Sunday, July 11, 2021

Fantasy Literature Rewind: Kiki's Delivery Service.


You know, maybe I’ve been picking on Disney a bit too much lately. I mean, it’s kind of the easy route. They’ve adapted a lot of fairy tales and books. A LOT. But they’re not the only adapters out there. Not by a long shot. So, for a little while, I think I’ll focus on the book adaptations of an animation studio that doesn’t fall under quite so much scrutiny. At least, not on this side of the Pacific.

So, that’s why I present to you a special sub-series titled: Fantasy Literature Rewind: The Ghibli Sequence. (Don’t read too much into the title, folks. I just thought it sounded cool). That’s right, folks! We’ll be focusing on the books adapted by that beloved icon of the anime film industry: Studio Ghibli. I’ve mentioned them before. They came up in my spotlight on The Borrowers and I reviewed their film The Tale of the Princess Kaguya.

But right now, we’ll be shining the spotlight on the inspiration for the Ghibli film that introduced a lot of global fans to Ghibli: Kiki’s Delivery Service.

Kiki’s Delivery Service the movie is adapted from Majo no Takkyubin (translated as Witch’s Express Home Delivery), a 1985 children’s book written by Japanese author Eiko Kadono. A book that has only been translated into English for the first time very recently. The concept was supposedly inspired by a picture the author’s daughter drew of a witch flying on a broomstick while listening to a radio. This inspired her to write a book about a twelve-year-old witch (Kadono’s daughter was twelve at the time) whose only magic power was flying. That way, the character would have to use her brain to sort out problems.

The book focuses on a young witch named Kiki as she leaves her old hometown where she lives with her witch mother and folklorist father (yes, really) to go to a town of her own to set herself up as the “resident witch”. They’re she’ll be expected to make her way using whatever magical skills she has. Kiki, though, doesn’t have many magical skills. She never took any interest in her mother’s business of making potions, and a lot of other types of magic have been lost to obscurity over the centuries. But what Kiki can do is fly. So, she packs up her black dresses and her cat Jiji and her radio and hops on her mother’s old broom and heads out to find a town near the ocean to settle down in.

The book is a largely episodic affair, covering how Kiki and Jiji moved to her new town and different adventures she has as she goes on her different deliveries. In one, she has to deliver a toy cat as a gift and loses it along the way (this one is in the movie). In another, she’s asked to retrieve or rather, steal, a part from a clock tower in another town (she doesn’t do it and finds another way). Another adventure has her delivering a love letter for a girl around her own age (she also loses that and has to compose a new love poem on the spot). One of my favorites is when she gets contracted by some musicians to retrieve their musical instruments from a moving train. Not everything happens while she’s working though. One chapter has her going to the beach only for her broom to get stolen by her future friend and possible love interest Tombo.

The episodic format kind of reminds me of the Mary Poppins books. Not a knock, mind you. Just like the Mary Poppins books, there are a lot of details that I really dig. Stuff like how a lot of witchy arts were lost over time. Or how Kiki’s father is a folklorist. Or the whole thing about why witches are accompanied by black cats. According to the book, when a witch has a baby girl they search for a black kitten born at about the same time. Then they are raised at the same time. As they grow, the girl and the cat learn to speak to each other in their own language. By the time the girl comes of age, the cat would become a trusted companion. But eventually, the witch would find a new companion to take that place. The cat would also find a new partner and then the two would part ways. As far as “losing magic equals adulthood/sexual awakening/falling in love” metaphors, which are a dime a dozen in children’s fantasy literature, it’s not bad. Most of those seem downright depressing when read in a certain mindset. This is one of the few that comes close to suggesting that finding a romantic partner is about as good as being able to talk to an animal.

The 1989 animated adaptation by Studio Ghibli is a good, charming, entertaining movie. A pretty good movie but maybe not a pretty good adaptation. But that’s to be expected from a movie that tries to adapt a book with an episodic story structure. While some elements definitely remain, most of the book is not included in order to give Kiki more of an A-to-B coming of age arc. The part that kind of sticks out to me in the movie is the part near the end where Kiki develops something akin to burnout and loses her ability to fly. Now, this part might have been in one of the sequels. I don’t know because they haven’t been translated into English. But it feels like it might have been an addition by the director. The director Hayao Miyazaki was a big name in anime movies before his retirement. To the point where the name “Miyazaki” often superceded the name “Studio Ghibli”. But another thing about him is that he loved themes about the dangers of the consumerist world and how it could damage nature and people’s spiritual health (note: in Japan where Shinto has influenced things for centuries, nature and spiritual health are pretty closely intertwined). Now, in a lot of his movies like Spirited Away or Princess Mononoke, the themes tend to manifest more as bigger ecological themes. But in a smaller, more intimate movie like Kiki’s Delivery Service it makes more sense that it’s not the larger natural world that’s damaged by Kiki’s flying delivery business but her spirit. Which, in the movie, leads her to go on a retreat of sorts to her artist friend’s cottage in the forest (note: my reading of this part of the plot was partly inspired by this video). The movie’s still good. Most people won’t argue with that. The animation and background scenery is downright dazzling. Personally, I prefer the version of the dub with songs by Sydney Forest, but that may be nostalgia talking.

And you know, this blog post might have ended there if I hadn’t found out that in 2014 that there was a live action adaptation of Kiki’s Delivery Service.

Yes, in 2014 Toei released a live action version of Kiki’s Delivery Service based on the first two books in the series. I have not seen this movie but everything I’ve read about it suggests that it draws from the books more. I even spotted some bits I recognized from the trailer. And while, like I said, I have not seen this movie, boy do I hate the way it’s been criticized. I read the comments under the trailers and I watched one video review and almost all the criticisms could be boiled down to “It wasn’t like the Miyazaki movie, so they shouldn’t have even tried”. Granted, there could have been problems and I could see where they could have cropped up. The girl does look a little too old to be playing Kiki. If they stuck too close to the episodic nature of the book, then it could easily have felt tedious. But the main criticism shouldn’t be “it’s not the anime”. The only fairly forgiving review I read was this one from Kotaku. And the biggest strength that had is that it emphasized the different journeys that Kiki went on. The animated one being more about Kiki learning about herself, while the live action one being about Kiki learning about the outside world.

All that said, now I want to watch the live action adaptation. Just so I can form my own opinions about it. But I also want to see other adaptations of Kiki made (beyond both movies and this Cup Noodles ad, which is just an homage to the Miyazaki movie but with more of a romance anime vibe). Heck, with the episodic structure, a Kiki TV series would probably be an even better fit for her. You see, I’m cool with books remaining books. And I’m cool with books being adapted and reinterpreted by different artists and filmmakers. But what I’m really not cool with is a book getting adapted into one film or show and then having that form the basis of people’s view of it for all time. If a book is going to get adapted at least a few times so it can be seen from a number of different angles (hmm, I wonder how long copyright is in Japan). And I suppose I’d like to see the other Kiki books translated into English while I’m at it.

Anyway, next time, another book that was adapted by Miyazaki-sensei. At least, that’s the plan. Until then.

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