Through the Eyes of a Bird: A Book Review of Kiki’s Delivery Service

Kiki’s Delivery Service is the lighthearted, magical tale of a young witch named Kiki who leaves home to make her own way in the world, accompanied by her talkative black cat Jiji. The author, Eiko Kadono, found inspiration for this story thanks to a picture drawn by her daughter, which showed a witch riding a broomstick surrounded by musical notes.

                As Kadono relates, writing fiction—especially about a character who flew—made her feel as if she could peer through “the eyes of a bird.” During the creative process, it was as if she could experience the adventures right alongside Kiki, and the enthusiasm and happiness she felt to do so shines throughout all the young witch’s adventures. There is true tenderness found on these pages, the English translation of which only got released in the United States in 2020.

                My first brush with Kiki’s Delivery Service was the film adaptation handled by Studio Ghibli. Released in Japan during 1989, and then a year later in the USA, Hayao Miyazaki’s screenplay for the story has the spirit and many of the same characters as Kadono’s original story. However, as wondrous a job as Studio Ghibli did of showing the struggles Kiki had with settling into a seaside town and launching a freelance courier career, it is more like a teaser for all the fascinating things that occur in the original text.

                Kadono describes a world where magic was once widely used and came in many variations, specifically for witches, but where it has dwindled due to the toll taken by fear and ignorance over time. By the time Kiki prepares to start her journey, most witches only have one or two magical skills they can use, often in service to the communities where they live—to dispel lingering fears or superstitions about their existence, while making a living in their own unique way. While Kiki’s mother (Okino) is an expert in mixing up cough medicines and flying, Kiki doesn’t have the patience to study medicine and thus comes to rely only on her flying ability. And on her thirteenth birthday, she flies away from home on the night of a full moon, to live on her own.

                Eventually, Kiki decides to stay in the town of Koriko. After encountering the townspeople, most of whom are wary of a witch in their midst and have many preconceived notions about her, she helps and becomes friends with a bakery owner Osono, heavy with child. Osono invites Kiki to stay in an apartment above their flour house, and Kiki soon has a storefront of her very own set up on its first floor. “Kiki’s Flying Delivery Service” is the name of her freelancing business, where she deliveries packages and other items to people all over town.

                From there, every chapter is a new delivery and adventure. There is one incident from among them that got adapted by Studio Ghibli without many changes, such as a black cat plushie meant as a birthday gift for a young boy (Buzzcut Buster), which Kiki accidentally drops into a forest, and then replaces with her cat Jiji while she goes back and tries to find it—meeting an artist in the process. However, most of the adventures Kiki undertakes in Kadono’s story are unique to the book. They range from a mission to carry a love poem from a girl to a boy that goes awry, to an epic rescue at the beach, to the delivery of band instruments grabbed from a moving train. One of my favorites stories involves Kiki trying to figure out how to resolve a situation with Koriko’s old clocktower on New Year’s Eve, which breaks a short while before it is supposed to strike midnight and launch an annual town tradition.

                Kiki’s Delivery Service is a charming tale to read, filled with enchantment and feel-good moments, made all the sweeter because American audiences can finally read and savor Kadono’s original story in its entirety.

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