At the same time that director Hayao Miyazaki’s drectorial swan-song, The Wind Rises, opened in wide release in North America, the live-action version of Kiki’s Delivery Service was released in Japan. The coming of age story of a young witch in training is best known internationally for the 1989 Studio Ghibli animated film of the same name, but how does the new version, from production company Toei, compare with the anime classic?

Eager to see if Kiki was better left in two dimensions, we checked the film out for ourselves.

Before diving into the differences between the live-action and animated Kikis, it’s important to note that neither one is the authoritative rendition of the tale of the teenaged enchantress. Both films are adaptations of the novel of the same name, written by Eiko Kadono in 1985. Kadono has since gone on to pen five sequels to her original work, with the most recent published just five years ago.

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So what different directions does the new Kiki take? By far the most noticeable is its setting. When trailers for the new film were first released, many overseas fans were troubled about the apparent shift away from the European-influenced locales used for the Ghibli version, and indeed the very first thing viewers of the live-action Kiki see is a line of text explaining that the story takes place in “a town in Asia where people believe in witches.”

Whereas the home village of Ghibli’s Kiki was surrounded by the gently rolling hills that have become a staple of the animation studio’s works, live-action Kiki’s family home is built into the cliffs along a river gorge. The community is occasionally blanketed in snow, and the villagers’ clothes have an almost Tibetan look to them.

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Likewise, the town where Kiki lives during her year of solo witch training bears little resemblance to the bustling city seen in the Ghibli version. Instead, it has the relaxed, peaceful feel of a small Japanese fishing port, as could be expected from the new movie’s filming being done on an island in Kagawa Prefecture in Japan’s Inland Sea. It’s been noted that setting of the animated Kiki feels like a kinder, more peaceful version of 1930s Europe, without the political and military turmoil that defined the era in real life. One could say the live-action film does something similar, simply substituting Japan for Europe.

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Speaking of Japanese substitutes, the animated Kiki’s ostensibly Caucasian cast is portrayed exclusively by Japanese actors and actresses. This is hardly surprising, considering that the production crew and primary audience are Japanese, as well.

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The film does make attempts to strike a sort of nationality-free balance, however. Kiki’s adopted town is still called Koriko, and the names of several people she meets, such as Tombo and Professor In, are right in the grey area of sounding close enough to Japanese to be easy for domestic audiences to remember, while not actually being potentially-alienating, authentically Japanese names. The town’s signage is all in Japanese, and there are citizens who are obviously meant to be Japanese, such as dry cleaner Sumire or schoolgirl Saki, but never once in the film does anyone say the word “Japan.” We never see anyone using chopsticks or eating Japanese food, and there’s even a scene of a little girl clearly wearing shoes inside her home.

“Kiki has to make a choice about whether to continue living as a witch, or live as an ordinary girl”

The basic storyline is similar to the ground covered by Ghibli’s film, with the added wrinkle that after her year of living apart from her family, Kiki has to make a choice about whether to continue living as a witch, or forego her magic powers and live as an ordinary girl instead. This added uncertainty is in keeping with the personality of the live-action Kiki, who we see being more emotional, and at times even confrontational, than her perpetually calm and earnest anime proxy.

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As a matter of fact, the live-action Kiki contains quite a bit more conflict than Ghibli’s version. While it never sinks into particularly dark territory, the live-action version, directed by horror movie The Ring’s Takashi Shimizu, keeps its narrative chugging along at a steadier pace than the anime did. Miyazaki’s greater cachet meant that even as he used slow establishing shots to establish atmosphere, audiences could be expected to bear with him, even at times when the plot itself was going nowhere. Shimizu doesn’t have that same luxury, and the live action’s Kiki’s script is heavier on dialogue and issues for the little witch to deal with, such as fellow teen and aviation enthusiast Tombo’s skepticism about magic, the townspeople’s fear of her using her powers to harm them, and the dangers inherent in flying hundreds of feet in the sky astride a flimsy broom.

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This different pacing even affects the soundtrack. Compared to Jo Hisaishi’s soothing score for the 1989 version, the new Kiki’s background music is decidedly more up-tempo, right down to the pop/dance anthem “Wake Me Up” by Mai Kuraki, which serves as the film’s closing theme.

“The artist Ursula is nowhere to be found”

Ironically, despite the new Kiki being set in a much smaller town than the anime (likely a budget-based necessity), the live-action version’s residents have more to do with Kiki’s development as a result of her expanded communication with them. The artist Ursula is nowhere to be found in the new film, but we learn more about Tombo’s love of flight and his overall personality. We also hear how bakery owner Osono and her husband met, which leads to a side plot involving a reclusive singer with her own connection to witchcraft.

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Speaking of the cast, the film has not one, but two CG animal characters. Although he wasn’t present in the earliest trailers, Kiki’s talking cat companion Jiji is featured prominently, although he’s now played by voice actress Minako Kotobuki, who replaces Rei Sakuma from the 1989 Ghibli version. There’s also a baby hippo named Marco who’s pretty adorable, despite not serving much purpose other than giving Kiki one more challenge to overcome, plus ostensibly to move a little bit of Kiki’s Delivery Service merchandise.

Unlike movies in the U.S., where the hope is that after watching the latest Hollywood hit you’ll head to Target to pick up your Avengers T-shirt or Frozen notebook, in Japan they’ll sell you such things right in the theater lobby.


With Japanese movie tickets already costing 1.800 yen (US$17.50), you could say this is a shameless ploy to squeeze even more money out of theatergoers, but such criticisms are hard to hold onto in the face of such cute stuff as magic broom-shaped pencils…


…special Hello Kitty hand towels…


…Kiki figures…


…a pouch shaped like the little witch’s beloved radio…


…and even child-sized Kiki costumes.


Kiki’s Delivery Service is playing at theaters across Japan. While no subtitles are provided, anyone who’s seen the animated version, remembers what it was like to be 13 years old, or has a touch of magic in their heart should be able to follow the plot without any major problems.

Related: Kiki’s Delivery Service Official Website
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Insert images: RocketNews 24, Book Walker, YouTube