Kiki’s Delivery Service [Majo no Takkyūbin] (1989)

Someone Left The Cake Out In The Rain

***This Review Contains Spoilers***

For a country which reportedly has one of the world’s highest stress rates (and perhaps as a result), Japan has produced some of the screen’s most tranquil and relaxing viewing experiences, whether it’s the works of Yasujirō Ozu or Studio Ghibli. Kiki’s Delivery Service tells the story of a trainee witch travelling to a city and using her flying skills to start her own delivery service. Set in the fictional city of Koriko (or Corico as some sources spell it), an urban dwelling inspired by Stockholm and the small Swedish town of Visby which is given no real-world area however the geographical layout of the city within the film feels incredibly well defined (bring on the Kiki’s Delivery Service open-world video game). Director Hayao Miyazaki is quoted as having said “Kokiro has one side on the shores of the Mediterranean, and the other on the Baltic Sea [laughs]”. Correspondingly, Miyazaki states Kiki’s Delivery Service takes place in an alternative 1950s Europe in which both world wars never happened and this rejection of modernity is a constant theme throughout Studio Ghibli’s output. It’s easy to lose yourself in the world within Kiki’s Delivery Service with its classical European architecture, cobblestone streets and houses equipped with traditional ovens. During the film’s opening, Kiki wants to leave her tiny village in the countryside for the city, yet to the viewer, this place is heaven on Earth with its green fields, bright blue skies and cosy cottages. The accompanying music score by Joe Hisaishi features many moments of joyful bliss with a mix of classical European, vaudevillian and ragtime music. On A Clear Day radiates that feeling of a sunny day while the piece which plays as Kiki arrives in her newfound hometown titled A Town With An Ocean View is dark yet optimistic. My favourite piece is that played over the unveiling of painting featuring Kiki titled An Unusual Paining in which the dreamlike, new-age mystic piece leaves one with a sense of wonder.

Kiki’s Delivery Service is one of the best films about entrepreneurialism and the entrepreneurial spirit. The world of Kiki’s Delivery Service appears to be a libertarian paradise, a world which appears to be devoid of any business regulation (“Oi mate, you got a loicense to deliver that cake?”) in which children are driving cars, flying permits are not required for amateur aircraft, a minor can own a business, there is no mention of child labour laws nor any mention of Kiki continuing or ever having attended a school and a place in which you can invent flying machines without any apparent regulations – what Ayn Rand would describe as “full, pure, uncontrolled laissez-faire capitalism”. This lack of regulation or government oversight extends to the fact that Kiki leaves her home to be independent while still a minor at the age of 13. Her mother does mention “nobody leaves home that young anymore”, but aside from this, no concern is raised for a 13-year-old going off to live by herself nor any form of social services is present to get involved. Is this form of libertarianism and capitalism presented here ultimately a fantasy that would not work in real life with the presence of predatory big business (or am I over-analyzing a film for subtext that’s not there)? Miyazaki once stated about capitalism: “During the time I was trying to conclude Nausicaä , I did what some might think is a turnabout. I totally forsook Marxism. I decided it was wrong, that historical materialism is also wrong, and that I shouldn’t see things with it.” Only a few years following the release of Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind, Miyazaki would craft fictional benevolent capitalists like the ever so loving and joyful Osono, the owner of the bakery Gütiokipänjä and a compassionate, benevolent landlady who showcases the human side of business (likewise, there’s something comic about the mere presence of Osono’s unnamed husband, the tall, buff, stoic figure who utters little more than a grunt). Kiki’s Delivery Service is a film which conveys the value of money as Kiki has to carefully budget what money she has after arriving in town, forcing herself to live off pancakes and work for her money while other kids her age spend their time procrastinating and driving cars. It’s moments like her visit to the grocery store and her sticker shock over the price of items which really makes the film so down to Earth.

