The Japanese have a huge appetite for animation, as one glance at a TV or — at this time of year — a movie schedule will confirm. Much of that appetite, of course, is fed with junk: endless recyclings of superhero fantasy or schoolyard humor.
But this large potential audience, which includes legions of junior and senior high school anime fans, has given Japanese animators a creative freedom unknown to most of their American and European counterparts. Instead of catering exclusively to the very young (and their “young-at-heart” parents), they can attempt a more sophisticated storyline and treatment without worrying about confusing — or losing — their audience.
One of the most innovative of these animators is Hayao Miyazaki, who started his career with Toei Animation — the largest animation studio in Asia — more than two decades ago. In the course of that career, Miyazaki has developed a highly distinctive style that combines free-form fantasy with a meticulously observed reality. His animals talk and his children fly, but they perform these miracles in a world where windows stick and the heroine catches cold in the rain. And his artwork has a lushness and love of detail that rivals classic Disney.
In his latest film, “Majo no Takkyubin (Kiki’s Delivery Service),” Miyazaki reaches new heights of not only physical but psychological realism. His heroine, Kiki, is more than a witch with a shaky command of her broom (she has a distressing habit of bouncing off buildings). She is also a very real 13-year-old girl — and a better actress of her flesh-and-blood contemporaries.
Miyazaki, who produced, directed and wrote the script for the film, explores states usually considered the province of “live” movies. Besides showing courage and spunk — standard stuff for a cartoon heroine — Kiki experiences boredom, depression and embarrassment.
The last is particularly interesting. After spending her first night at the home of a baker and his wife, Kiki wakes up and, still in her nightgown, steps outside. From her second-story room, which opens into a courtyard, she can see an outhouse down below. She trots down the steps, dashes into the outhouse and, a few moments later, peeps out. To her surprise, she sees the baker — a young, silent giant — stretching his muscles and walking slowly across the courtyard toward a storeroom. The moment he is out of sight, she runs back up the steps, dives into her room and shuts the door, breathing hard.
This scene does absolutely nothing to advance the plot and the humor in it is low (Disney would reject it out of hand), but in Miyazaki’s hands it wordlessly — and eloquently — expresses Kiki’s youth, vulnerability and isolation. A small triumph of understated but sharp observation, it allows us, for one clear moment, to see into the heart of an adolescent girl.
The movie is sprinkled with similar moments, but it is also very much an entertainment for kids. Here again, Miyazaki is successful, though boys might find Kiki’s adventures a little tame. The story is a quest: Kiki’s mother, a witch, sends her witch-in-training daughter on a yearlong journey to complete her apprenticeship.
Kiki, after spending a rough night riding through the rain and sleeping in a boxcar, arrives at a city on the seacoast. Here she finds that policemen do not appreciate her aerial acrobatics and that hotels do not accept underage witches.
She is saved from the park bench by a baker’s wife, who offers her a room after Kiki helps her return a pacifier (by broom, of course) to a forgetful customer. This gives the baker’s wife an idea: Kiki can pay for her room and board by operating a delivery service.
Thus the title — and the premise for much of the action. On her rounds Kiki meets an 18-year-old artist who becomes her best friend, an elderly lady who takes an interest in her welfare and a 13-year-old boy who makes a pest of himself.
These people become a substitute family, one that she needs very much when, midway through her stay, she loses her powers. Her black cat no longer talks to her, her broom no longer rises into the air. Miyazaki’s depiction of her struggle to regain those powers is his great achievement in this film, and he shows her desperation, despair — and eventual triumph — with striking vividness. He doesn’t shy from melodrama, but the most telling scenes tend to be the smaller ones that, like Kiki’s race from the outhouse, contain nuggets of emotional truth.
The setting, however, is a complete fiction, with the cultural coherence of shopping bag prose. Kiki’s city is a jumble of European styles, with a dash of San Francisco thrown in for good measure. Time is also warped in strange ways: The streets are filled with old-time cars, the houses, with microwave ovens. All of these “mistakes,” however, are quite deliberate: They make the city a pleasantly bizarre blend of old-fashioned charm and modern convenience where a young witch with a Walkman hanging from her broom can fit right in.
“Kiki’s Delivery Service” is more than a place to park the kids for two hours — it is a surprisingly moving celebration of the animator’s art that deserves a wider audience.