Kiki’s Delivery Service (Majo no takkyûbin)

Japan (2014) Dir. Takashi Shimizu

The perils of making a live action version of an animated film or TV series will never change regardless of the status of the original. Most people won’t be aware that Kiki’s Delivery Service was in fact a 1985 novel by Eiko Kadono before the legendary Hayao Miyazaki turned it into another one of his whimsical classic anime films. However it is the comparisons to Miyazaki’s version of Kadono’s tale from which will be the one this live action attempt will suffer the most, and more then likely the decision for it to follow a different story route will work against it in the eyes of the purists.

The central plot remains the same: when young witch Kiki (Fuka Koshiba) reaches the age of thirteen, she is sent by her parents, Okino (Michitaka Tsutsui) and Koriki (Rie Miyazawa), to serve a one year apprentice in the real world. With her talking black cat Jiji (voiced by Minako Kotobuki) Kiki arrives in the port island of Koriko where she is taken in the kind owners of a small windmill bakery, Osono (Machiko Ono) and Fukuo (Hiroshi Yamamoto). In exchange for lodgings Kiki utilises her only witch skill of flying and sets up a delivery service.

All familiar thus far but it is the adventures in Koriko which are vastly different from what we know. For instance the key relationship in the Miyazaki film is the one between Kiki and local boy Tombo, whose ambitions to fly via a bicycle contraption of his own design sets up the exciting rescue mission in the final act. This has all but been shunted aside and Tombo (Ryōhei Hirota) spends most of the film as an antagonist towards Kiki until the third act while his flying aspirations are noted but rarely featured.

Kiki’s biggest supporter is pregnant Osono who starts Kiki’s delivery service off with a token gesture designed to help get attention for her service. A cheeky bit of fun involving a washing line full of clothes helps get Kiki noticed and things pick up, until a prank by teen girl Saki (Miho Kanazawa), who threatened her so-called friends with a witch’s curse causes Kiki’s name to become mud and without people believing in her powers, Kiki is unable to fly and falls into a deep depression.

This isn’t a spoiler but the exhilarating airship rescue scene which made up the climax of Miyazaki’s film is supplanted by a completely unfulfilling yarn involving a baby hippo needing treatment by an eccentric vet Dr. Ishi (a wasteful cameo by Tadanobu Asano). Kiki may have to recover her self belief and journey through a terrific rainstorm to transport the hippo to Ishi’s island surgery but dramatic and thrilling it unfortunately isn’t.

Such changes to the story are likely to bemuse those watching this film purely out of curiosity to see how it stands up next its animated predecessor, if it hasn’t turned them off already. In its defence the new plotlines come from Kadono’s sequels which are less well known than Miyazaki’s screenplay (Kiki’s loss of her power was his own addendum) but still don’t make for compelling viewing.

After a fairly energetic and competent opening act which promises something quite fun before turning into a slow moving and maudlin melodrama in the second half. And a subplot involving a retired singer Kara Takami (Yuri) leads to a moment during the finale of pure unadulterated cheese to make even the most forgiving film fan lactose intolerant!

Arguably the biggest surprise about this film is that it was directed by none other than noted horror maestro Takashi Shimizu, famous for giving us the Ju-On: The Grudge! Quite how a man who has spent this entire film career scaring the bejesus out of people was considered best qualified to make a family friendly film like Kiki is either a testament to Japan’s tendencies towards being multi-faceted or an indictment of their inherent quirkiness gone too far.

The result sees a lot of the fun and whimsy that made Miyazaki’s film so enjoyable vastly downplayed and the direction feels heavy handed in places. Shimizu can’t even resist reverting back to type in one scene when Kiki enters Takami’s mansion and we are teased by the presence of a white clad child watching from the staircase. It’s all perfectly harmless of course but it makes for a cheeky nod to Shimizu’s day job if you will for those us of aware of his horror catalogue!

Also under scrutiny will be the special effects and modern technology means the flight scenes stand a chance of being an easily achievable visual spectacle now. Sadly, while some are quite good and do create a realistic sense of motion others are badly exposed as the cheap green screen work they are. Jiji the cat is CGI for some reason and barely speaks, making its presence practically redundant compared to its animated counterpart. The hippo is also CGI which again would have been more effective with a real one.

With children being the target audience the cast are largely smiley and rather one dimensional and even the antagonists aren’t that threatening either. As Kiki Fuka Koshiba is fairly perky and cute but at 16 years-old is a little too serious for a thirteen year-old witch on a life changing adventure. She at least works well reacting to the CGI Jiji and the flying scenes but is too pouty around her human cast members.

Kiki’s Delivery Service was a huge box office hit in Japan but reviews from the west haven’t been at all kind and it is easy to see the disappointment it has incurred. Youngsters will probably get caught up in the simplicity and childish wonder of the adventure but adults will have a hard time not missing the sheer heart and genuine magic of Miyazaki’s version and cringing at the changes.

By no means a complete disaster but the shadow of Miyazaki’s film looms too large over it.

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