We’ve probably had this conversation before — the pros and cons of the Live Action Film. When they’re done well, they enhance the source and become another aspect of effective cross-stream marketing that people are happy to pay to see. They win new fans and invigorate the existing ones. But let’s not kid ourselves thinking that any company sinks millions of dollars (or yen in this case) into a film better known in anime or manga out of their sense of loyalty to the material or the fans — they’re in it for the money. Whether they do a great job, as in the Rurouni Kenshin trilogy, or a not so great one (as in too many titles to name) doesn’t change the fact that the bottom line is profit.
The LAF version of that Studio Ghibli classic (yeah, I know, aren’t they all?) Kiki’s Delivery Service may have profited — it was placed third in the domestic box office in its release week, beaten by a small margin by Takashi Miike’s The Mole Song and a large margin by Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug. But that doesn’t reflect on the film itself, only the shirttails (or perhaps in this case the broom-straw) it was likely relying on. At best, this new walking, talking, breathing Kiki is a decent two hours’ entertainment for children under the age of about five.
Kiki (Koshiba Fuka) grows up in a town in the mountains where her mother (Rie Miyazawa, 47 Ronin, HanaYori no Maho) works as a good witch making potions for the local townsfolk. Upon the arrival of Kiki’s thirteenth birthday, she is told that in order to become a fully-fledged witch like her mother she must leave her home and go and live in a place that has no witch for a full year. So, she and her talking cat Jiji (Kotobuki Minako) take off and eventually find a quaint and colourful little island town called Koriko where, encouraged by her new friend Osono (Ono Machiko, Like Father Like Son), she soon sets up a flying broom delivery service. The business starts to pick up and things are going pretty well barring the on-going conflict with local flying buff Tonbo (Ryohei Hirota) whose gang believes there must be some trick to her ability to fly, until one of her deliveries turns sour and the experience causes Kiki to lose that ability altogether.
Sadly, the narrative tension that’s supposed to be generated by this crisis of confidence and the struggle to regain her centre barely registers on the empathy scale, and it’s hard to pin point why except to say that the film lacks in a number of minor ways that together contribute to something that may leave you scratching your head as to how it made that third place at the box office. The performances aren’t necessarily bad. Sixteen year old Koshiba is demonstrably too old to be thirteen, but that’s perhaps excusable given finding a thirteen year old with the skills to inhabit the role would have required actual witchcraft. And there are a number of entertaining moments (most of them provided by Osono’s husband, the baker Fukuo played by Hiroshi Yamamoto). But neither the main conflict — Kiki struggling to find herself — nor the minor conflicts in the form of the hostile zoo-keeper and the singer whose desire to sing died with her sister, have the emotional impact to really raise the story any higher than street level.
Which is a shame, since a good story can go a long way to overlooking other flaws — the CG animation and special effects, for instance. But perhaps that’s director Takashi Shimizu (Marebito, Ju-on) being out of his element, and had Kiki been facing a horde of restless dead we perhaps might have had a more engaging film on our hands. It could even be the film’s budget – one has to assume the profits came from somewhere and looking at what should be better special effects but aren’t seems to hint at where. One thing the film does get right though is the set design and the costuming. Koriko and its inhabitants aren’t stuck somewhere in the 1950’s so much as they seem to have chosen that era as their comprehensive design aesthetic, despite the obviously modern passenger ferries cruising around their bay, and it makes for the one charming, near-Miyazaki like element to the film.
But it’s not enough. If that’s a case of viewer sophistication and expectation exceeding what’s technically possible, then so be it. Toei should have considered whether they could do the material justice against the well-loved and well known animated version before they green-lighted the project, and if they didn’t want most of us to feel like they were just trying to make a quick million (which they did) then they should have at least aimed to produce a much stronger script. Of course, if they were just going for the mothers’ market and hoping enough of them would take their five year olds to see a movie about a girl flying on a broomstick, I suppose they did what they set out to do. For the rest of us grown-ups, Kiki’s Delivery Service basically doesn’t- Well, you know, deliver.
Kiki’s Delivery Service is screening as part of the 2014 Japanese Film Festival currently on around the country. Check the website for details (Don’t let this review stop you!)