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
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
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.
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.
consciousness-raising stuff to think about.
© Patrick Hill, 2000