In Japan, people take animation very seriously as an art form. Animation isn't thought of as "cartoons" as many people seem to think in the United States. Rather, the Japanese view animation as paintings that move, so there are animated films and TV shows that cover a broad variety of genres rather than the usual kid-friendly fare that we see from Disney, DreamWorks, Fox, and Warner Bros. Studio Ghibli, home of the best animators in Japan, produced "Grave of the Fireflies", a heartbreaking tale of orphaned siblings driven to live in caves during World War II. Ghibli is also home to the man generally acknowledged as the greatest living animator, Hayao Miyazaki.
Sometime during the 1990s, Disney bought the world-wide distribution rights to Ghibli's films. Since Disney animation hasn't produced a cultural watershed since 1997's "The Lion King" (an adaptation of the Japanese "Kimba the White Lion", a connection that Disney has never addressed publicly), animation fans assumed that Buena Vista was trying to bury Miyazaki outside of Japan. The single-disc, mostly feature-less Region 1 DVD edition of "Princess Mononoke" did little to dispel that notion. Anyone who wanted to see Miyazaki's movies on DVD had to buy Region 2 special edition imports from Japan and obtain DVD players without region locks.
The fact of the matter is that, for years, the animators at Walt Disney Studios worshipped the artistry of Miyazaki. Disney has delayed releasing any special edition DVDs of Miyazaki products until now at the request of Ghibli--in order to avoid reverse importation (Japanese consumers buying American versions rather than Japanese ones of the DVDs). Fox still has the rights to "My Neighbor Totoro" ("Tonari No Totoro"), so they released a Pan&Scan DVD recently to make some money before their North American license expires and lands in Disney's lap. For the time being, "Grave of the Fireflies" (not directed by Miyazaki) is in Central Park Media's hands when it comes to Region 1.
Given the worldwide acclaim that greeted Miyazaki's latest work, "Spirited Away" ("Sen To Chihiro No Kamikakushi"), Disney timed the DVD release of three Miyazaki films to coincide with a possible Oscar win by "Spirited Away". Miracle of miracles, "Spirited Away" took home the Academy Award for Best Animated Feature on March 23, 2003, besting two of Disney's own ("Lilo & Stitch" and "Treasure Planet"). "Spirited Away", "Castle in the Sky" (a.k.a "Laputa") ("Tenku No Shiro Rapyuta"), and "Kiki's Delivery Service" ("Majo No Takkyubin") finally make their R1 SE DVD debuts on April 15, 2003 accompanied by a marketing effort capitalizing on Miyazaki's first Oscar victory.
Unlike the wildly imaginative and complex "Princess Mononoke" ("Mononoke Hime") or the spiritually-informed and very-Japanese "Spirited Away", "Kiki's Delivery Service" relates a simple tale of a young girl who happens to be a witch. Following her thirteenth birthday, Kiki must leave home for a year on a journey of self-discovery in order to learn about her true internal essence--in other words, her moral fiber. On her broom and with her black cat, Jiji, Kiki flies from the country-side to a big city, where she boards with a kind couple who run a bakery. In order to earn her keep, Kiki helps with the chores at the store and also runs a delivery service with her broom.
Most of the movie offers charming little vignettes about Kiki growing up in a world that, while filled with kind and well-meaning people, also presents realistic challenges and hardships to a little girl. Kiki misses her parents, of course, and she has to take on her share of responsibilities in order to make a living. She has to adjust to the fact that, as a witch, she'll always be fundamentally different from other people. No one really ever shows Kiki outright hostility, but the curious and the misinformed will always look at Kiki as if something was a bit "off" about her.
Our heroine also finds herself in a possible romantic situation. Most American movies treat youthful love as either comical or perverted relationships with the intent of perpetuating the idea that members of the opposite sex have cooties. "Kiki" has a more mature view of adolescence. The film realizes that kids begin to take notice of each other in more ways than "just friends" at a certain age, and part of the awkwardness of adolescence is struggling with the fact that we are caught between our childhood misconceptions of "boys vs. girls" and adult apprehensions of children growing up too quickly. In "Kiki", Kiki and the local, bespectacled boy-genius share a love of flying--she on her broom and he in his mind until he finishes building a bicycle-powered flying machine. Someone once said to me that "love is two people looking at the same thing and not necessarily at each other", and I think that that quote applies to "Kiki". Kiki's initially rocky friendship with the boy can be attributed to the fact that he's simply excited about meeting a real witch, and he's obviously attracted to her because she is so different from everyone else. However, she doesn't want to be treated as "different", so she takes offense to his curiosity. At any rate, the two reconcile, and the end credits sequence shows the pair indulging in their shared hobby. You get the sense that, in time, the two might grow up to become a cute couple after all. :-)
Miyazaki's hopeful spirit is most noticeable in his choice of setting for "Kiki". The movie takes place in a 1950s Europe in which World Wars I and II had never happened. That's why there is a dirigible, still in use for transportation because no war had taken place that necessitated the invention of jet-powered airplanes. There is no devastation or re-construction in sight--just lush vistas and grand edifices filling the screen for a pleasant 105 minutes.
Miyazaki's movies are also noted for their comedic grace notes. For example, the three green heads that bobble in and out of the bath house in "Spirited Away" give everyone the giggles. In "Kiki", Kiki's cat provides most of the laughs. As a cat owner (I have four), I really liked how the animation captures a cat's skittishness, fussiness, prissiness, and silly facial expressions. There's also a scene that shows exaggerated goosebumps traveling up the cat's spine, and the exaggeration expresses how it actually feels to have goosebumps.
