Monday, August 3, 2009

Why I Love Animation: Kiki's Delivery Service - Part Three

Last time, Kiki made the terrible discovery that her waning self-confidence was causing her to lose her powers. Not only does this leave her unable to do her job, it puts the success of her year of training in jeopardy. The remainder of the film covers how Kiki regains her powers and her ability to believe in herself.

The broom that Kiki breaks is her mother’s broom, the one that Kiki didn’t even want to take initially. Kiki only agreed to use the older broom instead of the one she had made for herself when a friend of the family pointed out that she could make herself another new broom once she got settled. But Kiki never did make herself a new broom. Maybe once she didn’t have to argue the point with her mother, she realized that the big, old broom was safer and more dependable. Or maybe she just liked having a reminder of her home and family. Either way, Kiki doesn’t start making her own broom until her old one breaks and she has not other choice.

The next morning, Kiki breaks the bad news to Osono. As they’re talking, Osono’s husband runs out of the bakery and delivers his only line in the whole film: “Hey, look!” He points up into the sky where the “Freedom Adventurer” is flying overhead. Tombo is in the dirigible’s window, waving enthusiastically at Kiki down below. This only serves to highlight Kiki’s predicament. Tombo and the blimp are both up in the air while she is grounded. When he calls her later to ask if she saw him waving, she tells him not to call her anymore. She tells Osono that if she doesn’t regain her powers, she will have failed at her training. But it’s more than just that. Kiki sees flying as the thing that makes her special and fears that if she can’t fly, neither Tombo nor anyone else will like her anymore.

Though she doesn’t realize it yet, Kiki has already gained several loyal friends who care about her very much, regardless of whether she can fly. Ursula the artist has come to town to do some shopping and stops by to visit Kiki. When Ursula learns about Kiki’s recent trouble, she invites Kiki to come and spend the night at her cabin. Kiki halfheartedly agrees, but starts to feel better as they get out into the country. Nature is one of Miyazaki’s major themes and while it isn’t as prominently featured here as it is in My Neighbor Totoro or NausciaƤ of the Valley of the Wind, it does play a role, whether hindering Kiki in the form of wind and rain or rejuvenating her spirits through rural landscapes and ocean views. The natural world is a powerful force for both good and ill in Kiki’s life.

Once they arrive at the cabin, Kiki gets a look at Ursula’s latest work. Ursula has painted a night scene of crows, a bull, and a winged horse flying over her cabin. Kiki is amazed at Ursula’s skill. Ursula points out a girl’s face up near the horse’s head and tells Kiki that she has been waiting for her to come and model so that she can get the face right. At first, Kiki can’t see why Ursula would want to paint her, but knowing that she could help to inspire Ursula to create such a beautiful painting has got to provide a little confidence boost. Maybe, just maybe, Kiki will start to realize that other people see the good things about her that have nothing to do with her being a witch.

While she sketches Kiki and later when they’re getting ready for bed, Ursula talks with Kiki. Though Ursula wasn’t born an artist the way Kiki was born a witch, she had decided that she wanted to spend her life painting by the time she was Kiki’s age. She tells Kiki about a time when she lost confidence in her own talent. She realized that all of her paintings were copies of ones she had seen before. But rather than giving up in despair, Ursula redoubled her efforts to find her own style and her own personal meaning for her art. Ursula believes that witchcraft is a very similar thing, based as much in self-confidence as in any innate ability. Kiki sees her point. “We fly with our spirits,” she tells her friend. Ursula tells Kiki that this inner spirit is not unique to witches. It is the same power that drives Ursula to bake and Osono and her husband to bake. The conversation helps to demystify the loss of her powers for Kiki. Her issues are no longer something strange and unique to her, but a common problem that many people have battled and overcome.

When Kiki calls the bakery then following day, Osono tells her that the elderly lady Kiki befriended wants her to make another delivery, even though Osono has told her that Kiki is taking a break from deliveries. Since Kiki will be passing by the lady’s house on her way home, she agrees to stop by

Kiki arrives at the lady’s house just as the lady and Bertha are watching the coverage of the launch of the “Freedom Adventurer” on TV. After a successful test flight a few days earlier, the blimp is ready to continue its voyage. The lady reveals what it is that she wants Kiki to deliver: a beautiful little chocolate cake with Kiki’s name and an image of Kiki and Jiji in flight in frosting. The lady plays cute, asking the astonished young witch to deliver the cake to “a girl named Kiki” who was very kind to the lady and asks Kiki to "find out when the girl’s birthday is" so the lady can bake her another cake for the occasion.

Kiki is moved almost to tears. The delivery of the pie that cost Kiki the party she had been looking forward to was not in vain. Kiki made a tremendous impact on this kind lady, not by being a witch who can fly, but by being a helpful and considerate person. It is proof that Kiki can make friends here and be liked for who she is.

