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Kiki’s Delivery Service is the perfect gateway into anime

A perfect storm made this witchy Studio Ghibli film the ideal entry into Japanese animation

“I don’t really think anime is for me,” a friend, who now regrets it, once told me when I urged him to watch Hayao Miyazaki’s iconic environmental documentary, Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind (1984). I’ve heard that line before. It’s coupled with a raised brow, always when recommending a classic watch-before-you-die anime, like Akira (1988), or a newer series like Yuri!!! On Ice. Anime has to drag around a ball-and-chain like no other form of entertainment does. It’s weighed down by geeky, negative connotations. Too often, it’s dismissed entirely. “Anime? Not into it.”

Kiki’s Delivery Service is the gateway drug of anime movies. It will convince any hard-nosed skeptic to dive right in. First released in Japan in 1989, Kiki was Miyazaki’s follow-up to My Neighbour Totoro (1988), and arrived years before his films Princess Mononoke (1997) and Spirited Away (2001) gave Studio Ghibli an international reputation. There are witches, a lippy, talking black cat, and a cabin in the woods that would make for a sick AirBnb, if you don’t mind a few crows. The English-language version, released in 1998, boasts a voice cast of Kirsten Dunst, Debbie Reynolds, Phil Hartman and Janeane Garofolo.

As part of the Disney-Tokuma Deal, which was reached in 1996 between Disney and the company of which Studio Ghibli was a subsidiary, Disney was granted home video distribution rights to a majority of Ghibli’s films. That included Kiki’s Delivery Service – which would become the first film of the 15-year partnership to be released. And it almost never happened. A right-wing organisation tried to boycott the film, feeling that its support of a young girl leaving home with no parents and its uninhibited depiction of magic stood in direct contrast to “traditional family values”.

The film’s early arrival in the Ghibli canon and its first-draft pick for American audiences is what makes Kiki the obvious entry point. Before it came out, the Western world had little contact with anime. For an entire generation, it was how they fell in love with anime movies. Their entrance exam, so to speak. “Kiki's Delivery Service was what got me into anime (and as a result, manga),” wrote one Reddit user. “Have a framed jigsaw of it above my bed.”

Kiki's Delivery Service is what really introduced me to anime when I was a kid,” said another. “I must have watched that movie like a dozen times.”

“Kiki's Delivery Service is what really introduced me to anime when I was a kid. I must have watched that movie like a dozen times” – Reddit user

Here’s why it’s so successful: 1. Kiki is badass. 2. It’s feminist without needing to be. It passes the Bechdel test with flying colours. That Studio Ghibli films are continuously lauded for having female protagonists without it being a “thing” is simply a bonus. And 3. It treats depression seriously.

At age 13, Kiki leaves home because that’s how it goes when you’re a witch. Forced to move to an unfamiliar city, sort of like a gap year, witches must figure out how to live without any parental support. Kiki has no discernible skills, so she creates a business out of the one skill she does possess: flying. Her delivery business gets a slow start, but soon takes off. Instead of relying on magic to get by, the film expertly proves that there is no substitute for hard work.

So she treks along until she’s nearly broken. We root for Kiki as her business thrives, witness how it exhausts her, and how losing that passion for flying devolves into a crisis of confidence.

One of the most popular moments from the film, one that has circulated online in the intervening years since its release, is when Kiki flops onto her bed, exhausted after completing some taxing deliveries. “I think something’s wrong with me,” she says to her cat, Jiji. “I make friends, then suddenly I can’t bear to be with any of them.” It’s relatable to anyone who has gone through something similar – alienation, depression, social anxiety. For some, it was the first time they’ve seen these feelings represented on screen. I remember seeing it first when I was eight years old, and even then, it lingered with me.

All Kiki can do is retreat to the woods, disconnect with the noise, where Ursula (aka the perma-inspirational Janeane Garofolo) gives Kiki some of the best life advice I’ve heard in a film. To set the scene, Kiki is describing how she has lost the ability to fly to Ursula, who then replies with this:

Ursula: When I was your age, I’d already decided to become an artist. I loved to paint so much. I’d paint all day until I fell asleep right at my easel. And then one day, for some reason, I just couldn’t paint anymore. I tried and tried, but nothing I did seemed any good. They were copies of paintings I’d seen somewhere before … and not very good copies either. I just felt like I’d lost my ability.

Kiki: That sounds like me.

Ursula: It’s exactly the same, but then I found the answer. You see, I hadn’t figured out what or why I wanted to paint. I had to discover my own style. When you fly, you rely on what’s inside of you, don’t you?

Kiki: Uh-huh. We fly with our spirit.

Ursula: Trusting your spirit! Yes, yes! That’s exactly what I’m talking about. That same spirit is what makes me paint and makes your friend bake. But we each need to find our own inspiration, Kiki. Sometimes it’s not easy...

Regardless of whether or not it was intentional, Kiki’s Delivery Service trades in themes that make it relatable to any age. I don’t care if it’s a kids movie. Its trick lies in its naiveté: it doesn’t assume you’ll buy into the “witch leaves home, sets up business” narrative. The story arc is fairly conventional. In the same way that Mad Max: Fury Road was praised for being a simple road movie (a bunch of dudes drive for a few days only to turn around), Kiki should be praised for its portrayal of independence. How one girl can leave home and conquer the world is a lesson we can all take something from. Add to that the power of Miyazaki’s animation – every frame is a painting – and what you’re left with is not esoteric or geeky, but an open invitation beckoning you into the magical, bottomless world of anime.