Dir. Hayao Miyazaki
By Callum Hughes
If you ever find yourself for whatever reason wandering the streets of Cambridge let me make a recommendation. Just down the road from the Grande Arcade, past Emmanuel College is a large and depressing looking Wetherspoon’s pub called The Regal, to the side is a door that leads to the building above. This is the Arts Picturehouse Cinema; it was previously in a much larger location ten minutes down the road and is now in danger of being removed all together. If that was to happen I would be losing a part of my childhood, I have seen some incredible films there, and can remember the entire cinematic experience of watching Pan’s Labyrinth, The Assassination of Jesse James and Inception, amongst others in front of those screens. Perhaps the reason it is closest to my heart though is that it’s the cinema that introduced me to Hayao Miyazaki.
Miyazaki is my favourite film-maker, only Woody Allen and Sofia Coppolla compete for my affections. That’s not an all that original statement to make, most people over a certain age with an interest in animation are Miyazaki fans but it still remains the case that almost no filmmaker comes close in consistency in making moving, sweet, funny, engaging films with some of the best female characters ever committed to cinema.
I could have written about more or less any of Miyazaki’s films, My Neighbour Totoro, perhaps my favourite of his films, is a brilliant depiction of being a young girl and a sister, Nausicaa and Princess Monoke have two of the best, and most rounded women warriors in cinema and Spirited Away is a near perfect feminist coming of age fable. Excellent films all, but I’m going to focus on Kiki’s Delivery Service; one of his most directly and clearly feminist narratives. Addressing as Miyazaki says “the gulf that exists between independence and reliance in Japanese teenage girls”.
The film is an adaptation of a novel by Eiko Kadono; an initial screenplay by a different writer was disregarded by Miyazaki for not properly addressing the novel’s themes and his replacement screenplay is one of his best; perfectly paced, with brilliant drawn characters who we find ourselves attached to within moments of them being on screen.
Disney’s release of the film in 1998, nearly ten years after the Japanese version should be commended for not watering down any of the themes or ideas addressed (there’s also another English language version that was released in the early nineties, I haven’t seen it but both the Disney version and original Japanese are excellent). Although the film was protested against by the group Concerned Women for America, suggesting the film had a negative influence. Clearly concerned the US might be overcome by young women attempting to deliver packages and help out in bakeries.
It’s the most noticeable aspect of Kiki; she’s really really nice to people, people aren’t always nice to her but she’s never anything but polite and sweet (except with Tombo, but then to be fair they haven’t been properly introduced) Kiki insists on helping an elderly woman to bake a pie, then helps with household tasks and then is astonished at the prospect of being paid more, and nearly cries after she then has a caked baked for her (to be fair, it looks like a hell of a cake). Kiki has clearly led a sheltered life in the country away from the bustle and intolerance of the big city. Still, from the very beginning of the film Kiki is confident in herself; later she worries that city girls have nicer clothes and seem to talk about things that are a mystery to her and that her being a witch will stop her from fitting in but other characters admire her for her uniqueness. Her character develops not in discovering a new version of herself but in discovering she was right all along; she has every right to be confident in who she is, her uniqueness and her differences is what makes the other characters so impressed and charmed by her and more importantly gives her confidence to like and be herself.
The other female major female characters are brilliant too. Osono, the bakery owner, cares for Kiki but is no nonsense, constantly reminding Kiki that there is nothing wrong with her but that only she has the ability to realise that. Similarly Ursula, the painter who lives in the woods is an inspirational figure for Kiki; profoundly confident, independent, no interest in what other people think; “We each need to find our own inspiration, Kiki. Sometimes it’s not easy”. Kiki’s relationship with Tombo is also interesting, there’s never any clear indication of a romantic attachment, rather Tombo is astonished and fascinated by Kiki because of who she is and because of what she can do.
Kiki’s Delivery Service is a wonderful introduction to feminism for any child watching, telling them they have a right to be whoever they want to be and should be confident in that person. You can dress how you want, talk how you want, believe what you want to believe, love what and who you want to love and no-one can tell you you’re wrong. Yet, the film is never patronising, it is simply presenting a perfect character study of a girl who wants to be herself and the journey she takes to realise people should accept her for who she is.
“Maybe I can stay and find some other nice people who will like me and accept me for who I am.”
Callum is a screenwriter and essayist who studied film at the University of East Anglia. He is the editor of the Feminist Film Blog.