Often overlooked in favour of Hayao Miyazaki's more famous Castle In The Sky (1986), Princess Mononoke (1997) and the Oscar-winning Spirited Away (2001), Kiki's Delivery Service (aka Witch's Express Mail) is a glorious piece of animation from Japan's master craftsman. The simple story follows Kiki (voiced by Takayama in the original, Dunst in the US dub), a witch who, turning 13, leaves home on her broomstick as tradition dictates and ends up running a delivery service out of a bakery in a picturesque coastal city.
As anyone familiar with Miyazaki's work knows, such a set up is typical of the Japanese animator's fascination with stories about girls finding their way in the world. Following Miyazaki's usual preoccupations, the emphasis here is on the transformative power of gainful employment as Kiki gradually overcomes her bashful nature to become a successful courier and an invaluable member of the community.
If that subtext makes Kiki's Delivery Service sound rather dry, think again. Miyazaki's talent is in making serious statements in what appear to be quite frivolous, childlike entertainments. Kiki's Delivery Service is no exception with its cute, doe-eyed heroine getting into all kinds of entertaining scrapes while accompanied by Jiji, her hilariously contrary black cat (Sakuma; or Hartman).
The majority of Miyazaki's films foreground female protagonists, but Kiki's Delivery Service is perhaps his most feminine outing. It's a film that's far more interested in emotions than action - the closing sequence involving an incident with an out-of-control airship, for example, seems rather anti-climactic in comparison with the emotional detail that's gone before. The real joy of this film lies not only in the simple, gorgeously rendered animation, but in watching Kiki's growing understanding of herself and the world around her as she falls in love, loses her magic, regains it and realises the importance of her place in society. It's quite possibly one of the sweetest, most enticing animated features ever made and it's also a fantastic starting place for anyone wanting to know more about Miyazaki's back catalogue.