When is a remake not a remake? Arguably, Takashi Shimizu’s “Majo no Takkyubin (Kiki’s Delivery Service)” is less a reworking of the Hayao Miyazaki animation classic (which this reviewer praised on this page in 1989) than his own interpretation of the 1985 Eiko Kadono fantasy novel on which the Miyazaki film is also based. (Encouraged by the novel’s success, Kadono later wrote five more in a series.)

Best known for his horror films, including the seminal 2002 J-Horror shocker “Juon (Ju-on: The Grudge)” and its hit 2004 Hollywood remake, Shimizu was hardly the most obvious choice to direct a film aimed mainly at children about a young witch’s yearlong “apprenticeship” in a strange town. In an interview with The Japan Times at the Hilton Tokyo Hotel, Shimizu admits that he was “a little surprised” at the offer. “At first I wondered why they came to me,” he adds with a bemused smile.

Watching the film, which opened in Japan on March 1, I realized why producers aiming to make a distinctly different live-action film approached Shimizu instead of the usual TV-trained director-for-hire: Compared with Studio Ghibli’s “Kiki’s Delivery Service,” whose world was largely inspired by the more pleasant parts of Sweden, Shimizu’s film is darker in tone, with Kiki (Fuka Koshiba) first seen in an ominous-looking cliff-side town living with her mysterious, potion-making witch mom (Rie Miyazawa), her human dad and talking black cat Jiji.

That is, it’s a degree or two closer to the original Western image of the witch as a cackling crone stirring a blackly bubbling pot, not a giddy pubescent girl flying on a magic broom.

“Witches were originally thought to be in league with the devil,” Shimizu observes. “The anime based on (Kadono’s) novel didn’t have anything really witchy about. But I left a bit of that scary feeling in my film.”

Kadono, whose own conception of witches was closer to Miyazaki’s, initially opposed Shimizu’s vision. “But she finally let us go ahead because it was a film,” Shimizu explains.

At the same time, Shimizu and his collaborators did not have Miyazaki’s freedom to plump his 13-year-old heroine down into what was visually a Swedish port, but where everyone conveniently spoke Japanese. “That would have been really strange in a live-action film,” he says. “So we created an imaginary town, but we had to make it Japanese.”

Despite his attempts to differentiate his film from Miyazaki’s, Shimizu knows that comparisons are inevitable. “His film is famous, it came first and a lot of people don’t know the novel,” Shimizu explains. “So yes, we’re going to be compared with the anime, but it’s also completely different to have a real human actress play the witch.”

His Kiki, Koshiba, is a 16-year-old former figure skater who had next to no acting experience before successfully auditioning for the role.

“She had acting lessons, but I thought it would be meaningless not to use her ‘newcomer’ quality, so I told her just to be herself and not try to act,” Shimizu says. “The film shoot was basically her training as an actress.” He didn’t, however, warn her against seeing Miyazaki’s film prior to filming. “She had seen the anime,” Shimizu comments, “but she didn’t know about the novels.”

Koshiba’s athletic skills came in handy for the role, which required her to confidently maneuver her broom, not just grimly hang onto it. She also soldiered on doggedly as Shimizu tried to extract a filmable performance from her. “Yes, I was strict with her at times, but we got along well,” Shimizu says. “She was a serious kid, so she memorized everything (in the script before coming to the set). She was just reciting lines the way she had memorized them, without any expression. So we had to do take after take.”

Her hard work on the set has paid off with a charming, energetic performance on the screen, though she may not win any acting prizes for it. “She really tried hard,” Shimizu says admiringly.

None of this, of course, is any guarantee that “Kiki’s Delivery Service” will be a hit. Miyazaki’s version is a beloved classic, seen by generations of kids around the world on video, DVD and television, while Shimizu’s darker film may not strike fans of the anime as an improvement. Will they want to see little Kiki battling achingly realistic emotional and physical pain in her quest to become a full-fledged witch, from friendless isolation and cold-hearted bullying to a stomach-churning ride through a raging thunderstorm that would give a hurricane hunter pause? (Made, Shimizu says proudly, with “a lot of real wind and water,” not just CGI enhancements.)

For Shimizu, however, realism is live action’s strong point. “It’s easier to show that sort of pain in a live-action film than in an anime or a novel. I thought we had to thoroughly communicate it — otherwise there would have been no point in making a live-action film.”

If the movie does succeed at the box office, there may well be sequels. “There’s definitely that possibility,” says Shimizu. “Ms. Kadono herself has said she would like to us to make more films.”

He also sees the potential for the film to win fans abroad, though its CGI budget is only a small fraction of a “Harry Potter” installment. “Abroad, they’re used to the flashy use of magic, like you see in the ‘Harry Potter’ films,” explains Shimizu. “What’s interesting about ours, I think, is that the heroine can only fly — she can’t use any other sort of magic. Otherwise she’s an ordinary girl. That might strike foreign fans as something new.”

“Majo no Takkyubin (Kiki’s Delivery Service)” is now showing. For a chance to win one of three stuffed toys of Kiki’s cat Jiji, visit jtimes.jp/film.

In line with COVID-19 guidelines, the government is strongly requesting that residents and visitors exercise caution if they choose to visit bars, restaurants, music venues and other public spaces.

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.