Hayao Miyazaki is considered by many to be Japan's greatest animation director. Since the mid-1980s, Miyazaki has made a series of films of such advanced artistic merit that they've redefined the anime genre. The success of features including My Neighbor Totoro, Castle in the Sky, Princess Mononoke and, most recently, Spirited Away, made Miyazaki a household name across Asia. With the help of a theatrical and video distribution deal with Disney, he's also made major inroads in the United States.
Miyazaki is a singular figure in the world of feature length animation. He's a masterful storyteller, capable of weaving engrossing tales with spare, impressionistic strokes. His ability to create deeply nuanced, multi-dimensional characters is unparalleled in the genre. Miyazaki conjures up entire worlds, full of history and subtle detail, populated by unique creatures and memorable individuals, with seeming ease. Behind the scenes, Miyazaki exerts almost superhuman effort in the pursuit of his art, personally animating up to 70% of the hand-drawn cels in most of his films.
In America, Miyazaki's two most recent films, Princess Mononoke and Spirited Away, met with artistic and box office success, the latter winning the Academy Award for best animated feature of 2002. Both films are richly plotted, thematically mature and filled to the brim with interesting characters and situations. It's been said that Miyazaki directs images in a lyrical fashion, like composers conduct music. Using this analogy, one could think of Princess Mononoke and Spirited Away as full symphonic pieces. By the same token, Kiki's Delivery Service, a charmingly straightforward fairytale about a teenage witch, is like a delicate piece of chamber music.
At thirteen, witch-in-training Kiki is obligated to leave her parents' home for a year and find her own way in life. To that end she gathers up a few things, including her black cat Jiji, jumps on her broom and flies off to find her destiny. Before too long Kiki arrives at a medium-sized city where, after some initial difficulties, she sets up a small business delivering packages by broomback. But managing finances, cooking for herself and her cat, and residing in the adult world prove more difficult than Kiki had at first imagined. Added to these complications is a budding relationship with a young boy named Tombo who asks Kiki out on her first date. What follows is a charming character study featuring intrigue, romance, humor, mystery and even a little action and adventure. Kiki's Delivery Service is a sensitive portrait of a girl becoming a young woman. Its charms lie in the discovery of the details so I'll end my synopsis here and not spoil the fun.
About the DVD
Before moving on to the technical details of this disc, some information about the optional English dub should prove helpful. Under the supervision of Pixar's John Lasseter, Kiki's Delivery Service was translated and re-dubbed with the voices of Kirsten Dunst (Kiki), Phil Hartman (Jiji), and Matthew Lawrence (Tombo), among others. This English track is not a direct translation of the original script. It is generally more dialogue heavy than the Japanese track and in some cases strays quite far from the director's intent. In particular, Jiji the cat's sarcastic humor seems to be an invention of Disney and Phil Hartman. In Miyazaki's version Jiji's comedy is primarily visual. In addition, the music score on the English dub is decidedly more aggressive and stereotypically Disney in its approach.
Because Miyazaki is so deeply involved in every aspect of the creation of his films it's very important that viewers consider watching them with the original Japanese soundtrack. Miyazaki chooses his voice talent very carefully and directs their performances personally. Dunst, Hartman, et al do a serviceable job on their dub track but there's no way that they can match the excellence and seamlessness of the original voice actors. Listening exclusively to the 'Disney-ized' English dub is bound to detract from the artist's original vision.
The print used for this transfer is in very good shape but is not without flaws. The color saturation, contrast, black levels and sharpness are all nearly perfect. I wasn't able to detect any appreciable digital compression artifacts, combing effects, or edge enhancement. For the most part the image is rock solid, shows no signs of fading, scratches or other physical flaws. When the credits roll, though, the image shows significant flaws. The entire final credit sequence and subsequent brief denouement look like a second- or third-generation copy of the original elements. The picture is fuzzy, dim and lacking in detail. The colors are muddy and the image shows excessive grain. I'm not sure what went wrong with the print here but the result is very noticeable. Though it's a relatively major flaw I wouldn't deem it a compelling reason not to buy the disc.
Audio is available in English Dolby Digital 5.1 and in Japanese Dolby 2.0 Surround. The English track is much more aggressive, showing a broad dynamic range, sporadic LFE activity, a fair amount of front sound stage panning and frequent rear channel surround effects. The dialogue is consistently crisp and understandable but the music seems a bit loud in the mix at times. The Japanese track is a little more limited in dynamic range with little if any LFE and more subdued surround signal. On the other hand, the music and vocals are more evenly mixed. Neither track exhibits any physical flaws such as hiss or pops.
For a two-disc set the supplements on Kiki's Delivery Service are disappointingly thin. On disc one you'll find a collection of the original Japanese theatrical trailers in non-anamorphic widescreen. There are chapter stops but no menu for selecting individual trailers. Next up is a brief promotional featurette on the creation of the English dub track. This segment is nothing more than a fluff piece but is interesting to watch if only to see the late Phil Hartman in action. Also included is a brief, gushing introduction by John Lasseter in which he strongly encourages you to watch all of Miyazaki's films.
Disc two features a single supplement: the complete original storyboards for the film. You can watch these beautiful two-tone pencil sketches with either the original Japanese language track or the English dub. This is a fantastic supplement for Miyazaki fans but I would have liked to see some more substantial extras here.
Even if Miyazaki's films were only available on bare-bones discs I'd rate them highly. That Kiki's Delivery Service includes a handful of interesting extras is just icing on the cake. Miyazaki creates wonderful films that appeal to people of all ages. If you haven't seen Kiki's Delivery Service you should, and if you enjoy Miyazaki's films you should definitely add this disc to your collection. I give Kiki's Delivery Service my highest rating: DVD Talk Collector's Series.