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.