Wednesday, April 5, 2017

Audient Anime: Kiki's Delivery Service

This is a bit-monthly 2017 movie series in which I catch up on Studio Ghibli and other anime I haven't seen, with my six-year-old son whenever possible.

As you may recall if you read this post, My Neighbor Totoro was a smashing success with my six-year-old son. He loved it. He said it was maybe the best movie he'd ever seen.

I still didn't have any illusions about his chances of liking the second movie I'd chosen for this series, Kiki's Delivery Service, which promised fewer mythical creatures and more ... girls? Yeah, I guess I thought he'd think it was too girly, even though the two main characters in Totoro are both girls.

And indeed, he didn't like it. Until he did.

The difference between our viewing of Totoro and our viewing of Kiki's was a pretty significant one, plot and subject matter aside. In the six weeks since we saw Totoro, my three-year-old son has pretty definitively ditched his nap. Saturday or Sunday afternoons during his nap was when I figured my six-year-old and I would watch these Ghibli movies, but that nap is no longer a regular part of the schedule. At the same time, however, we are getting closer to taking my three-year-old to his first theatrical movie, and with that is the implied assumption that his attention span is getting better. So I risked putting on Kiki's with him and his still very distractable ways in the room, as part of the target audience.

The three-year-old wasn't fully paying attention, but he did claim to be liking the movie. The same could not be said for the six-year-old. He gave it about 25 minutes of reasonably attentive viewing before telling me that he wasn't liking it anyway. (The "anyway" being a reaction to the fact that his brother was starting to escalate his monkeying around from low-level to truly intrusive.)

So the six-year-old dropped out and the three-year-old and I struggled through another ten minutes before the writing was on the wall. I would finish it that night on my own.

There was an advantage to this. Having obviously been watching the movie in English so far, I now had the chance to switch over to Japanese with English subtitles, my preferred method for consuming anime if all else is equal. Having a child watching with you makes all else unequal, and you have to watch in English. Now that both children were gone, I could watch it as Hayao Miyazaki originally created it. And as if a flip had been switched in me, I instantly started liking the movie -- which I had been enjoying but not loving -- a whole lot more.

This only lasted for five minutes.

After five minutes my six-year-old came in for one of his approximately three instances of bugging us about something after we've sequestered him off for bed. Except my wife was out that night, so "us" was just me.

Seeing that I had resumed Kiki, he suddenly became interested in it again.

Whether he was interested in the movie itself or in staying up past his bedtime and watching a movie with Dad was uncertain. But since it was the start of school holidays and he wouldn't be at school the next morning anyway, I did allow him to join me on the couch, to resume at the point where he had left off. I'd be sacrificing the Japanese, but the potential to keep our momentum going in the series was well worth it.

And it was a good decision. He instantly became involved in it. Perhaps the switch that flipped in me also flipped in him, and perhaps the change of language was not what had flipped it in me in the first place. Perhaps the plot just started to interest me more. And maybe that was it -- if you know the movie, it was at the point where the wind blows Kiki and Jiji off course, causing them to crash in the trees and lose the toy cat they're delivering. Something about that scene really stimulated me, and did for my son too.

He nestled into me and watched the movie to its end, and as we watched together, my 3.5-star rating shot up by half stars until it reached the previously unthinkable: five stars. Yes, Kiki's Delivery Service became the second straight movie I've watched for Audient Anime that has gotten the maximum star rating available. It had overcome the biases I realized I also brought into this movie.

What biases? Well first, I assumed it was about something entirely different than it was actually about. I had no idea, for example, that Kiki was a witch. Knowing that this movie was less fantastical than something like Totoro or the other Miyazaki film I'd seen, Spirited Away, I guess I assumed that it was entirely earthbound. For some reason I got it into my head that Kiki made her deliveries on a bicycle, which can possibly be explained by the fact that she does actually ride on a bicycle at one point in this movie -- a bicycle with wings, which is an aeronautic invention by her friend Tombo. But I guess I thought she was like some kind of newspaper delivery girl, which didn't seem very magical to me at all. If I'd known she was a witch carrying out deliveries on a broomstick I might have gotten to this movie years earlier.

I guess I was also worried it would contain what I will call "caricature anime." That's that cruder style of anime that's incredibly exaggerated, where characters' mouths open really wide and their eyes do all sorts of goofy things. I should have known that Miyazaki doesn't work in this style, but I guess I was concerned about that kind of broadness making its way into the movie.

Nothing could be further from the truth. The movie gently and lovingly details the growing pains of a young girl metaphorically coming into adulthood -- she's only 13, but she's left her parents at home and gone off to live in a city she doesn't know. She faces a number of teen issues but also issues faced by twentysomethings striking out of their own for the first time, and the movie delivers us really humanistic messages about striving to find one's own identity and not giving up in the face of obstacle. Messages like that can be foisted on us in really ham-handed fashion, but after three Miyazaki features I am now positive that Miyazaki's hands are thoroughly and utterly pork free.

I mightn't have loved Kiki as much as I did if it weren't for a truly exciting and grandiose finale involving an out-of-control dirigible and Kiki's heroic attempts to save her friend, who is in fatal danger as he dangles from it. It put a perfect capper on a movie that had been selling us on the value of summoning your inner strength, and gaining strength from the people you come across in your life.

The nice realization I got from watching this in English was that I really will be alright not watching these movies in Japanese. If the storytelling is this good, it doesn't matter all that much if the lines are delivered in a way other than the director originally envisioned them. There could not, for example, be a more striking difference between the way that Jiji the cat is portrayed in the Japanese and the English versions. From the five minutes of Kiki I watched in Japanese, I know that there Jiji was portrayed by what sounds like a child actor with a high-pitched voice. In the English version? At least, the 1998 Disney-sponsored English version? Phil Hartman. Not only Phil Hartman, but Phil Hartman at his most sarcastic sounding. And though I like being exposed to any of the dearly departed comic's performances that I have not yet seen, I prefer the Japanese interpretation.

But you know what? I don't care, and pretty soon after this Jiji stops talking anyway. A good script is a good script no matter who's saying the words, and Kirsten Dunst isn't phoning it in in the lead role. She's good. As long as most of these movies have English voice casts in the same talent neighborhood as Totoro and Kiki, I should be fine.

Having started with two films in the 1980s, I think it's time to jump forward and watch something more recent, as well as something with a more explicit aspect of imaginative fantasy to it: Howl's Moving Castle (2004). I've got two months to source it, so check back here in June to see what I -- what we -- think.

And maybe after that, I'll see who else makes anime movies other than Hayao Miyazaki.

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