Susan
The Amazing Adventures of Sara Corel
A novel by Toomey


Kiki's Delivery Service
Culled from a series of letters to the Aurora Universe Writers' Group

      I just saw a charming movie on the Disney Channel, Kiki's Delivery Service. Yeah, it's for kids. What's wrong with that? I enjoyed the hell out of it.
      It's anime, made in Japan, but had excellent English voice acting (including Kirsten Dunst, Jeanine Garofalo and the late Phil Hartman). It's in some kind of anachronistic European setting TVs and microwaves coexisting with biplanes and dirigibles.
      It's basically a fairy tale, somewhat in the old tradition. A 13-year-old witch, Kiki, leaves home to spend a year in training as is the custom of her people to discover the world and something about herself and her talents. Turns out the only thing she's really good at is flying around on her broomstick, so she starts a delivery service in her new town. Adventures ensue in the usual manner, resulting in the expected happy ending.
      But what was so wonderful about this movie was the absolutely incredible realism and beauty of the animation, both in the characters' movements and the stunning backgrounds. It was something like a trip to someone's very vivid and detailed imagination or maybe what Heaven is like. There are times when it is like being immersed in a painting.
      I know, the rap on most anime is the awfulness of the production values, with unmoving characters and static scenes, poorly executed and sparse. Well, this is nothing like that. It's full of cunningly executed movement and fine details little things that catch the corner of the eye and promote an odd sense of 'hyper-realism'.
      Some of the the flying sequences are indescribable. They are like memories of perfect dreams, soaring over rooftops and treetops, banking and turning, swooping low and spiraling cloudward. I laughed and smiled the whole time a kid again, lost in uncomplicated joy.
      The story itself is unremarkable, but the small parts that make up the whole are well-written, having the feel of being connected to a wider reality beyond what's on screen. There is a touch of the bizarre at times just so you don't fall asleep, I guess. It's a bit on the sweet side the 'real' world is not so kind. And there are some dumb places here and there (the boy should die). There are a lot of things you wouldn't expect to find in a kid's story, so maybe it was really written more for the kid that lurks inside many adults.
      Anyway, I hope you get a chance someday to see it. I know I liked it a lot, and maybe you will, too.

[Time passes]
      I bought the movie the other day, Kiki's Delivery Service. I've seen it a dozen times over the past few days, sometimes frame-by-frame. I am completely overwhelmed.
      I hate to see movies twice, even ones I saw when I was a kid. There have been a few exceptions, but I feel like I can usually suck the life out of a flick (or a book) the first time through. My memory is too good to enjoy something for the first time again. There are those rare films that are repeatable, either because they are incredibly rich in detail or happen to be beautiful enough to savor. Dr. Strangelove comes to mind, a couple of Kurosawa movies, The Wizard of Oz, Casablanca, 2001, Cat Ballou, Brazil, The Forbidden Planet, maybe a couple others. Certainly, no animated movies.
      This one tops the list. I am quite sure that a dozen viewings are not enough to catch everything. The level of incidental detail is astounding animation or not. But it's more than technical mastery of a medium (even at this level of excellence, the actual animation elements are only alternate-frames, so there's a bit of a flicker though it's executed so well as to be practically meaningless). And it's more than just breathtaking backgrounds and painterly composition.
      It's the story. It's just damned fine storytelling. A simple story with a lot of the commonplace things that you just don't ever see anywhere else about something that is quite extraordinary. And there are various interweaved levels of story elements that support each other and create a sense of fullness that is sometimes so subtle that you aren't even aware of them.
      One of the things I most admire about the storytelling technique is the effortless efficiency of the narrative. I absolutely marvel at how many instances there are of not getting into any detail yet conveying profound detail that expands the boundaries of the world in which the story is set far past the edges of the screen. Sometimes it is done visually, sometimes as background sounds or music (which is marvellous in its own right), sometimes as a piece of 'business' (as actors call it) like the unread note to Kiki's friend, or the little girl with the replica of Kiki's broom, or the lady in the crowd near the end who gave Kiki the brush earlier in the story, or the dotty old housemaid's senile antics, or the crow crap on the roof of the painter's house. The listing could go on and on, and they're all little things that propel the story invisibly, almost subliminally. In fact, I think that's exactly it: it's almost subliminal, suggestions made unconsciously that reinforce the story in ways that you can't put your finger on at first sight.
      There's purposeful ambiguity in places, as well. For instance, there's no real explanation for just what it was that resulted in what was discussed with Ursula as the equivalent of writer's block. That's a major sub-plot to the story that should interest all of us [writers] confronting just what it is that motivates the expression of talent in a person. It's not done in a trivial manner, either.
      And there are other themes that have a special appeal to my situation at the moment starting life over with uncertain abilities, acceptance of your own strangeness, possessing magic in a mundane world.
      Central to the whole wonder of the tale is flight. And flight is handled so naturally it touches the dreams we all have of being one with the sky. I don't know about the rest of you, but the greatest longing I have is for unfettered flight of perfect freedom and boundless rapture. It is the central experience of this movie, one that every character who witnesses Kiki's soaring beholds with joy. To see this movie is to come one step closer to that dream, to experience in your imagination the thrills and sensations and even some of the dreamlike frustrations of reaching just beyond your grasp, fighting for control against the impossible.
      Sometimes, the obsessive attention to detail itself anchors the story in the perception of reality. The town is real, right down to the very cobblestones. It can be mapped and lacks nothing a town needs, from traffic to the marketplace to the waterfront to the clock tower dominating the skyline above the old city walls. There are crowds, shops, gardens, trolleys, cops, fountains, narrow streets with handrails, roadwork, leaves to slip on, litter, kids playing, reflections, sounds, rooftops, walls on and on and on, rendered faithfully, lovingly, beautifully. Both the bakery and Kiki's apartment have consistent architecture from myriad angles and perspectives, inside and out, with all the attendant touches that bespeak verisimilitude even to dust and a detached and decidedly inconvenient bathroom.
      Among many other things, Kiki has to worry about stretching her money, catches cold, hates her clothes, worries about gaining weight from a diet of pancakes (all she can afford), gets bored, acts stupid, feels rejected, fears failure, is moody, can't understand the people she meets, isn't very consistent, gets depressed, feels optimistic without good reason, has fun in spite of herself, gets excited, panics, runs away, copes (sometimes), is reflective, isn't very careful, takes responsibility, improvises, and finds a core of grim determination within herself when it's needed. What an astonishingly complete portrayal of a character.
      Even the backstory about 'witches' is fascinating. They amount to some kind of mutant subspecies living among normal humans who have varying abilities, including flight usually with a broomstick as some kind of mediating instrumentality, though any old broomstick will do in a pinch (as will a bicycle in at least one instance). It's evident that she doesn't 'ride' the broomstick, but levitates along with it, perhaps with it serving as a means of control. This mediating instrumentality is also present in the form of the ubiquitously accompanying black cat, who under a witches' influence attains sentience and human speech as well as acting as a translator with other animals. During their thirteenth-year training away from home, witches discover other abilities, which might include potion making or fortune telling (presumeably among other things related to psionic abilities). Witches are evidently rare, but not unknown. They are not blatantly discriminated against, but are not necessarily universally welcomed (or necessarily universally worth welcoming). Their value to their adopted communities range from pharmacist to public service to devination (and unknown specialties).
      The thirteenth-year custom is astonishing. Kiki's loving parents accept without reservation that their young, inexperienced, skilless daughter will fly off to parts unknown to live among strangers without any kind of support for a year, undertaking something akin to an American Indian 'spirit journey' to get in touch with their inner selves and undergo self-training on their own without any contact with other witches for guidance. Kiki is hardly invulnerable, and needs food and shelter. Yet there is no real concern that she will be physically or emotionally harmed. There must be more to witches than we are told which is great technique, by the way.
      This is what I mean. So often, we spend a great deal of time describing parts of our stories or characters in exhaustive detail, sometimes repeating the same cliches over and over. It can be very effective to have a well-developed backstory that is incompletely alluded to. None of the stuff in the preceeding two paragraphs is mentioned in the story in anything but a casual glance. It's just there. The trick is in knowing how to accomplish this feat of writing barely enough to produce more in the mind of the reader than appears in print. If you can figure out how to do this then, my friend, you are a writer.
      That's why it's useful to study works of art. You need to understand what the great masters did to accomplish certain effects, then apply the lessons to your own style. It's not always easy --- sometimes because it's not always evident where the illuminating master-art is. Sometimes, something truly unique can show up in the strangest places.
      I think that this movie is one of them.