The overall sweet, wholesome nature of Kiki’s Delivery Service makes my inner valley girl wants to proclaim, “like omg, cutest movie ever!!”. Everything about the titular heroine is unbearably cute from her facial expressions to her over the top reactions to even the slightest bit of good news and her occasional hyperactive nature. Kiki is seen as modern by the standards of her village yet old fashioned by the standards of the city. She struggles to fit in with the city’s children yet is able to engage with two elderly ladies thanks in part to her knowledge of how devices such as how a wood-burning oven works. Kiki is repulsed by how rude the children in the city act from the overly-inquisitive girl hunter Tombo to the ungrateful girl who receives the herring pie from her grandmother. This theme of maturity extends to the relationship Kiki shares with her cat Jiji. After she loses her powers which include the ability to speak to Jiji, it remains the one power she does not regain at the film’s conclusion. I do find it somewhat heartbreaking that Kiki never regains this ability but then again, speaking to a cat as if they’re human is in itself a rather childish thing to do and thus a sign of Kiki’s newfound maturity as she gets older. It does raise the question if Jiji could actually speak to Kiki in the first place or was it just in her mind? Yet in the English dub, Kiki restores her ability to speak to Jiji at the end, regardless Phil Hartman’s sarcastic Jiji makes the English dub worth watching.

So by all accounts, Kiki’s Delivery Service sounds like the most based, conservative, red-pilled, right-wing movie ever made espousing the values of tradition, power of the individual and the pick yourself up from the bootstraps mentality? Well not quite. Kiki is after all practising pagan witchcraft rather than being a good God-fearing Christian. Although in all seriousness, God is actually mentioned in both the dubbed version and the English subtitles of the original Japanese version in which Ursula states – “The spirit of witches. The spirit of artists. The Spirit of bakers! I suppose it must be a power given by God. Sometimes you suffer for it”. Although this is not the line in the original script and is a creation of the English subtitles the film still contains the ever slight reference to religion with Kiki flying past a Christian church in the opening credits. It’s not difficult to buy into the fantasy premise in which witches with supernatural abilities openly co-exist in society, and can even marry non-witches such as Kiki’s father (are her powers genetically passed down from her mother?). However these are not witches in the traditional sense, there are no devils, pentagrams or virgin sacrifices present in the film (Kiki’s mother is introduced creating a potion using modern science equipment). There does appear to be one dark side presented about these witches in which Jiji remarks “Crows used to be witches’ servants” to which Kiki angrily responds “That was a long time go, okay?” – make of that what you will. Also, while it is odd to bring up, I am forced to mention as it does come off as peculiar for the western viewer is the inclusion of many up-skirt shots throughout the film. It’s not sexual but no doubt will cause some monocles to fall into champagne glasses.

Despite lacking a villain within the story, Kiki’s Delivery Service does manage to set up a finale with an action set piece and one which utilizes Miyazaki’s love of aviation. Likewise, I do enjoy how Studio Ghibli’s films make the end credits a part of the movie-watching experience, something I wish more films would do general (Kiki’s continued use of a bassline broom after the destruction of her traditional witches’ broom is a nice touch). The aforementioned subplot of Kiki losing her powers immediately reminded me of the similar subplots in Superman II and Spider-Man 2. In all three films, the loss of powers comes from stress, burnout, the descent into depression and the inability to lead a normal life (granted Superman choose to give his powers up voluntarily but the comparison still holds). Kiki’s Delivery Service can be read as an allegory for modern young creatives trying to make it on their own with Kiki’s magic being used as a metaphor for artistic expression whether it’s attempting to become a YouTuber or trying to run a successful movie review blog (wink, wink) and attempting to accompany this into a work-life balance. The other character who reflects the passion for a creative to turn their passion into a job is the painter Ursula. She speaks of how her pursuit of painting is what gets rid of her frustrations and her remedy for the loss of creativity involves “Take[ing] long walks, look at the scenery, doze off at noon. Don’t do a single thing” – and yes, on a personal level this I can relate to. Kiki’s Delivery Service is as fine a tribute to the creative and entrepreneurial spirit and regardless of your passion, “Sometimes you suffer for it”.

