It may be needless to say, but after the release of Star Wars in 1977, cinema was changed forever. This change was inevitable – the power that the American Movie Brats were gaining as they continued producing and releasing films was growing rapidly, with Jaws also breaking a great deal of box office records just two years prior in 1975. New Hollywood changed the game, proving that high concept premises and big budgets were the way forward for cinema as a financial venture. It seemed that the days of the small scale melodrama were over, or at the very least, were limited.
And so, it seems interesting that it was in fact the animation genre that played a key part in keeping it alive during this rough patch. Melodramas have come back in a big way, largely due to the critical reception of Moonlight (Barry Jenkins, 2016) among some other films (A24 was key to this recent switch, bringing these melodramas back into the spotlight) and this is because of a general dislike for the limited response among film fans to the likes of the MCU and the DCEU… but it was this time between the late 1970s and the 2010s that seemed most deadly for melodrama as a genre. Mumblecore swooped in and saved the day in the 21st century, but it was largely the effort of Studio Ghibli’s absolutely joyous masterpiece Kiki’s Delivery Service, directed by animation legend Hayao Miyazaki and released in 1989, that kept the dwindling flame alive in a time when melodramas appeared to be dead in the water.
Kiki’s Delivery Service is about a young witch who is sent away from her family home to live in a city whilst learning to be an independent witch – something of a trial for the rest of her life. Kiki is introduced as a clumsy but loveable character from the start, and it becomes clear that she’s excited for this chance to prove herself even if she doesn’t appear to be ready. Miyazaki’s brightly coloured and intimately drawn decor is impossibly charming, and it soon becomes clear that Kiki’s trials are serving a double meaning surrounding artists. Using Kiki’s newfound community as a foundation to build a world upon, and surrendering the typical Ghibli fantasy for a (mostly) more direct drama, the film finds its footing in functioning as a series of short vignettes with Kiki acting as the connection at the centre.
And it’s just so sweet; to see a film, especially during the 1980s – a time when bombast really found its place in mainstream cinema in a way that it never had before, strip back its focus to these small trials for the lead character and introducing side characters to each story rather than focus on trying to be all encompassing is genuinely refreshing. Miyazaki’s wide range of colours and the delicacy of the sound design only add to this overall feeling of almost undivided comfort. The contrast between Kiki’s Delivery Service and most any other mainstream animation since (that isn’t from Studio Ghibli, at least) is quite shocking, showing how Miyazaki managed to harness his power in animation and use it in a way that is really unmatchable for most other animation directors. Some may come close, such as Pixar’s delightful Ratatouille or the two feature films from the French director Sylvain Chomet, but I’m yet to find any animated film that reaches this level of wondrous simplicity and pitch perfect comfort.
The focus on the powers of a witch is where Miyazaki’s brilliant double meaning becomes clear. Kiki finds great joy throughout in using her power to help others, hence the delivery service and the general focus on the film starting with her character having to leave as a part of being a witch, and so when she reaches a burnout and finds that her powers have ‘left’, the link between Kiki’s witchcraft and Miyazaki’s artistry comes clear. Kiki is a metaphor for an artist, one who uses their ‘powers’ to help others and themselves as much as they can, and sometimes have to face the harsh periods of dry ideas and burnout. To see such a beautiful and yet surprisingly hard to communicate theme revealed in what is otherwise such a blissful and peaceful film is a welcome surprise, and Kiki’s Delivery Service is only made better for it.
The gentle secondary approaches to these harsher topics is exactly what makes Kiki’s Delivery Service such a special film. So few other animated films try their hand at introducing these issues of anxiety and bouts of depression, and yet, Miyazaki has the gentle approach that means that these topics never override the overall comfort, and in fact his approach to these topics only adds more to said feelings of comfort, creating a kind of utopia where these problems are easily solved by camaraderie and taking a step back. Needless to say, as someone who struggles with both of the aforementioned problems frequently, it means a lot to see it portrayed in such a delicate, yet sensitive to the issue, way.
The Wind Rises (2013) would see Miyazaki focus on similar topics – another animated melodrama connected to flight and the wonder of passion for a specific subject (in that film, the love for planes), and The Wind Rises is another anime great. Considering that it seems that most animation films, especially those targeted towards an audience of children, try to rely on simple designs and often end up falling into a tiresome laziness, it’s so refreshing to see a studio consistently nail the animation genre on the head and get it spot on. Kiki’s Delivery Service remains, for me, the greatest example of animated film to date (at least, the greatest narrative animated film…), with no other film managing to bring to life such a feeling of peace. It’s one in a million.