I am very excited that the Brattle in Harvard Square has been doing a Studio Ghibli retrospective, since this time I can actually go to more than one! (When they came to the MFA last spring I could only catch Princess Mononoke.) Last weekend I caught Kiki’s Delivery Service, which I hadn’t seen since I was a kid, and Only Yesterday, one I hadn’t seen before and didn’t even know much about. It was nice to revisit the former, but I got more out of the latter. It was so nice to take in more anime in a theater, since I rarely have the opportunity, and I look forward to hopefully catching Nausicaä on Thursday, one of the few Miyazaki films I haven’t seen!
Set in an alternate 1950s/60s slightly askew from our own, Kiki’s Delivery Service follows the adventures of Kiki, a 13-year-old witch-in-training who must spend a year in a big city by herself in order to attain full, er, witchhood. With her broom and talking cat in tow, she lands in a beautiful seaside town where people are unaccustomed to magical folk flying about. She starts a delivery service after befriending a kind baker who lets her stay in her extra room in exchange for help around the bakery. Kiki befriends various townspeople but feels like an outcast among kids her age, as she tries to navigate both teenagery coming-of-age stuff along with witch-related problems.
Like My Neighbor Totoro, this is definitely a Miyazaki for the younger set, with a simplistic plot, very little conflict, and at times very corny dialogue (though part of that could be the dub translation). Kiki is a spunky, determined character who’s easy to root for, and it’s fun to see her learn more about the world and its inhabitants. She meets an independent artist (voiced by Janeane Garofalo! Hello!), a kindly old lady who makes the most horrendous-sounding pie ever in existence (pumpkin with HERRING what the fuuuuuuck), and a SuperNerd who wants to romance her because he fetishizes witches as a group.
It’s cute, and at times very funny (primarily for Phil Hartman’s deadpan jokes as the sarcastic cat Jiji), and of course the animation is superb. I loved the watercolor-like backgrounds and the sort of hodgepodge Europeanism of the city’s design (though I know the bulk of it was inspired by Stockholm). But I feel the script and story leave something to be desired, and I would ultimately put this near the bottom of my Miyazaki list (which still means it’s a good film, obviously). I found I had too many questions about this world and the whole witch/magic premise, as there were a lot of ideas put forth but not explained or expanded. How can a “witch-in-training” be trained if she’s just hanging out by herself and not actually being trained? And why are some people anti-witch? Could Kiki actually do any other magic or was flying all she would ever do? I imagine the book it’s based on might have more answers, so I hope to eventually read it for a more well-rounded view of the world, as well as hopefully a stronger narrative since the film is sort of loose and episodic.
Oh and side note: the cheesy country-esque pop songs over the opening and end credits are suuuuuuuper shitty, and I don’t think they’re in the Japanese version, so be aware.
Brought to us by the man who made the most depressing film of all time, Grave of the Fireflies, Only Yesterday showed promise as another introspective drama but with a lady. 27-year-old Taeko lives and works in Tokyo but has long yearned for a taste of country life. She gains extended family on a faraway farm through her sister’s husband, and spends her vacation with them for the second year in a row, helping pick crops used in a dying process. During her trip she finds herself lost in memories of her childhood, specifically her ten-year-old self, and the film moves back and forth between Taeko’s past and present as she questions some of her adult choices.
With a gorgeous visual style and a quiet, straightforward script, Takahata weaves a deceptively simple tale of love and regret that never sinks into melodrama. It’s a little slow-moving, but generally interesting enough in its characters and aesthetic to remain compelling. I’m completely in love with the faded wash effect used for the flashback scenes, juxtaposed with the intense floral colors of Taeko’s present. The characters are fun and energetic, and I was especially taken with the realistic and often quite funny portrayal of 10-year-olds. The small period touches (like the family’s confusion over an exotic pineapple) are charming, and the subtle love story that develops is sweet and not overdone, though I did find her beau’s speeches about organic farming a little grating.
While the film overall is a little too subdued for me to all-out love it, I absolutely adored the very end, it might be one of my favorite endings ever. It’s just this beautifully sweet, visually perfect scene that made me want to laugh and cry at the same time. Lovely.