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. That said, Miyazaki actually has a reasoning for this. On page 138 in The Art Of Kiki’s Delivery Service, he is quoted saying “It’s a rite of passage for her to fly over the city with her underwear exposed” – make of that what you will.

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”.

Ninotchka (1939)

picmonkey_image-4

Communism: A Load of Bolshevik

***This Review Contains Spoilers***

Does communism have a moral equivalency to Nazism? Conservatives have long complained of a double stand for Nazi and communist crimes. Nazism is based on heinous sounding ideas; communism is based on nice sounding ideas. However, that makes communism and left-wing radicalism more appealing to people of good intentions and perhaps that makes communism more dangerous and an evil in disguise. I’m undecided on this question myself but regardless of which ideology is worse, there is one thing I’m certain about: communism sucks and the fact that it has nowhere near the reputation of Nazism is disturbing. This is an ideology which was responsible for the deaths of 100 million in the 20th century yet I am able to buy t-shirts featuring its dictators in pop culture stores.

The 1939 Ernst Lubitish directed and Billy Wilder penned comedy Ninotchka is reflective of this lack of moral equivalency between Nazism and communism despite the film clearly being anti-communist (apparently the film was responsible for communists losing an Italian election in 1947). The scenes in Ninotchka which take place in Russia are grim. The complete censorship of information, the regimented support of the regime, the asphyxiating and claustrophobic living conditions, rationed food, fear of spying neighbours and the overall lack of personal freedoms. Yet despite critique such as this which the film levels against communism, Ninotchka does not present communism as the utterly monstrous belief system that Hollywood suggested Nazism was. When I first watched Ninothcka as a politically lay viewer that’s the impression I got – “communism isn’t great but Nazism is worse”. That’s not to say Ninotchka would be so much better a film if it went the full throttle and showed us the gulags and mass starvation but would a film like Ninotchka transposed to Nazi Germany ever get made with the same comic and tonal approach, one which doesn’t go the full throttle by mentioning concentration camps and persecution of Jews and other minorities. Would it even be morally appropriate to do so? – Food for thought.

One of the ways in which Ninotchka jabs at the Soviets is through the Russian characters skewered thinking. In the opening scene the three comrades on a mission in Paris attempt to justify choosing an expensive hotel over a cheap one because apparently, it’s what Lenin would have wanted and refusing to simply admit they really just want the royal suite (“but who said we had to have an idea”). In another scene in the film, Ninotchka explains why Soviet Russia is “peddling our precious possessions to the world at this time”. She goes onto say, “Our next year’s crop is in danger, and you know it. Unless we can get foreign currency to buy tractors, there’ll not be enough bread for our people and you comrades.” As if tractors could overcome a drought and famine. Likewise, there is Leon’s (Melvyn Douglas) statement in regards to Russia, “I’ve been interested in your five-year plan for the last 15 years”.

I do find much of the Ninotchka’s first 18 minutes prior to the introduction of Garbo to be a bit flat even with some humorous scenes in which the three comrades are being seduced by capitalistic decadence and start fawning over Leon. The setting up of the background behind the jewels as a plot device and the scenes between Melvyn Douglas and Ina Claire are not terribly interesting. Once Garbo appears, however, the film is on fire.

Greta Garbo is not one of my favourite actresses but I totally understand the appeal. Nina Ivanovna “Ninotchka” Yakushova Envoy Extraordinaire is one badass. She claims to have been a sergeant in Third Cavalry Brigade and she is certainly one with the ability to convince the uninitiated to communist ideals. Lines such as “I have heard of the arrogant male in capitalistic society” and “That’s no business, that’s social injustice” don’t sound too different from talking points by modern lefties. Ninotchka is driven by facts and statistics in comparison to Leon who is more driven by emotion (although I guess the fact of communism’s failure is one for her to ignore). The Soviet State as represented by the figure of Ninotchka is genuinely concerned with the great mass of its people but it is so interested in their statistical well being that is has forgotten their emotional needs and has become cold, oppressive and inhuman. Garbo’s cold emotionless voice and her stone face are fully utilised in a faultless deadpan, comic performance. However, when she finally laughs for the first time and unleashes her endearing side, it feels so genuine and uplifting. At the heart of romance in Ninotchka is that of love triumphing over opposing ideologies.

