Kiki's Delivery Service (1989) & Grave of the Fireflies (1988)


Kiki's Delivery Service deals with the 13-year old Kiki who lives in a world where witches are commonplace and quite pleasant. As tradition dictates she must leave her home and strike out on her own, and so she heads out on a broom with her talking cat Jiji, and comes upon a cosy little town, where she takes up lodging with the local baker. She starts a delivery service to pay for the rent, but soon discovers that it's not easy growing up.

Grave of the Fireflies takes place during World War II, where we follow the young boy Seita who's forced to take care of his younger sister Setsuko, when their mother dies during one of the horrible firebombings. They struggle to find proper shelter and get enough food, and slowly they starve to death while the war rages on and destroys everything around them.


What do these two films have in common? Kiki's Delivery Service - a fluffy film about a teenage girl, clearly made for a pre-teen girly audience, and Grave of the Fireflies - a brutal depiction of what happens to simple civilian folks during war. The answer is: Very little. The interesting part is not how similar they are, but how different they are.

After watching Kiki's Delivery Service (for the first time) I was trying to come up with something to say about it, but I was drawing a complete blank. What can you say about a film that wants to accomplish so little, and completes the mission in such a subtle way? On the other hand, the themes of Grave of the Fireflies seem almost too big, to squeeze into a mere film review.

When Kiki heads off into the world she's got every possibility at her feet. Seita, on the other hand, begins his story by finally succumbing to hunger and malnourishment, and the entire movie plays out as a flashback after he's dead.

Animé fans hardly need a lesson in how varied the genre can be, but rookies (and I count myself among them) could be surprised that a film like Grave of the Fireflies can exist in animated form. But perhaps we shouldn't be. The animated sequences in the The Wall (1982) were quite grotesque, and certainly left an impact, and there's also a film like When The Wind Blows (1986), which shares some themes with Grave. No, animated films can definitely tackle big subjects, If we let them.

Kiki's Delivery Service, though, is sweet and fluffy through and through. What surprised me the most was that Kiki meets almost no opposition along the way, Sure, she loses her powers at some point, but it's pretty obvious that's just a bump in the road. Otherwise she just runs around with a smile on her face, happy that everyone is treating her so nice. I kept thinking something dark would happen, or that the story would turn a corner, but it never did.

Providing the polar opposite, Grave of the Fireflies feels almost too real. Seita and Setsuko must watch their entire town be obliterated, then they lose their mother. She didn't just disappear in the rubble, no Seita gets to watch her mutilated body, wrapped in bandages, beyond any help, with only more suffering to look forward to before death. And that's just the beginning, then it gets worse. So much worse.

The horrible images of war are both heartbreaking and beautiful, and painted in exquisite detail. None of us are strangers to images of war. We see it every day on the news, and through countless feature films, documentaries and other venues. The real power of Grave of the Fireflies lies in what comes after. The parts we never see on TV.


Kiki and Grave both come from Studio Ghilbi, so it's not surprising that they have some identical DNA. From 1989 and 1988, respectively, both films have an almost timeless quality about them. They could have been made in the 40's for all I know. Perhaps that's just the nature of good old-fashioned hand-drawn animation, and if that's the case, why have all the major studios switched to CGI? Just look at that beautifully rendered European-looking town in Kiki, or the disturbing sight of Japan burning in Grave. These images have a certain unmistaken cartoon realism to them - if that makes any sense. The images look more cartoony than the real world and more real than the cartoony world. It's a perfect balance.

The films also feel timeless in terms of their stories: Was there ever a time when young girls didn't need to know how to stand on their own two feet, and was there ever a time when the brutality and futility of war wasn't important to dwell on? Grave in particular is so effective that every every soldier, general and politician - anybody who plays a part in the war machine, however small - should be forced to watch it - Clockwork Orange-style for full effect.

And finally, both films would also be excellent starting points for someone trying to get into Animé. Kiki for younger kids, Grave for the older kids and the grownups. They are both very square, they have a loose episodic feel, and no complicated narrative threads. They rarely rely on straight up cartoon magic. Even Kiki, despite the fact that she's a witch and flies around, is surprisingly grounded (pun intended).


Kiki's Delivery Service and Grave of the Fireflies have just had their debut on English Blu-ray, courtesy of Studio Canal. They both feature excellent video quality, the original dialogue and English dubbing (don't bother with that), and assorted extras in the shape of storyboards, interviews and other bits.

It's definitely worth getting these types of animated films in high definition, so that every detail in the drawings can be fully appreciated.


It's nothing short of fascinating that animated films can tackle two so different subjects. I guess that's an attitude brought on by a Western upbringing. I blame my mother.

I'm slowly familiarizing myself with the works of Hayao Miyazaki and other Studio Ghibli films as they arrive on Blu-ray. Kiki's Delivery Service and Grave of the Fireflies were both excellent stops on this journey, and even though there isn't much meat on Kiki's bones, I still had fun with the film. It's harmless, but doesn't feel like a waste of time. Grave is an entirely different beast, but one it's absolutely essential to suffer through.

Thanks to StudioCanal and Edith Chappey for making this review possible.

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