There is a sudden commotion from the TV broadcast. A strong wind is causing serious problems at the dirigible launch. The “Freedom Adventurer” has broken free of its moorings and is being blown into the frightened crowd. Being man-made does not mean that the blimp is any less at nature’s mercy than Kiki is when she flies and in fact, it is far less able to effectively battle the elements than Kiki. Bertha can hardly contain her excitement over the catastrophe, but her glee fades at once when Kiki spots a familiar face in the crowd. The blimp starts to float away with one last cable still attached to it and a young boy clinging to the cable: Tombo.

Towards the end of the newscast, the reporter on the scene cries out “Oh the humanity!” This line is not in the English dub or the original. It is, of course, a reference to the 1927 Hindenberg disaster.

Terrified for her friend, Kiki races towards the center of town where the runaway dirigible is headed. Planning is still not her strong suit; there is no indication that she has any idea what she is going to do. All she knows at this point is that Tombo is in trouble and she needs to get to him. On her way, she comes across a street sweeper carrying a broom and asks him to let her borrow it. Barely waiting for his response, Kiki grabs the broom, brings it to the middle of the street that has been cleared for emergency vehicles, and climbs on. She takes several deep breaths and leans forward, shaking with a concentration so fierce that it causes the bristles of the broom to stand on end. The mystical breeze that accompanied Kiki’s very first flight of them film blows away the dust and assorted rubbish in the street and sends it swirling up around her. “Fly,” Kiki commands. The broom obeys.

It is to Miyazaki’s credit that the drama of the movie does not end here. Kiki’s troubles do not end the second she regains her ability to fly. As the film takes pains to point out, Kiki suffers through all of the problems of an ordinary adolescent girl and being a witch does not make her adolescence any easier. All of Kiki’s battles, including this one, will be hard fought and hard won. Magic in Kiki is not an easy cure-all. It is an ability like any other which requires practice and hard work to accomplish what you want to or, in this case, need to do.

So before Kiki can fly heroically to the rescue, she must contend with her already shaky flying skills and a broom that she has never flown before. She collides with the buildings on either side of the street three times – the same as the number of trees she hit when she left home, gets blown backwards, plummets off a roof towards the street below, and gets dragged through an open air restaurant. She tells the broom to either literally “straighten up and fly right” or face a future as firewood. Perhaps Kiki’s mom was right about the benefits of a dependable broom.

In the center of town, the helpless dirigible crashes into the city clock tower, with Tombo still hanging perilously from the one remaining cable. The tail end is leaking helium and finally comes crashing down on a building across the street, leaving the blimp precariously balanced between the building and the clock tower. As a reporter with a camera crew and an enormous crowd watches from below, Kiki manages to wrangle her unruly broom and fly up to Tombo. But she hasn’t saved the day just yet. She reaches out her hand to Tombo, but the broom drifts away or drops suddenly every time she gets close to him. The crowd below starts chanting “Don’t give up! Don’t give up!” Though it is a scene of tension and danger, it is also the closest Kiki has come to the moment she began her journey, with supportive friends and family surrounding her and chanting her name, since arriving in her new town. Tombo is exhausted from clutching the cable all this time. He can’t hold on any longer and his grip gives way. There is an agonizing moment of complete silence as the horrified crowd watches him fall.

The next shot has Kiki completely off her broom, only holding onto it with one hand. The other is clasped firmly around Tombo’s wrist. Even as the rescue reaches its end, Miyazaki makes it completely clear that this was a huge effort for Kiki, thought well worth it. Tombo is safe and the crowd goes wild with relief. Every available bit of paper is tossed from the windows of nearby buildings as confetti while Kiki slowly lowers her friend to safety. All around town, Kiki’s friends watch as her triumph is broadcast live. The street sweeper enjoys his broom’s fifteen minutes of fame. Bertha skips as she pushes the elderly lady around in her swivel chair. Osono wipes away a happy tear, but she doesn’t have long to enjoy the moment. Her contractions are starting and her husband rushes off to call the doctor.

At the scene of her heroic rescue, Kiki is looking a little overwhelmed by the reporters and microphones surrounding her. Kiki’s goals throughout the film have been independence, self-confidence, and finding her place in the world. Winning the adoration of the entire town through one heroic gesture wasn’t really on her agenda. So while Tombo talks excitedly with the reporters in the background, Kiki remains silent and looks more dazed than anything. Then, she spots a little black cat running through the crowd towards her. Jiji hops up onto her shoulder and meows. Kiki smiles and nuzzles her cheek against his side.

Up to this point, the differences between the subtitles and the dub have been fairly minor. The dub has some additional lines of dialogue not present in the subtitles or the original film. The elderly lady’s maid has two slightly different names. There are pieces of dialogue that are translated differently in the subtitles and the dub, but they seldom completely alter the nature of the scene. But there is a moment at the very end of the film where the dub diverges significantly from both the subtitles and the original film.

In the dub, as Jiji runs through the crowd towards Kiki, he calls out “Kiki, can you hear me?” He jumps onto her shoulder and belts out a somewhat operatic “Me-ow!” making it clear that he and Kiki can understand each other again.