Ninotchka’s communist ideology does rub off on Leon as he becomes somewhat of a campaign socialist and humorously turns to violence in order to track down Ninotchka later in the film. As good as Melvyn Douglas is in the role of Leon, I can’t help but wish William Powell could have performed the role as no one does suave cynicism like Powell. Regardless Douglas does deliver one of my all-time favourite set of movie lines in which he tells Ninotchka to just smile “At the whole ridiculous spectacle of life, at people being so serious”; I like to remind myself of this whenever I feel frustrated at the state of the world we live in.

One of the most interesting scenes in the film involves Leon’s butler Gaston (Richard Carle) telling his master about his concern regarding Ninotchka’s (or simply the Bolshevik Lady) influence over him;  Gaston as much as refuses to dust Leon’s copy of Karl Marx’s Capital as it is a socialistic volume. Gaston also mentions how Leon has not paid him two months in the movie suggesting that capitalism isn’t perfect; however, Gaston finds the prospect of sharing belongings with Leon and being on an equal footing as him to be terrifying. By the end of the film, neither Ninotchka nor Leon directly renounces communism but I doubt they will be returning to Russia any time soon.

Rocky IV (1985)

80’s: The Movie

***This Review Contains Spoilers***

Rocky IV is one of the most entertaining movies ever made. If there was ever a movie I can turn to for just 90 minutes of pure, immense, adrenaline filled, inspirational entertainment, it’s Rocky IV. The runtime is the shortest of the series, but those 90 minutes are perfect. The poster for Rocky IV is displayed proudly in my bedroom, and every now and then I look at it in all its majesty with Rocky sticking his glove up in the air while draped in the stars and stripes. I feel the Rocky movies had the ideal lifespan for a movie franchise; start off serious, goof out for some fun, but then end again on a serious note.

There’s no question about it, Rocky IV is the most 80’s movie ever. Case in point:

– Synthesized rock soundtrack.

-Cold war propaganda.

-Conservative, Reagan era values.

-MTV music video style montages.

-Larger than life villain.

-It’s a sequel of a long-running franchise.

-There’s a robot.

-Rocky drives a sports car.

-Display of decadence.

-Brigitte Nielsen, star of other very 80’s movies Red Sonja and Cobra.

-Action movie revenge plot.

-Full of cheesy/corny quotable lines (“If he dies, he dies”, “Whatever he hits, he destroys”).

Stallone’s inspiration for Rocky IV came from the two fights between Joe Louis and Max Schmeling in 1936 and 1938 respectively; two fights which embodied the political and social conflict of the time – an African American taking on a supposed representation of Aryan superiority. Thus in Rocky IV we get Ivan Drago, the terrifying Aryan superman Rocky must challenge to avenge the death of his friend (could that sound more 80’s?).  Ivan Drago is a terminator; the strongest opponent humanly possible; however is Drago an interesting villain? I say yes; one of my favourite screen villains of all time as a matter of fact. In a memorable Siskel & Ebert moment, Roger Ebert described Drago as a “moderately interesting villain” but complained “how come he never has a single scene alone with his wife” and “why does she have nine times more dialogue than he has?”. Drago doesn’t speak for himself as there is no individualism in communism. I feel Dolph Lundgren gives a great physical performance, playing a character who is the opposite of Clubber Lang in that he speaks few words; succeeding in being an intimidating monster with his physical presence alone. I also love Drago’s reaction to Apollo’s entrance at the exhibition fight; that of a Soviet being welcomed to America.

Ivan Drago is a product of a state that sponsors his training as exemplified in the movie’s two training montages. Drago’s music theme is cold, intimidating and mechanical, just like his training. He is given steroids by his trainers and at a press conference an American reporter says “There have been rumors of blood doping and widespread distribution of anabolic steroids in the Soviet Union”; feels like an eerie foreshadowing to the state-operated Russian doping scandal of 2016. Following the boycotts at the 1980 and 1984 Olympics, Rocky IV couldn’t have come at a better time when sports and politics were going hand in hand. Drago’s fit of rage near the end of the fight in which he proclaims “I fight to win. For me! For me!”, is clearly a jab at communism as he wants to work for himself and not for the glory of the country. Likewise, when he lifts up and throws the Russian official who criticises him, it’s a classic Frankenstein moment; the monster turning on its creator.

