machine gun dandy, the masked rider and a blimp disaster:


christopher funderburg


A breath of fresh air after the enjoyable but pedestrian Oceans Waves, Kiki's Delivery Service illustrates the virtually peerless virtuosity of Miyazaki even in comparison to his colleagues at Studio Ghibli. Takahata's best work aside, everything produced by the studio feels underwhelming in comparison to the master. I would go so far as to say that a second-tier Miyazaki like this tale of a teenage witch, has an artistic density that rivals or even surpasses top-tier Pixar and Disney films like Monsters, Inc. and Cinderella (two world-class films, to be sure.) In general, Miyazaki's work has an uncommon vitality even set against other brilliant work and the adorable, self-confident, smart, honest Kiki has a special liveliness even by Miyazaki's own impossible standards. Kiki's narrative is more laid back than the stories found in most of the master's films, but I think audiences are more than happy to spend the majority of the film in Kiki's company leisurely soaking in the low-stakes tribulations that characterize her rum-springa-esque year away from home at age 13 as she trains to become a real witch. I know the Amish year in the "real world" at the end of adolescence is associated with extreme debauchery like crystal-meth usage and constant drunkenness, but it's really not intended to be a year of irresponsibility and intoxication. Maybe if they did it at age 13 as per witch culture, there would be fewer "get fucked up and screw" connotations and more decent young Amish kids worrying that they're losing their identity in a corrupt world. Certainly, that's Kiki's problem and she does initially let the allure of "a big city by the ocean" drive her decision-making process probably more than it should. The set-up goes like this: at some point when witches are 13 years-old, they hop on their broomstick and take off at midnight wandering through the darkness until they find a new town in which to settle and get down to the business of becoming a full-grown lady witch. Kiki, accompanied her trusted black cat sidekick Jiji, decides she wants to escape her tiny village in favor of the excitement of a real city (with the specific accoutrement of a beautiful ocean view.) You get the sense that's not really the way she's supposed to think about the process - early in her travels, she encounters a haughty young witch on the verge of completing her training in a tiny, unremarkable town. The snob seems to understand the purpose of the training much better than Kiki and throws out several condescending questions; that such a self-possessed girl has settled where she has seems to indicate a lack of maturity on the part of Kiki's desire for a big exciting city. When Kiki falls asleep in a train (and is awakening by cows munching on the hay in which she sleeps), she finds herself in her final destination by pure luck. Aren't the witches supposed to select their new home from the back of a broom, looking down at the world below? Will Kiki's unconventional nature yield spectacular results or is it dangerous, even self-defeating? All we know is that it's totally charming - she apologizes to the cows for sleeping in their breakfast!

The art in Kiki is utterly marvelous - which she reaches her new home city, the background designs are astonishingly gorgeous and detailed. Miyazaki modeled the art after Stockholm and the walled-city Visby (another example of his affection for Western culture) and the look of Kiki's home-base has no equal in the history of animated cinema. The winding cobble-stone streets, quaint wood-frame architecture and harmony between the densely packed blocks and nature are all rendered with meticulous care - I don't think Miyazaki ever rivaled the breath-taking scope and beauty of the physical space which Kiki inhabits, even at his most fantastical. "Charming" is the operative word when it comes to Kiki; the titular lead's good-natured enthusiasm and the water-colored streets of pseudo-Visby, with its clock-tower and beaches, do the majority of the heavy-lifting in that regard. On top of that, Jiji provides a full-on cuteness assault; his timid skepticism provides a wonderful contrast to Kiki's impulsive nature and can-do spirit. When he eats pancakes? Forget it. Cute. As. Heck. Jiji's design and dialog (only witches can speak with him, everyone else just hears meowing) are positioned for maximum adorableness, his panicked reactions to an old dog and a burly baker are minor moments, but highlights of the film nevertheless. Keeping with the low-stakes nature of the first 3/4 of the movie, the old dog ends up helping him escape a bad situation - the world ends up being full of decent people, especially when Kiki and Jiji least expect it. It's a refreshing world-view and provides an interesting contrast to Kiki's late-breaking moral panic. When she loses her powers (worst of all, her ability to communicate with Jiji) she can't figure out what happened - did she change in her very essence or is the world around her somehow causing the changes? It would be easy to blame the world, if she didn't encounter so many fundamentally decent people. Still, these are all new problems she's experiencing, so it must have something to do with her new home, right? What if she is no longer herself? What does that mean for her future? This is, naturally, a metaphor for every girl's transition to adolescence - when Kiki remarks something to the effect of "I no longer feel like honest, friendly Kiki" she's becoming aware of the inexplicable mood swings and personality changes that occur in every teenager (especially teenage girls) as their hormones kick into gear and adulthood makes its looming presence felt. It's difficult in that moment not to feel like you're losing yourself; struggling to regain your magic only seems to make the problem worse. What if you're not meant to be a witch at all? What if you're not good enough to make the baseball team or your abilities with art have plateaued? Those adolescent trials create our adult definitions of ourselves and sometimes the implications discovered with our growing self-awareness are terrifying. Instability becomes a way of life - we're carefree children one minute, raging jerks the next. Witnessing Kiki lose her charm might even be more intense than the spectacular blimp accident at the climax of the film that nearly kills her best friend.

