In our youth, it's easy to see ourselves as the heroes of our own stories. To perpetuate our simplistic perceptions of the world, consciously or not, we cast people around us as our own personal villains. Maybe it's the teacher who gives a failing grade or the old woman who lives in the scary house next door. We create nemeses because our media lives and dies on the idea that heroes need to be judged against the obstacles they overcome. In the case of film, internal conflict is hard to convey, which is why so many movies use a tangible adversary to pit against the hero. For that reason, it is incredibly rare when a film, especially one geared toward all audiences, doesn't have an antagonist. The shockingly beautiful Kiki's Delivery Service is such a film.
Japanese animator and director Hayao Miyazaki's filmography has given the world some of the most unforgettable images in cinema. And while each of his films is its own dynamic and stunning vision—many of which are playing this month at the Roxy—Kiki's Delivery Service is my favorite for its lack of external conflict. Miyazaki's early films feature evil counts, sky pirates and post-apocalyptic landscapes. The infinitely charming 1988 film My Neighbor Totoro was his first to dispose with an outright antagonist, but the young heroines still face a threatening outside influence in the form of their mother's illness. Kiki's Delivery Service came out the next year and took the villain-less idea one step further by making all the film's character growth, conflict and change an internal struggle of a young girl.
Having reached the magical age of 13, Kiki must leave the safety and security of her family home to travel to the big city and live on her own for a year as part of her witch training. At the beginning of the film, Kiki is equal parts impulsive and old-fashioned. She runs blindly into traffic, her clothing is decidedly outdated and her early interactions with the people of the port city in which she settles are colored by her archaic views. Without any real skills in witchcraft except for being able to fly on a broomstick (and, still, not very well), she starts a courier service out of a bakery.
- The 1989 animated film Kiki’s Delivery Service follows an impulsive witch’s journey into self-awareness.
Through her many adventures meeting artists, aeronautical enthusiasts and spoiled children, Kiki becomes overwhelmed with her new stressful life. The thing she loved the most—flying—is now only something she does to earn enough money to not have to eat pancakes for every meal. It's a feeling a lot of people can relate to. (In fact, the story of a young girl moving to a big port city to get a job at a bakery is the personal narrative of at least four former-Missoula friends of mine.) And when the stress overwhelms her, the magical abilities she relies on begin to fade.
Conflict is almost always necessary to any story. Without Lex Luthor to match wits against him, Superman is just a beefcake who can punch things. Without the creeping dread of He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named, Harry Potter would be no different than any of his schoolmates. But it's not the cape or the lightsaber or the proton pack that makes us love our heroes. It's the way they overcome the challenges.
Every threat Kiki faces is something we all face in our day-to-day lives: finding a place to live, getting food, trying not to mess up at work. Miyazaki turns that subject matter into a visually exciting, engrossing exploration of maturity, coupled with the kind of brilliant and vibrant animation fans have come to expect from him. It makes Kiki's Delivery Service not only a classic of animation, but of film.
At a certain point, I think most of us realize no one's really out to get us. Not personally, anyway. The realization that everyone has their own lives of which we are just a small part is a humbling one. And when we look back at those sinister forces we thought aligned against us in our youth, we (hopefully) see it's our own ego we have to overcome. In the case of Kiki, we are not cheering because she saved the day, we are cheering because she has grown up and overcome herself.
Kiki's Delivery Service plays the Roxy Theater Tue., Aug. 9, at 11 AM and Thu., Aug. 11, at 8 PM.