Apollo Creed’s entrance, on the other hand, is one of the most capitalistic things ever put on film, with James Brown singing Living In America among Belly Dancers and Creed himself dressed in stars and stripes; and to top it all off, it’s in Las Vegas. A stark contrast to the Russians who open the Rocky-Drago fight later in the movie to their national anthem (yet another awe-inspiring musical highlight in the film). Did Apollo’s ego untimely kill him? Apollo’s patriotic egotism clouded his better judgment and no idea just how strong Drago would be. The sheer power of Drago’s punches during the fight with Creed (if you could even call it that) are exemplified by the sound effects. Also, why does Drago receive no punishment for throwing the referee aside, but if I was going to point out every little thing in this movie which makes no sense I’d be here all day. There’s such brutality to Creed’s death; pure slow motion brutality. I’ll never forget my mum’s reaction the first time I watched Rocky IV, a gasping “oh my God!”.

When I was studying for my GCSE examinations, the Rocky IV soundtrack was one of my primary sources of music listening. Whenever I have a stressful day of work I listen to the Rocky IV soundtrack when I need that extra bit of adrenaline to make me go on. Feeling down? Rocky IV soundtrack! Need inspiration? Rocky IV soundtrack! Having a workout? Rocky IV soundtrack! 20% of the Rocky IV or 23 minutes is comprised montages with songs which can make anything look epic in one of the epitomes of the 1980’s soundtrack; everything you would expect from a score which won the Razzi for worst music score. The score by Vince diCola has been officially released but copies are not easy to come by. The actual Rocky IV soundtrack features different versions of War and Training Montage than those which appear in the film, although these variants are good in their own right.

If there is one word associated with Rocky IV, its montage. I can watch these montages over and over again and still be enthralled by them. The first training montage is heavy on its symbolism of nature vs. machine and showcases the beauty of the Russian wilderness. Ok, it’s actually Wyoming but I can buy into it being a vast frozen expanse of the Soviet Union. But it’s training montage number 2 which has to be my favourite training montage in film history. This is partly due to John Cafferty’s Hearts On Fire – a motivating, pumping anthem if there ever was one (that synth, God I love it!) In the spirit of everything in Rocky IV being larger than life, instead of running up the steps of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the montage ends with Rocky climbing a mountain.

The editing of Rocky IV also contributes to the film’s bombastic nature. The transitional shots of magazine covers and newspaper articles make the film play out like more of a comic book than it already is. Likewise, shots such as that of Rocky’s Russian chaperone looking into binoculars gets repeated three times within a few seconds but zoomed in further each time and edited to the rhythm of the score; it’s just so cool. On the other hand, I even recall a review I heard for Star Wars: The Forces Awakens refer the final shot of that movie as a Rocky IV shot, in reference to the aerial shot of Rocky on top of the mountain. Is Rocky IV a more influential film than the history books let on?

Rocky IV is incredibly distant from the first movie but this is appropriate as Rocky is out of his element and in a foreign land. This is the only film in the series not to take place in Philadelphia unless you include the scene in the Balboa mansion although it’s never made clear where the mansion is located. The No Easy Way Out montage is comprised of clips from the first movie, so the film allows you to bask in the stark contrast between the movies; a man who used to be a not very intelligent nobody and made money from prizefighting and working for a loan shark is now at the center of international politics.

Even the sheer predictably of Rocky IV is wonderful, such as when Adrian shows up in Russia to support Rocky; it’s all cliché but in the best sense of the word. The build-up to the final fight and the atmosphere is so immense; there could never be a Rocky film more epic than this. By this point, I’m actually scared for Rocky and fearful for his life, and Paulie’s emotional outpour before the fight, it gets me every time. I don’t care what anyone says, this is the greatest fight in film history. Rules don’t apply and Rocky somehow lasts the 15 rounds and even wins over the crowd (“Suddenly Moscow is pro-Rocky!”). This isn’t just Rocky against another opponent, this is Rocky against a superhuman, a hostile crowd, a Mikhail Gorbachev lookalike and an entire world superpower. Keep your superhero movies with their city-destroying battles; this is what I call a duel! Rocky’s final speech is naive in the most wonderful way. The words of the speech are so juvenile, yet when I hear Stallone utter them in the movie; it brings a tear to my eye. Did Rocky IV really help end the cold war? Who knows? Oh, and the end credits provide us with yet another awesome montage!

Rocky IV embodies the essence of capitalism the American Dream; if you work hard, success is attainable. I know many would just look at the movie and scoff at it as a simplified look at the Cold War with an “us and them” mentality. But as a piece of propaganda does it work? Oh, you bet it does. Rocky IV, I salute you to your over the top, cheesy 80’s perfection.

Rocky IV > Citizen Kane