Kiki, a thirteen-year-old witch in training, leaves her rural village for a bustling seaside town. With her, she takes only a bento lunchbox, a radio, and her black cat Jiji. She travels by broom, of course. Broom flight is the only magic Kiki has.
Western audiences may know Kiki from the massively popular, heavily-lauded 1989 Studio Ghibli film. Hayao Miyazaki, as always, builds his own world out of his source material. There is still a great deal for readers to discover in author Kadono Eiko’s original, recently released in a charming English translation by Emily Balistrieri.
Kadano’s Kiki is more optimistic and resilient than Miyazaki’s. Gone are her long melancholies and the loss of self-confidence that almost costs her her magic. Gone, also, are some of the central conflicts from Miyazaki’s story. Kiki, for example, has no antagonistic run-in with her understated love interest. The movie’s heavy-handed lament of an old world passing away is also mostly absent.
Kiki’s Delivery Service reads instead like a classic, episodic coming-of-age story that belongs in the company of Anne of Green Gables or Little Women. She faces a new, discrete challenge she must overcome in each chapter. She grows a little each time she solves a problem, and the novel brings her character arc to a satisfying conclusion.
Much of Kiki’s charm comes from its realism: it is barely a fantasy story at all. Yes, the protagonist flies around on a broomstick, but Kadono gives her no other magical powers. Kiki’s magic is what Kadono describes in the introduction as “everyday magic”. Kiki is a witch, but she is also “a perfectly ordinary girl”. Her magic is just a tool; Kiki’s wits and good heart are her greatest strengths. Kiki is Little Women’s Meg March—but with a broomstick.
Kadono’s novel is also funnier than the film, with many characters joining in on Jiji’s comic commentary. In the chapter, “Kiki Solves the Captain’s Problem”, she is hired by an old woman who is knitting the final stitches of a haramaki (a “stomach scarf” with supposed health benefits, translated by Balistrieri as “belly band”).
“You won’t have to worry once you have a belly band. There’s no better, cheaper way to stay healthy. Just the other day, I recommended it to the mayor. ‘You want people to think you’re an upstanding citizen, right? Better hide your flaws with a belly band.’ And do you know that all the animals in the zoo got stomachaches from chilly tummies? I even recommended they give them belly bands!”
It turns out this particular haramaki is for her son’s boat. While it normally makes a putt-putt sound, it has recently begun to steam and yawn pukaatt, pukaat instead. Kiki saves the day by delivering the giant belly band to the boat and using it to cover the smokestack.
Kiki’s Delivery Service is a wholesome entry into a genre overpopulated by angsty tweenagers rebelling against their parents. With her parents’ consent and support, Kiki flies off, not to find herself, but to become the best version of the person she already is.
Alison Fincher (@FincherAlison) is a student of Japanese and an independent researcher of contemporary Japanese fiction