Kiki’s Delivery Service: A warmhearted coming-of-age tale

Kiki’s Delivery Service by Eiko Kadono, translated by Emily BalistrieriKiki’s Delivery Service by Eiko Kadono, translated by Emily Balistrieri

Kiki’s Delivery Service by Eiko Kadono, translated by Emily BalistrieriKiki’s Delivery Service, a 1985 children’s fantasy novel first published in Japanese as Majo no Takkyūbin (or “Witch’s Express Home Delivery”), is best known outside of Japan as the basis for a 1989 Studio Ghibli anime film directed by Hayao Miyazaki. In fact, the book won several prizes in Japan and Kadono has published five sequels over the years (unfortunately none of the sequels are currently available in English translations). Kiki’s Delivery Service was first published in English in 2003, but a new translation is now available.

Twelve-year-old Kiki lives in a small town with her mother Kokiri, a witch, and her human father Okino. Her coming-of-age day is nearing, and tradition requires young witches like Kiki to strike out on their own and find a town or village that doesn’t have a witch and needs their magical services. Witches’ powers have been growing weaker over the years, though, and Kiki’s only magical abilities are flying on a broom (at which she’s quite adept, in fact) and being able to speak with her black cat Jiji.

Once Kiki decides to leave she does so quickly, soon landing in the seaside town of Koriko. Initially downhearted because of the dismissive attitudes in this large town, Kiki cheers up when she meets a friendly and very pregnant baker who gives her a place to stay and an idea: she can go into business as a delivery girl. Her delivery service leads to a series of adventures, a few new friendships, and a growing feeling that Kiki has found a place and people that she cares about.

Kiki’s Delivery Service is a warmhearted and whimsical children’s story, told in eleven fairly easy-to-read chapters. It differs from the Miyazaki film in many of its plot points, and it’s much more episodic and understated in its approach. Kiki deals with the typical difficulties of growing up and gradually gaining self-confidence and independence. Her adventures tend not to be dramatic, life-and-death difficulties. It’s the more mundane, ordinary issues that mostly concern her: a worried mother; a thief who swipes her broom; a group of musicians whose instruments were left on the train; a boy who may or may not like her. Jiji’s sarcastic comments add a little humor and spice to the underlying sweetness.

The magical elements in Kiki’s Delivery Service are low-key and pure white witchcraft — there’s no real evil or meanness at all in this book. People may be annoying but fundamentally they’re all goodhearted. It’s about ordinary people going about their lives, sometimes frustrating each other, but more often connecting with and helping one another. In a foreword to the novel, Kadono comments, “[Kiki] is a witch, but she’s also a perfectly ordinary girl. She has the same worries, disappointments, and joys as anyone else … And as I continued writing Kiki’s story, I realized that magic is something everyone possesses. Even if you can’t fly through the air like Kiki, you have your own unique power that is equally important.”

And as Kiki herself realizes:

Of course, with my new business I’m usually delivering things in a hurry, so I need to fly. But sometimes it’s good to walk. When you walk, you end up talking to all sorts of different people even if you don’t want to, you know? … And when people see a witch close up, they realize that we don’t all have pointy noses and gaping mouths. We can discuss things and maybe come to understand each other.

Kiki’s Delivery Service is a charming tale with a timeless feel, giving readers an enjoyable and authentic glimpse of Japanese culture. I recommend it for fans of children’s fantasy.

Originally published in Japanese in 1985. This English version published in July 2020. Nostalgic fans of the Hiyao Miyazaki film and newcomers alike — soar into the modern classic about a young witch and her clever cat that started it all! Half-witch Kiki never runs from a challenge. So when her thirteenth birthday arrives, she’s eager to follow a witch’s tradition: choose a new town to call home for one year. Brimming with confidence, Kiki flies to the seaside village of Koriko and expects that her powers will easily bring happiness to the townspeople. But gaining the trust of the locals is trickier than she expected. With her faithful, wise-cracking black cat, Jiji, by her side, Kiki forges new friendships and builds her inner strength, ultimately realizing that magic can be found in even the most ordinary places. Blending fantasy with the charm of everyday life, this enchanting new translation will inspire both new readers and dedicated fans.

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TADIANA JONES, on our staff since July 2015, is an intellectual property lawyer with a BA in English. She inherited her love of classic and hard SF from her father and her love of fantasy and fairy tales from her mother. She lives with her husband and four children in a small town near the mountains in Utah. Tadiana juggles her career, her family, and her love for reading, travel and art, only occasionally dropping balls. She likes complex and layered stories and characters with hidden depths. Favorite authors include Lois McMaster Bujold, Brandon Sanderson, Robin McKinley, Connie Willis, Isaac Asimov, Larry Niven, Megan Whalen Turner, Patricia McKillip, Mary Stewart, Ilona Andrews, and Susanna Clarke.

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5 comments

  1. Jana Nyman /

    Oh, yay! I’m so glad you liked it!

    • I think I probably would have liked it even more if I’d previously watched the anime film and had lots of warm fuzzies for Kiki and Jiji. :)

      • Jana Nyman /

        Very likely, yes! I am full-to-the-brim with warm fuzzies for Kiki and Jiji, in what I’m sure is breaking news to everyone. :D

        • My daughter is a huge fan of anime generally and Miyazaki in particular. She’s offered to watch Kiki’s Delivery Service with me whenever I want, lol.

          • Jana Nyman /

            Take her up on it! It’s such a lovely, warm movie, and firmly in my top 5 favorites of all time.

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