The essential feminine characteristics of Kiki are another interesting aspect of the film. Lead female characters in the majority of Disney films are notoriously princesses and aging villains* - even Pixar only has only ever featured one female lead, a by-the-numbers "tomboy princess" that lacks one ounce of originality or insight in its conception. Her mediocrity frustratingly prevents the film from gaining traction and makes it easily Pixar's worst (yes, even Cars 2 is better.) Miyazaki's preternatural connection to his female characters and the ease from which he builds around a fundamentally female perspective are yet another way in which his work stands out from the stand-outs in animation history. Kiki grows into a full-on witch amongst women, to boot - she's looked after and guided by a pregnant baker who gives her a place to stay and encourages her package delivery service, a lonely grandmother whose own spoiled grand-daughter doesn't respect and understand her** and, most importantly, a free-spirited artist who helps her overcome the loss of her powers by discussing the similarities between creating art and making magic. Women dominate the film, Kiki's even the one who saves the guy at the end of the film, a nice kid who is as blown away by Kiki as we are - his fills the traditional female role in romantic comedies, he's given a single interest (flying machines) but his main function is to react to Kiki. None of this feels forced or pointed, it's all as natural as could be. There's an ironic level, though, on which Miyazaki doesn't even seem concerned about creating a female character, only a truthful one - there's no grand socio-political statement and no earnest desire to "portray women" hiding below the surface. Writing great characters is totally where the film is at - it's themes are family and maturation, Kiki and her women play to those themes. If you're an 11 year-old girl, this has to be your favorite movie. It just has to. Miyazaki has knack for creating female characters and doesn't worry about turning off male audiences, that old nonsense that Hollywood has cowered behind for years. His greatest films all are created around compelling, unique young women: Howl's Moving Castle, Spirited Away, Kiki's, My Neighbor Totoro - even Princess Mononoke features the titular tough-as-nails warlord, an almost feral woman who eschews any semblance of "tomboy princess" cliches. While Miyazaki's filmography has more original, varied heroines than get put on screen by Hollywood in a decade, you never get any sense that he's even slightly guided by an agenda of identity politics - I have a feeling he simply identifies with women more than men. The closest he's ever come to producing an on-screen stand-in is the free-spirited, nature obsessed painter who helps Kiki get her broom-riding*** mojo back. Her philosophy might as well be Miyazaki's own when she talks about how art is something that flows through you naturally, but in spite of that, you have to keep working, plugging away even when your talents seem to have dried up. Her thoughtful, respectful relationship with the crows she sketches as she sits atop her cabin mirrors the filmmaker's own obsessions with the environment and attempts to express the possibility for harmony between the natural world & man through art. Her ideas about art being like magic seem like a pretty pointed comment on how Miyazaki feels when he conjures up a film like Kiki's, a charming, imaginative low-key odyssey through a world without villains, a world as gorgeous as it is inviting, where Kiki's biggest obstacle to completing her training is herself.

As a bonus, the credits sequence coda doubles down on Jiji's cuteness… by introducing his kitten, a clumsy playful little guy who nearly falls off of a ledge while chasing a butterfly. Do. not. resist.

* Even their most sharply drawn and likable female lead in Lilo still has to share top-billing with an adorable, zany alien. Their main attempt to address the problem was the rote "ass-kicking tomboy princess" of Mulan. Their other fumbling attempt to address their lack of adeptness with women and minorities came in the form of The Princess and the Frog's black princess, a character so bland and unformed that only her skin-tone set her apart from her snow white predecessors.

** In the grand-daughter's defense, herring and pumpkin pie does sound disgusting.

*** Again, Miyazaki is so good at the throwaway stuff like the janitor who sees her save the blimp and, speaking truthfully if boastfully, says to the crowd "That's my broom! I gave it to her!"