Ocean Waves [I Can Hear The Sea/Umi ga Kikoeru] (1993)

Youth Is Wasted On The Young

***This Review Contains Spoilers***

Ocean Waves is a real unsung gem of the Studio Ghibli library, with this made-for-TV film running at a very digestible and economical length of 72 minutes. Ocean Waves tells the story of Taku Morisaki (Nobuo Tobita), a high school student in a provincial town in the Kochi prefecture whose world is turned upside by a transfer student from Tokyo named Rikako Muto (Yōko Sakamoto). I’ve read many comments and reviews that express a strong dislike for this character usually reserved for the likes of Scarlet O’Hara and it’s not hard to see why – she is spoiled, manipulative, selfish and rude. The city girl thinks herself superior to the provincial folk in the town she has been incarcerated in and even says at one point she hates the area and guys who speak with a Kochi dialect. Rikako gives no acknowledgement for all the trouble she puts Taku through from lending her money, finding himself escorting her to Tokyo at the last minute and being forced to sleep in a hotel bathtub (some men will have the patience of a saint when it comes to a pretty girl). The will they/won’t they story becomes increasingly unlikely as the relationship between the two deteriorates so bad that they end up slapping each other in public, while in another incident soon afterwards Rikako gives Taku another powerful slap for no good reason in an excellent piece of animation as the beautiful young woman suddenly appears so unattractive. Yet as a viewer I can feel sorry for her as her parents are divorced and she has been forced to move with her mother (of whom she resents) to another town against her will (and being on her period as she declares doesn’t help matters). Although I can understand for other viewers she remains unredeemable.

Ocean Waves is also a love triangle story with Taku’s best friend Matsuno Yutaka (Toshihiko Seki) also being in the pursuit of Rikako. The film hints there may be a homosexual attraction between Taku and Matsuno. In the scene in which the two meet for the first time, Taku narrates “Since then, in my mind, Matsuno was different from the others” – a possible dog whistle that the two are friends of Dorothy not to mention the scene is very romantic in nature but it’s ultimately left ambiguous. Regardless their bromance serves as another great relationship dynamic. This slice of life anime is full of those relatable high-school moments which make you go “oh yeah, I remember going through a moment like that”.

The animation present in Ocean Waves is not to the quality of Ghibli’s theatrical films, but for a TV production, it still looks great despite a few technical issues. Several background characters appear as mannequins with no face but more significantly, the film does have some framing issues. I am unable to discover if Ocean Waves was created in the 4:3 or 16:9 aspect ratio. Being a made-for-TV production from the early 90’s I would imagine it was created in the former but I can only find copies presenting it in 16:9 of which the vast majority of the film looks perfectly fine however a number of shots do appear as if a 4:3 product has been zoomed in to fill a 16:9 screen with character’s heads being unnaturally cut off. Likewise, the film does contain some dodgy edits and several scenes have white borders running around the screen of which I fail to see their purpose. That said, such technical quirks are made up for the fact that Ocean Waves is a visually beautiful piece of work featuring many a lovely Ozu style pillow shot. Animation of real-life (for lack of a better term) is something rarely seen in the west (King Of The Hill being the most well-known example and yes, my favourite anime), a shame as it provides an opportunity to create a beautiful Technicolor-like look. Concurrently, the music score by Shigeru Nagata is an underrated work of melancholic wonder. With a main theme that is somewhat reminiscent of Dave Grusin’s score for On Golden Pond, the serene, nostalgic score is the kind that makes you want to reminiscence on days gone by (where music is absent the ever atmospheric sound of cicadas fills in).

At its heart, Ocean Waves is about the complexity of human relationships and the growing pains they endure. During their high school tenure, Taku and Matsuno violently fall out over Rikako but reunite post-graduation, showing how grievance during one’s school years becomes irrelevant later in life. During the reunion party, the characters speak of how everything seemed like a big deal in high school, but post-graduation they have come to realise they were getting upset over matters which were ultimately insignificant in the years to come.  They even speak of affection for Rikako who didn’t attend the reunion, despite how snobbish and stuck up she was. Taku even looks up at a castle in the night and remembers all the times Rikako complained and ranted to him with a smile on his face accompanied by the film’s beautiful score. Ocean Waves concludes with one of Cinema’s most enduring love story tropes, as the unlikely couple find themselves reunited by chance at a train station – an ending that encapsulates pure cathartic, romantic joy.

