year's Day, and when the tower suddenly stopped working, the mayor frettingly asked Kiki to steal some gears from the clock tower in the next town so that their tower could be fixed in time. Kiki was conflicted about that idea since she was not on board with the idea of stealing from another city's clock tower, and she even got to witness the New Year's activities of the neighboring city for good measure. So, when she refused, she ultimately came up with a plan to skyrocket upwards toward the clock, grab its hands, and move it so the big hand would've landed on the midnight mark and properly functioned for the New Year's festivities. Not only did she succeed, but she sort of did it too well: she looked at her watch and discovered that she allowed the clock tower to ring its midnight toll five minutes early. This story stuck out to me just because of how monumental a task it was, especially for someone her age.
Another aspect of the story that I think is worth addressing is its settings. At first glance, Koriko felt like a busy city where many of its residents may not even have known each other. But, as more time was spent in the streets, homes, and even atmosphere of the city, it started to feel less intimidating in terms of scope and instead felt more like a home away from home, just like it was to Kiki. Even Kiki's old hometown had a nice, pleasant quality to it; the residents there all seemed very welcoming and humble, and of course, they knew Kiki well enough to tie silver bells on top of their treetops so that it would've helped Kiki with her broom flying as she grew up and still tried to get the hang of it. The aesthetic beauty and community of both towns added to what made the scenery so pleasant and inviting. And because this book came here straight from Japan, you can say this gave me a good idea of what life was like in both the suburban and urban areas of Japan.
While I may understand your potential shock over the idea of me having never seen Miyazaki's film before, I think that as long as I was introduced to Kiki's Delivery Service in some form, like the original book here, I guess it's better late than never. And for what it started with, Kiki's Delivery Service did a great job of diving into the actual coming of age of children who were ready to uphold some adult responsibilities in the real world, regardless of what magic they may have had with them. It was a very creative, deep, delightful, modest, intriguing, and perfectly nuanced outlook of what it means to delight with some magic you didn't know you had, and Kiki's Delivery Service by Hayao Miyazaki was one of the few movies he made that was based on an already existing source material. So, not only am I happy to have been introduced to Kiki, Jiji, and their adventures this way, but now I can't wait to see the film and see how it truly stood out.
Kiki's Delivery Service. For a story from Japan about deliveries, boy, does this one deliver!
My Rating: A light B+