A live-action remake of one of the most beloved Hayao Miyazaki anime films of all time from the director of The Grudge? Er, okay... Thirteen year old Kiki (Fûka Koshiba) is an apprentice witch who, as per family tradition, leaves home to find her place in the big wide world. Accompanied by her talking cat Jiji, Kiki flies her broomstick into the sleepy seaside town of Koriko. Her arrival causes quite a stir in town, especially among local children including aspiring aviator Tombo, albeit not the reaction she was hoping for. Upon renting a room from Osono (Machiko Ono) the kindly, pregnant owner of the neighborhood bakery, Kiki tries to support herself and fit into the community by offering an air courier service, flying her broom to deliver packages to and fro. Yet it turns out many of the townsfolk are deeply suspicious of witches, especially once a local zookeeper spreads a rumour that Kiki cursed his animals. As a result Kiki struggles to regain confidence in herself.
The internet has a fair amount of faintly mean-spirited fan-art speculating how things might pan out in Miyazaki's original anime had Kiki's arrival been greeted not by bemused nice folk but torch-waving zealots bent on burning her at the stake. Which for some reason always seems on the verge of happening here in Takashi Shimizu's muddled live-action remake. In a surprising move Shimizu, who masterminded thirteen films in the Ju-On or The Grudge franchise including the American remake, temporarily abandoned J-horror to dip his toe in family-friendly fantasy with this modestly-budgeted co-production from Toei and Kadokawa studios. Released in Japan to coincide with the twenty-fifth anniversary of the Miyazaki film, Kiki's Delivery Service takes a stab at going back to the award-winning source novel penned by Eiko Kadono but also re-imagines scenes specific to the anime. The problem is that everything the remake does well was established, and done better, in the original while Shimizu's alterations prove head-scratching misfires.
Despite a hostile reception from international critics the remake is not a total disaster. Faced with the unenviable task of competing with an iconic animated predecessor, young newcomer Fûka Koshiba is a cheery and personable presence. Her Kiki is more exuberant and confident, a spunkier teen witch for millennials, eager to break from tradition and forge her own path. On a surface level the film has a cosy feel, trading Miyazaki's quasi-European storybook milieu for a setting more specifically Japanese. Shimizu clearly grasps the themes inherent in Kadono's story dealing with adolescent angst and female empowerment yet curiously stacks the deck so heavily against Kiki her personal triumph feels contrived and hollow. For one thing Shimizu's Kiki finds herself in a much more hostile environment where the locals are judgmental, manipulative, paranoid and downright rude. No sooner does she touch down in Koriko when she is pelted with rotten vegetables by Nazuro, an irate zookeeper who accuses her of 'cursing' a sickly baby hippopotamus. Nazuro proves a constant thorn in Kiki's side throughout the movie, whether fueling rumours about her evil influence or heckling her efforts to lend a hand.
Along with that we get a curious subplot wherein a teenage girl takes advantage of Kiki's unholy reputation to prank a group of mean girls. There is also another subplot concerning Kara Takami, a reclusive diva who lost her desire to sing after the tragic death of her sister who happened to be the town's original witch and left a daughter in her care (no mention is made of the father). None of these feed into Kiki's primary story. Indeed the latter seems to exist solely to provide a faintly absurd climactic scene wherein Takami performs the theme song to the film in a rain storm. Even Kiki's first encounter with Tombo is given an awkward twist. Kiki's skepticism about Tombo's future as an aviator gets him so riled he yells at her to shut up and shoves her to the ground. Things happily pick up from there but it is strange note on which to establish their relationship. Elsewhere the computer generated Jiji has some photo-realistic charm yet his own relationship with Kiki goes curiously under-utilized. Fans of Japanese movies may savour appearances from Nineties It-girl Rie Miyazawa as Kiki's fretful mother and chameleonic superstar Tadanobu Asano but their brief cameos add little depth. Lacking the budget to recreate the airship crash that climaxed Miyazaki's anime, Shimizu concocts an alternative trial involving a race to save an ailing computer-animated baby hippo. Visually it is not the most inspired finale the film could have, but gets the job done. To its credit, the film tries to stay true to Kodono's core themes of patience and perseverance as the key to enduring the trials of adolescence. Even so having Kiki's crisis of confidence stem not from her own self-doubt but the open hostility of the townsfolk somewhat dilutes the message.
Japanese writer/director and the man behind the hugely successful Ju-on films. Ju-on and Ju-on 2 were made for TV, while 2003's Ju-on: The Grudge was a bigger budget feature film, which Shimizu sequalised the same year. In 2004 directed a Hollywood version of the story, as the Sam Raimi-produced The Grudge, which he followed with The Grudge 2 before finally opting for alternative tales.