Mulan (1998)

Yin & Yang

***This Review Contains Spoilers***

Mulan is one of my favourite films in the Disney animated canon.  A movie which is rich in layers and characterisation topped with brilliant songs and great action, there’s barely a single minute that doesn’t leave me enthralled. The titular heroine herself is a unique specimen in the canon of female Disney protagonists. For one she actually has living parents and contrary to the likes of Belle or Ariel, Mulan is not a free spirit. She is a clumsy, unpunctual, clutz, and a bit of a tomboy who doesn’t fit the gender norms society would have expected of her at the time as she tries to find her place in the world. She is also an adult who still possesses some childlike tendencies, perhaps most memorably and heart-warmingly when she unexpectedly hugs the Emperor of China. Mulan is also under the Disney princess brand even though she has no royal lineage? – Money talks.

Mulan is one of many examples throughout history of women disguised as men in combat roles, albeit in the case of Hua Mulan being one of disputed historicity. For many western children, a film like this would be their first introduction to Chinese culture and history beyond what they would see in a Chinese takeaway. I’m not Chinese so I can’t atone for well the film represents the culture. From a historical accuracy perspective, however, the film presents the Huns being a threat during the film’s setting of 600AD (Tang Dynasty) when they were actually active several centuries prior to that. Likewise, fireworks and gun powder wouldn’t come along until the 9th century (also Mulan’s family owns a pet dog?). – Embrace it in a charmingly inaccurate Cecil B. DeMille way.

Mulan is a classic heroes’ journey as she begins the film within the familiarity of her village but soon has a call to adventure into the unknown, only to eventually return to her village, a transformed individual. Disney films often being at the ire of snooty left-wing academics due to their highly archetypal nature rooted in the conventions of storytelling which are often dismissed as passé and cliché formulas of storytelling in favour of the deconstruction of myths. Thus I have no desire to see a live-action remake of Mulan in the age of woke Hollywood. In relation to the dreaded “F” word of feminism, I’ll reference an unlikely source in the form of Knuckles the Echidna:

“You know Amy, any time someone brings attention to the breaking of gender roles, it ultimately undermines the concept of gender equality by implying that this is an exception and not the status quo.”

Ok, Mulan is a film which is guilty of this itself with irony-laden songs such as Honour To Us All and A Girl Worth Fighting For which would normally lead one to groan with their intentionally un-pc lyrics and little visual accompaniments such as Mulan unintentionally wielding the umbrella like a sword during Honour To us All, but I’m never left with the impression the film is propagating an agenda. Mulan’s journey was never some feminist quest to prove a woman can do anything a man can do and stick it to the patriarchy – rather it was to preserve her father’s and by extension her family’s honour. Mulan doesn’t want to change how her society works, but rather just cheat its conformist rules.

Hollywood has a modern tendency to portray female characters whom are just women acting like aggressive men who can beat up hordes of bad guys and lack any sense of femininity. Mulan is not like that and film demonstrates her lack of physical strength and demonstrates how she has to rely on her mental capabilities to survive. Mulan figures out how to climb the pole and retrieve the arrow with the stone slabs of strength and discipline not with physical strength but with ingenuity, by wrapping the ropes attached to the slabs around the pole as an aid to climb it. Some suspension of disbelief is required that no one in the boot camp isn’t more suspicious that Mulan’s alias Ping is not a man, even as an effeminate one at that (one way the animators got around this is by having Mulan’s face shape change when she is dressed as Ping). To use a symbol of ancient Chinese philosophy, Mulan’s balancing of masculine and feminine is akin to the balancing of the yin and yang.

“The quickest way to the emperor is through that pass. Besides, the little girl will be missing her doll. We should return it to her.”

