See how high she flies

Niels Strandskov

It’s always a bit surprising to go to Hayao Miyazaki films like “Princess Mononoke” and “Spirited Away” and not find any vicious, slavering religious zealots blocking the entrance. There’s so much in his movies that they’d find completely offensive: magic, environmentalism, moral ambiguity, women’s empowerment and most of all, freedom. But perhaps they’re incapable of reading the subtitles.

Even so, “Kiki’s Delivery Service,” which Miyazaki made in 1989, has plenty of amazing visuals guaranteed to send a shiver up the spine of the most spiteful bigot. Kiki is a witch, and a young, independent-minded one at that. When she turns 13 years old, she goes flying off from her home village, with a black cat in tow, on a mission to find a town to help and protect.

Her broom-handling skills are rudimentary, but she finds herself in one of Miyazaki’s strange little towns, a half-Austrian tourist trap and half-Japanese garden city. She’s a bit confused where her talents lie so she sets herself up as a one-woman delivery service, zipping around on her broom in the wind and rain, black cat perched in front of her, making sure important care packages are delivered. In her journeys she meets jaded rich people, a vaguely lesbian painter-hermit, a young aeronautic enthusiast and a cheerful grandmother. Everyone has something to teach her, and in turn, she brings happiness and magic to their lives.

Miyazaki’s animation in this film is more cheerful and upbeat than his recent, serious films. The black cat is especially adorable.

Of course, there are crises to overcome. Kiki loses a package, and Jiji, the cat, has to fill in as a stuffed toy. Her biggest obstacle is her own loneliness, which she deals with poorly at first, and finally surmounts with help from her new friends. However, even the burden of her loneliness is not enough to convince Kiki to give up.

Miyazaki’s vision sets itself apart from conventional children’s films, both animated and live-action. There aren’t many other filmmakers who blithely disregard convention (and moral busybodies) and make a story about a 13-year-old girl who leaves her home and family to find happiness and friendship through freedom and flight.

For instance, compare this film to “The Journey of Natty Gann” where the heroine’s goal is simply to be back under the protection of her father. Young women have few chances to see stories where they are not only allowed, but even rewarded, when they assert their independence.

Most of Miyazaki’s films are distributed by the Walt Disney Co. here in the United States. This is unfortunate as that is from a purist’s standpoint. (We need subtitled versions!) But it’s certainly heartwarming to think of Walt Disney, that old fascist, spinning in his cryogenic tank while his company popularizes the work of a man who is turning the tired, bored, sad world of children’s animation upside down.