[Time passes]
      The other day, I rented the Japanese-language (subtitled) version of Kiki's Delivery Service, to have a look at the source, so to speak.
      To begin with, it's letterboxed (wide-screen). I didn't realize how much of a visual difference that would make, but it does especially in something that's so visually magnificent in the first place. It's much more immersive.
      The music was re-recorded by Disney from more-or-less the same scores. They added a whole lot more to it which I found to be mostly very appropriate. There is a lot of silence in the original, which creates a slightly different mood. The two new credit-crawl songs (at the beginning and the end) are light-years better than the crummy Jap-Pop crap of the original and pretty damned good, IMHO.
      But what really surprised me was the dialog. It was almost completely different from one version to the next, like almost a different story. A whole lot of things were dramatically altered even substantive elements of the story.
      Consider:
      First of all, there's the original book, written by some Japanese lady who was not at all happy with the movie. So there's change number one to the story a rewrite, actually, by a different author. Sure, movies are necessarily different from the books upon which they are based it's a different medium.
      Then, there's the translation of the Japanese movie dialog into English subtitles. OK, that's going to result in a de facto rewrite as well. It can't be avoided.
      Then there's the major rewrite undertaken by Disney a different interpretation, basically. I don't know if it might not actually be closer to the original Japanese than the first translation, but I suspect that the American screenwriter had the American voice actors in mind.
      Take, for instance, Phil Hartman's 'Jiji' (Kiki's black-cat familiar). He has at least five or six times as much dialog as the original, most of it sounding improvised. It's funnier, and it's amounts to a completely different character sarcastic in the style of Hartman's persona, more involved, and setting a different tone for the entire movie.
      So here's how this viewing experience relates to us in the AUWG writer's boot camp.
      The story is still the same. It was a good enough story to be a best-seller in Japan as a novel, it was a good enough movie in Japan to be a major box-office hit, and it won all kinds of major awards in the Disney version (though never released theatrically, it has 'legs' at the video stores). As different as the two versions are that I saw, they're still the same story.
      A story has to be fundamentally good to start with. No amount of rewriting can save a story that sucks. A truly good story will shine through even as a first draft. What we're trying to communicate is something that's perhaps more basic than the language a story is clothed in, or even the medium that portrays it.
      Even the top pro writers will have their stories altered to some extent by an editor. And the language, grammar and punctuation stuff is damned important. So is the look-and-feel. But the editor (or proofreader or publisher) does not make the story happen. That has to come from the storyteller.
      I am at a loss to try to define just what constitutes the underlying thing that a story is. I think it might be something like music, a way of reaching the affective 'right brain' mind that deals in feelings and emotions rather than math or language. If this is true, then this kind of thing cannot be defined.
      Just more consciousness-raising stuff to think about.


Proper Waffles
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Patrick Hill, 2000