From the opening shot of The Great Wall, Mulan captures an epic scope on par with some of the best live-action epics. The colour scheme throughout the film is a thing of beauty complete with many a fantastic shot or creative transition. Mulan was the first time a Disney movie dealt with warfare with the sequence involving the soldiers discovering the village following a genocide (after such a joyous upbeat song) being one of the darkest Disney moments. Likewise, the beginning of the battle sequence on the mountain as Shan-Yu and his men appear over the hill is reminiscent to the film Zulu (that avalanche sequence breaks many laws of physics but no less exciting). The film’s scope reaches a peak with the film’s climactic money shot of Mulan jumping of the palace roof in the Forbidden City with fireworks behind her. The only criticism I have for the animation is the repetition of very similar character models in the Chinese and Hun armies as well as in the Forbidden City. Although the appearance of these models on screen is very limited it’s a bit odd whenever I took notice of it.

Jerry Goldsmith’s East Asian influenced score is among the strongest of his career. The track titled Haircut is a piece of synth to die for! How does a piece of music from 1998 sound like it was recorded for a movie made in 1985? None of the musical numbers in Mulan fail in their grand, sweeping nature. The film’s classic Disney “I desire more” ballad in the form of Reflection (how did she wipe away all that makeup with on rub of her sleeve?) helps to signify Mulan’s vulnerability. Yet Mulan’s greatest musical accomplishment is the hair raising I’ll Make a Man Out of You, the militaristic training montage ballad with its larger than life lyrics and memorable one-liners from the supporting characters – it can proudly stand among the likes of the Rocky IV soundtrack as motivational music to get you out of any rut.

The other area where Mulan surprisingly exceeds is the comedy as one of the funnier Disney animated films, managing to balance the laughs with the high stakes drama. Eddie Murphy as Mushu doesn’t surpass Robin Williams in Aladdin but his antics and many memorable quotes give him one of his best career roles. However I find the film’s funniest moments come from Mulan’s attempts to act manly – it’s not a body swap comedy without a scene in which the character’s cover is almost blown when they are out of costume (underwear with hearts on it, anachronism much?). The only tonal criticism I would levy at the film is the end credits song True To Your Heart, an upbeat pop song which comes out of left field after Mulan’s heartfelt reunion with her father and family. A good Stevie Wonder jam but it feels out of place.

The film’s villain Shan-Yu is a two-dimensional bad guy but is still quite entertaining from how overtly evil he and his falcon companion are, with Shan-Yu himself being complete with fangs and muted colours. I also love how his scenes end with him delivering a spine chilling message (“How many men does it take to deliver a message?” – oh, badass!). He’s not the main source of conflict in the film so his two-dimensional personality doesn’t interfere with the film. However, he does display one revealing character moment during the film’s climax in which upon discovering Mulan was the solider from the battlefield who took out his army, in an ironic twist he is the only character in the film who does not belittle Mulan for being a woman.

Thug Life

Mulan’s world is populated with many great characters from the badass, no-nonsense general and love interest to Mulan, Li Shang (those abs are body goals) of whom it turns out is a bit socially awkward when it comes to women. Mulan’s dignified father Fa Zhou on the other hand is best summed up in the powerful shot of his attempt to walk without his aid and disguise his limp to accept his conscription assignment. Although absent for most of the film, he is at the film’s heart as the instigator of Mulan’s journey (“I know my place! It is time you learned yours!”). The question does have to be raised if the military would actually have this old, physically weak man on the battlefield but rather to act as a general due to the fact that he appears to be a well-known figure at the boot camp and thus likely respected and held in high esteem. I do also adore the trio of soldiers – the fiery voiced Yao (thank you Harvey Feinstein), the childlike Ling and the pacifist Chein with their camaraderie and failure to act like tough guys and lady killers. Then there is the slimy pencil pusher Chi-Fu, the film’s love to hate character. I like how he is given some humanising moments like his picture with the Emperor on his desk and his claim that he apparently has “a girl back home who’s not like any other”. Even The Emperor of China himself is full of wisdom and memorable quotations worthy of Confucius himself.

“The flower that blooms in adversity is the most rare and beautiful of all”