An interesting thing about Isao Takahata, director of My Neighbors the Yamadas, is that he can't draw. Usually, directors of animated features begin as animators and work their way up to being in charge, but that wasn't the case for Takahata. He didn't study animation or anything having to do with art in college and only entered the film business after he took an employment exam on a whim while accompanying a friend to take the test. His test landed him a job as an assistant director and from there he moved on to producing and directing fairly quickly, all the while never putting pencil to paper (or ink to animation cell.) I believe that Takahata's wonderful stylistic adventurousness can be traced (whoops - goddamn puns) to his lack of drawing ability. Most animation directors animate their features in their own style - that is, they are designed according to what the director himself is comfortable drawing. Since most animators in Japan get their start in t.v., they have a tendency to design in their features in the style of the t.v. shows in which they have been toiling. Miyazaki himself is not immune to this problem; as gorgeous and imaginative as his work can be, it still resembles most other anime on a basic level. His human character designs are particularly rote for such a brilliant talent - they look more or less like most of the anime produced for television in the 70's and there's a level on which I suspect Miyazaki can't really do anything about it: he draws the way he learned to draw while in t.v. - that artistic process has to be deeply ingrained after decades of toiling in production before he really had the chance to break out and operate without "industry standard" type limitations. I don't want to take one ounce of credit or respect away from him, but compare his human character designs and movement conception to the wild inventiveness of his vehicle, creature/spirit monster, landscape and robot designs - the former are a result of his background, the latter proof of his freedom. Takahata, on the other hand, doesn't have any connection to the actual process of putting an image down on paper and so his work feels wonderfully original and free. Yamadas is the apex of Takahata's artistic boldness with its primarily scrawled black-line figures, minimalist white backgrounds, water-color interstitchiles and shifting styles - several sequences drop the minimalism to explore its characters in vibrant allegories, amp up tension in what appears to be roto-scoped realism and explode with joy in a lush, blow-out musical number at the climax of the film. The film has a breathtaking originality that shines through most clearly in its animation - there is not a single other film in the history of le cinema that looks like Yamadas. And I'd like to be clear how forcefully I intend to use the word "originality" here. It's not something I love to throw around despite its frequent appearances in these write-ups (I am, after all, the dude who responded to Tree of Life by saying, "psssht, it's just like Dog Star Man.") Yamadas, however, presents not just deeply original artwork, but an episodic story that conceives of narrative and ontology in a very unique and surprising fashion. There's just nothing like this movie.

The story (as far as there is a story) follows the day to day life of the Yamadas, an average suburban Japanese family: the tightly-wound father, his plump lazy housewife, his curmudgeonly (even cruel) mother, his adorable young daughter Nonoko, and his dull ugly teenage son Noboru. The film is constructed around dozens of tiny, unconnected scenes - there must be at least 50 of them (and that might be an underestimation.) Most of these scenes run only a minute or two and have a skit structure that builds to a climactic gag. There are a four extended sequences (I'm talking 5-7 minutes when I say "extended") clustered with two at the beginning of the film and two at the end. They anchor the film and give it some much needed gravity it wouldn't otherwise have. It's in these four longer sequences where the style shifts most radically (even if one of them doesn't shift style at all.) The individual skits are grouped by title screens into categories like "domestic wizard" and "section chief yamada." Additionally, peppered through the movie are brief water-color interstitchiles of drawing of nature adorned with haikus by Basho and the like - I think these haikus give us a clue as to what Takahata is after. Takahata has chosen this form consisting of brief episodes in imitation of the intent of haikus - instead of Basho's short suggestive poems about nature, we get Takahata's short suggestive skits about domestic life. The film is a compilation of domestic haikus, Takahata's gentle humor implying that the foibles of family life probably don't deserve the same reverence as the beauty and power of nature. But… there's something we have to discuss, you and I, and I wish I didn't have to say anything negative about such a brilliant film, but it is what it is: the brevity of the skits, their focus on home-life and the gentleness of the comedy give them a feeling comparable to a newspaper comic strip. There's many of them that you could see your grandma clipping out of the paper and posting on her fridge or the spinster at work xeroxing and hanging in her cubicle. Even worse, at least a dozen of them are complete groaners, refugees from a Family Circus panel, stuff like Section Chief Yamada and his wife arguing on the phone about a file he needs for work, only to have his assistant notice it's sitting on his desk, right there beside him. Only, he doesn't admit to his wife he has it! Wah-wah. And let me tell you about the time he forgot to bring home his umbrella to ire of his wife and then later in the week boastfully entered the house to declare this time he remembered it. Only, his wife points out he didn't take an umbrella to work that day! And what happens to socks when you're doing the laundry? Let's get into that mystery! I'm throwing out some of the absolute worst examples, but the majority of the film is cute or interesting or true. A slowly unfolding sequence of Mr. Yamada coming home drunk and demanding something to eat only to be offered by his wife a frozen bean pie and a banana plays out with a deliberateness and quiet that lends it a lovely, poignant air. And some of the more straight up gag skits play out beautifully, like Mr. Yamada's incoherent advice to Noboru about studying or the incident in which the sanctimonious grandma Yamada attempts to reward the honesty of a pair of kids, only to have it backfire. The problem is that even if 80%-85% of the episodes work, out of 50 sequences, that's still 10-15 stinkers. The bad stuff ultimately doesn't overshadow the good stuff in Yamadas, but it would dishonest of me not to acknowledge just how bad the bad parts come off.

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