"Kiki's Delivery Service" was based on a novel, and the book and the movie share the same title in Japanese ("The Witch's Express Mail Delivery"). The success of the movie encouraged the author, Eiko Kadono, to write a sequel. One hopes that Miyazaki might find it in himself to make a "Kiki" sequel one day.
Framed with a 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen composition, "Kiki" looks gorgeous on DVD. You can see that the print has been thoroughly cleaned and restored, especially when you compare the movie to the film's trailers (which are of noticeably lesser quality than the main feature). Since Miyazaki suffuses his frames with plenty of detail, the video has to be sharp enough to capture everything, and the DVD lives up to that task. Vibrant colors simply leap off of the screen. I'm not rating the Video a 10 for one noticeable issue--the fact that black levels are never as dark as they should be. When the film fades to black, you can see that it's a very dark grey when compared to the black bars at the top and bottom of the screen.
*Note: Depending on your choice of language tracks, the DVD actually accesses different start and end title sequences. If you watch the film with its Japanese track, you see the entire cleaned and restored Japanese print (complete with Japanese-language credits). If you watch the film with either the English or the Spanish dub tracks, you'll see English-language credits that are of noticeably lesser quality than the Japanese-language credits--the footage has simply faded in color and picked up plenty of dust.
The film's original Japanese audio track has been re-mixed into a Dolby Digital 5.1 experience. For the most part, the sound field is front-biased, but the creation of a discrete center channel feed allows for the dialogue to be carried independent of music and sound effects cues sent to the left and right front speakers. This is a very active but un-aggressive mix, so while the film's pleasant music score fills the front soundstage, there isn't much low-frequency response to complete the dynamic register. Still, you'll have fun paying attention to the ambient noises thrown throughout the room.
As a rule, motion pictures (both films and TV shows) should be experienced in their original languages (accompanied by subtitles if necessary). Listening to the original voices, music, sound effects, etc. provides the viewer with the flavors of the original artistic vision. For example, the English and Spanish dub tracks on the R1 "Kiki" DVD have music cues and sound designs that are different from the ones in the original Japanese soundtrack. However, dubs can be useful when it comes to animation because some viewers may be too young to be able to read subtitles. Therefore, as long as dubs have been carefully matched to the movements of the characters' mouths and as long as the actors don't try to use obscene approximations of "native" accents, then I don't have problems with them.
Life is full of coincidences. When the time came for Disney to create an English dub of Miyazaki's "Kiki's Delivery Service", the studio picked Kirsten Dunst to give an American voice to the film's heroine. In real life, Miss Dunst's nickname is Kiki, a name she inadvertently gave herself as a child since she couldn't pronounce her first name correctly. Both the English and Spanish dub tracks have been encoded in Dolby Digital 5.1.
Optional English captions (encoded as a subtitle stream) and English subtitles as well as English closed captions support the audio.
Now that Disney has been given the go-ahead to release Miyazaki's movies on DVD as special editions, the studio has seen fit to give these gems the two-disc treatment. They differ slightly in terms of content from their Japanese counterparts, but these new special editions do offer the most important supplements on the Japanese discs.
First things first--there's a "‘Kiki's Delivery Service' Introduction" by John Lasseter, the creative mastermind at Pixar Animation responsible for "Toy Story". The best "Disney" movies recently have been from Pixar, and Disney is actually looking at losing the distribution rights of future Pixar movies if the two companies can't reach an agreement. Perhaps letting Lasseter gush about Miyazaki on these new DVDs is one way of getting Lasseter to stay on board the Disney ship?
Next, there's a brief "Behind the Microphone" featurette that has interviews with the English voice cast, including Kirsten Dunst, the late Phil Hartman (he plays Kiki's cat), and Janeane Garofalo. Fans of theatrical previews will be delighted to see ten minutes of original Japanese trailers for "Kiki". These trailers show the evolution of Ghibli's marketing strategy before and during the movie's theatrical run.
Finally, there are previews for other Buena Vista releases, including "Spirited Away", "Castle in the Sky", and "The Lizzy McGuire Movie" (yuck).
Hayao Miyazaki personally storyboards his movies in their entirety, so Disney, following in Ghibli's lead in Japan, presents the film's "Complete Storyboards" on Disc 2. All 105 minutes of the movie are here in the animation world's equivalent of a rough draft, and you can view the storyboards with either a Japanese or an English soundtrack (basically the same as the ones used for the movie except that they are Dolby Digital 2.0 surround and not DD 5.1 presentations).
A glossy insert provides chapter listings as well as an indexing of the discs' special features.
"Kiki's Delivery Service" is one of my favorite animated films. (That the English dub involved Kirsten Dunst's participation is just icing on the cake.) While its simple narrative doesn't explore any great themes, it has an abundance of charm that simply won my heart. I appreciate the movie's optimistic--yet realistic--outlook on life. Its animation artistry is impeccable, and its sheer joie de vie is infectious. In today's "Harry Potter"-crazed world (a situation that I completely support), families can watch "Kiki" as a companion to the "Potter" movies.
For years, I've tried to convince people--especially adults--that animation isn't just for kids and that non-American animation isn't "weird". To be sure, Japanese animation has given the world garbage like "Pokemon", "Yu Gi Oh", and hentai (hardcore pornography), but it has also given us gems like "Bubblegum Crisis Tokyo 2040", "Trigun", "Akira", and, of course, the works issued from Studio Ghibli. There will always be people who refuse to watch "Kiki's Delivery Service", but you know what? It's their loss. Those of us in the know can count ourselves among the blessed.