Friday, July 21, 2006

Film Fave #4: Kiki's Delivery Service

When a young witch turns 13, it is customary for her to hop aboard her broom, leave home and set herself up in a strange city. On a sunny day, while lying in the tall grass and listening to her transister radio, Kiki decides tonight is the night.

So begins my favourite Hayao Miyazaki movie, Kiki's Delivery Service. Thirteen might seem a little young for a girl to strike out on her own, but as with any Miyazaki movie, there is an innate sense to the proceedings that coheres quite naturally for the viewer. It helps that the world Kiki inhabits has none of the dire threats ours does. And it helps that she's a witch.

It's a little unclear just what a witch's powers amount to, other than broom-flying. Kiki's mother runs a sort of apothecary, and the first snooty witch Kiki encounters claims to be a fortune-teller, before brushing off Kiki and her cat Jiji like so much dandruff. Kiki's chief challenges, it seems, will be social.

Miyazaki's Kiki is the embodiment of youthful energy. Watching her, I reconnect with all the joyous uncertainty that came with leaving my home town. The trick to negotiating these changes is in maintaining confidence in your spirit, and Kiki is one of those blessed youths who doesn't have too many doubts in this regard.

The inevitable does eventually occur: through a series of events, Kiki loses touch with her magic, and her source of confidence. Her spirit seems to reside under a wet blanket; she no longer flies through her life, but walks through it, one miserable step at a time. How she gets back in touch with her magic is a scene that is more momentous and exciting than any of the cliffhanger conclusions we've seen in the last 20 years, because it is deeply emotional and stirringly personal.

I love Miyazaki's work. As with most Japanese anime, Kiki's world is a melange of visual influences. Miyazaki distills a European storybook aesthetic that is at once recognizable and strange. Ivy covers the walls of tall, gabled stone houses, the streets are narrow, trains cut through the countryside and a zeppelin flight is heralded as a big event. All wonderful, but the charm of these images resides in Miyazaki's attention to detail – how many animated movies open with the wind blowing through long grass?

But Miyazaki's originality also lies in his ability to observe and identify so closely with his heroines. I can think of no other living film-maker who cares as deeply about his girl protagonists. Novelist Shusaku Endo has said the Japanese revere their mothers because they exist in sharp counterpoint to their fathers, who are expected to be stern and emotionally distant. Miyazaki seems to follow his muse most closely when he paints the emotional development and dawning maturity of young girls.

Now that I think of it, Miyazaki's characters are almost always in the business of nurturing, though not always in the manner that one expects. But if emotional development comes through encounters with the strange in Castle In The Sky and Spirit World, with Kiki's Delivery Service it comes through finally recognizing what has been there all along.

Film Fave #3

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