What’s going on here? According to the FAQ on GhibliWiki, the children’s book Majo no Takkyuubin (“Witch’s Delivery Service”) on which Kiki is based, provides the explanation. Witches and their black cats are raised together from a very young age, creating a special bond that allows them to speak to and understand one another. Their ability to communicate is based less on magic than on that close bond between them, which is why Kiki’s mother doesn’t talk to Jiji, despite being a witch herself. As witch and cat grow older, they naturally start to grow apart and eventually lose the ability to talk to one another.

I know I’m going to get in trouble for saying this, but I kind of prefer the dub ending. And if you will all put down your pitchforks for just a moment, I’ll explain why.

Thematically, the original ending works extremely well. Since Jiji is only able to talk tot Kiki and no one else, he is almost like her imaginary friend. But since he is also a real cat, maybe it would be better to think of him as the one family member who comes along with Kiki on her journey. When she first left home, Kiki needed Jiji as someone she could talk to about her problems and even to act as the “adult” in her life. But as she has matured and started to find her place in the wider world, her relationship with him changes. Even Jiji’s life has expanded beyond Kiki. He has a relationship with Lily and the short vignettes that play out as the credits roll show that they have started of family: three fluffy white kittens and one sleek black one. Jiji is still very much a part of Kiki’s life; he and “Jiji Junior” accompany her on her deliveries and errands. But they both have more in their lives now but just each other. I would probably be fine with it, were it not for one important issue.

The problem is, I can only react to what is actually in the film and there is no mention of any alternate reason why Kiki and Jiji stop being able to understand one another. More importantly, when Kiki realizes that she can no longer understand Jiji, the very next thing she does is to grab her broom and check if she can still fly. This very clearly tells me that Kiki believes that her inability to talk to Jiji means that she is losing her powers, which she is. Since no one in the film ever tells Kiki that this is an incorrect notion, I can only assume that Kiki cannot understand Jiji because she is losing her powers. No matter what the source material, films based on existing stories need to be able to stand on their own. I shouldn’t have to read the book to know what’s really going on. (I can’t anyway, since it isn’t available in English.) I saw the dub of the film first, so I wasn’t aware of the discrepancy until sometime later. If I had seen the subtitled version first, I’m almost certain that I would be left wondering why Kiki still can’t understand Jiji and I doubt I would be the only one with that question. So much as I don’t want to, I have to admit that the film does have a pretty notable flaw. I love it. It’s among my top ten favorite movies. But it’s not perfect.

One fact is completely clear, though. In the last shot before the film's epilogue, Kiki sits next to Jiji and his son on her roof with her arm around Jiji as the three of them look out at the night sky. Whether they can still speak to each other or not, they will always be friends.

As the end credits play, we see how life continues for Kiki and her friends in their seaside town. The aviation club’s plane is finally completed and Tombo gets to live out his dream of flying alongside Kiki. For Kiki, it means a return to flying for the sheer joy of it, something that she had lost as she became more and more fixated on succeeding at her job and her training. Osono and her husband enjoy a picnic while caring for their new baby. Though Kiki is still not a fully independent adult, she no longer needs Osono to serve as her surrogate mother so desperately. Kiki has become kind of a local celebrity and is surprised to see a little girl walk by dressed exactly like her and toting a tiny broom, emulating the very things that made Kiki feel so out of place. Even the traffic cop who stopped Kiki on her first day in town no waves to her as he walks by the bakery. More importantly, she has made friends with one of Tombo’s buddies and happily chats with her while minding the store.

Once again, a different song plays over the credits depending on whether you watch the subtitles or the dub. The Japanese soundtrack has a song entitled “If Enveloped In Tenderness,” another pre-existing song by the same vocalist, Yumi Arai. The English song is called “I’m Gonna Fly” and focuses on themes of achieving success and finding your way in the world.

The last credit plays as Kiki’s father rushes inside with a letter from Kiki. (The only visual difference between the dub and the original film that I’ve noticed is that Kiki’s letter is in English for the dub.) Kiki reports that she and Jiji are well and her business is continuing to thrive. The challenges in Kiki’s life are not completely behind her. She admits to her parents that she still has moments of sadness and that she is “starting to gain some confidence,” showing that she is still not completely sure of herself. But she ends by telling her parents how much she loves her new town. Kiki will still find obstacles in her path as she continues her journey to adulthood, but she has gained a new confidence in her abilities and herself that will help her to weather any storm.

I've been trying to figure out a way to sum up Kiki's Delivery Service in one last paragraph. Over the course of the analysis, I've talked about the reasons why this is a good film and why the narrative works so well. But in addition to those reason, Kiki's Delivery Service is important to me because it's been there when I've needed it. I know it sounds like an odd thing to say about a movie, but there have been times when I've felt like I didn't fit in, like the talents that made me special were fading away, or just plain felt bad. Strange as it may seem, it's during the times when the movie speaks to me most and honestly leaves me with a better outlook than before i watched it. The term "feel-good movie" gets tossed around a lot these days, to the point where it's little more than a meaningless platitude. For me, Kiki's Delivery Service redeems that term by being a movie I can rely on to help me feel good again.

All images from this article are copyright Eiko Kandono, Nibariki, Tokuma Shoten, and Buena Vista Home Entertainment Inc.

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