The joy of having Eiko Kadono's Kiki's Delivery Service in English at last is threefold. One, it's actually back in English, as the original English translation, issued back in 2003, has sadly been out of print since then. Two, it's been retranslated by Emily Balistrieri, who also did great work on Tomohiko Morimi's The Night Is Short, Walk On Girl. The new version is, I think, a little more faithful to the text and the flavor of the original story, without being slavishly so. Many of the nuances that slipped through the cracks last time have been restored, but like all the best translations, it doesn't read like one. And third, its release coincides nicely with having Studio Ghibli's adaptation of the story casually available to a wide audience thanks to HBO Max. Among the delights to expect are how much the book and movie diverge: the book's more episodic and open-ended, but I suspect that's part of the charm it's exuded for generations now.
The little witch heads out
Still, both book and movie open the same way and on the same notes. Kiki, freshly thirteen, is the most recent in a family line of witches, and she's preparing for a witchly rite of passage: to leave home and spend a year in a strange town and make her own way there. I noted in my discussion of the movie how witches in this story's universe have a very homespun, dialed-down flavor to them — they're more like typewriter repairmen or watchmakers than sorcerers, people whose crafts inspire more curiosity and quaint feelings than primal dread.
Kiki is also a member of another lineage, that of daydreamy young protagonists who have more enthusiasm and ambition than confidence. She's waffling not just about whether or not to go on this coming-of-age journey, but how and why: she wants to do it because she wants to do it, not because it's expected of her. But finally around comes the next full moon, and and she pulls on the dress her mother made for her — she's dismayed that she has to wear an old-fashioned frock-like dress, and not that floral thing she had her eye on — wraps up a few things in a duffle, and brings along her familiar, the cat Jiji. Where Kiki is all sprightly cheer (or at least tries to be), Jiji is a cynic and curmudgeon, wisecracking at all the goings-on but always still at Kiki's side.
After a night of riding on her broomstick, and a morale-lifting encounter with another young witch, Kiki goes right into the deep end of the pool: she lands in the big, bustling town of Koriko, and announces herself to the crowd on the street where she touches down. To the eyes of the passers-by, she's a curiosity, and not in a good way: a relic from another time that hardly belongs here. What good is a witch in a world where (as Kiki notes with some gloom early in the story) there's always a light on somewhere, even when you don't want one? Then Kiki runs into Osono, the baker's wife, who's in a tizzy because a regular customer left her baby's pacifier behind and the other woman lives on the far side of town. Without thinking, Kiki sticks her neck out and offers to ferry the lost item over there on her broom. It works, and just like that, Kiki has not only made a friend and found a place to stay, but hatched something like a business plan for herself.
The hard part for Kiki isn't figuring out what to do but a) convincing others she's worth it, and b) also learning to accept the kinds of help that only others can give. The second part is hard when most people are at first reticent at best to Rent-A-Witch for their needs. It doesn't help that once Kiki finally gets things up and running — complete with shingle, catchy slogan, and 1-800 number — her first actual paying job turns into a complete disaster. It involves ferrying a stuffed toy to a rambunctious young kid, which she loses in the forest; she ends up having to beg Jiji to substitute for it (something not listed in his job description). But somehow Kiki manages to make all well: she not only finds the missing toy and swaps Jiji for it, but along the way encounters a woman living in the forest, a painter who takes a sudden rush of inspiration from the mere sight of Kiki in her black frock.
Each chapter is more or less a self-contained adventure, but a few common characters — and more importantly, common narrative threads — bind the whole thing together. At one point a boy Kiki's age pinches Kiki's broom, puts on a witch's frock, and tries to take the broom for a ride himself, only to end up auguring headfirst down a hillside. This is Tombo, part of the local "flying club", and after Kiki gets over her indignation with him, he works up an ingenious plan to help her take home her painted portrait on her broom. (It involves balloons.) One job involves Kiki serving as the other end of a clothesline; another involves a love letter that she loses and has to recopy from memory. But each one revolves around her trying to do the right thing for the right reasons, and making a little self-discovery in the process. By the time her year is up and she returns home in triumph, she's inspired confidence in herself, in others, and among those of us reading, too.
Kiki, then and now
Rarely, if ever, do Japanese properties get retranslated from scratch. The 2003 English edition of Kiki's Delivery Service was very capably translated by Lynne E. Riggs, and even included the Akiko Hayashi illustrations that appeared in the original. Balistrieri's translation, with newly commissioned art by Yuta Onoda, seems more faithful to the original: many things elided or omitted in the original for the sake of making the translation more fluid are put back here. One good example is when Kiki first overhears her painter friend muttering to herself about the right choice of colors:
"Which shall I choose? Smoke black is ugly. What I really want is a black-cat black, the black of a witch's cat. Ah! Where will I ever find ... witch's black ... ?"
The new version restores the fact that the character is singing to herself, and gives us a versification:
The bad black is a smoky black.
The good black is a black-cat black.
But the best of all is a witch's black.
Blacks come in all different various hues,
So come on now, you have to choose.
Another example, one I'm not as certain of, is Kiki's phone number, rendered here as 1-800-KIKI-CAN. In the original version, it's 123-8181. I wonder if Balistrieri opted to rework some untranslatable pun involving the out-loud reading of the digits, or just went for something that seems more modern. But Balistrieri's choices are consistent and readable throughout, and save for the above (and only in a highly academic way) I never wondered what the original might be saying.
I've hinted throughout at how the novel and movie diverge. The Studio Ghibli film takes the book's rather episodic structure and reassembles it into a more goal-oriented story. Many of the characters also have vastly expanded or transformed roles: the painter in the forest, "Ursula" in the film, becomes a source of inspiration and sisterly affection, and Tombo becomes something like Kiki's first crush. Far more is made in the film of Kiki's ambivalences about her femininity, too: being at odds with the world for being a witch isn't just about her magic, but about the way she already feels old and out of touch with the other kids her age.
Once, on a blog called Something Old, Nothing New, the owner talked about what I guess could be called "quirk fantasy" — magic as something dialed-down, low-key, and sometimes unique in this world, Freaky Friday as opposed to Harry Potter:
... which takes the infinite possibilities of magic and puts them in a straitjacket by making them all part of some dull English public-school scene — in other words, making magic as routine and mundane as everyday life, rather than letting magic shake up our everyday world a little.
Kiki's Delivery Service is not quite that dialed-down, but it leans strongly in that direction. It's not really about how, say, Kiki's broom-riding works, although Kadono has some fun with the rigmarole Kiki goes through when she has to ride someone else's broom in a pinch. It's worldbuilding-as-personality as opposed to worldbuilding-as-architecture. The problem with overengineering any fantasy setting is that it becomes, well, engineered instead of lived in or savored. Kiki is the kind of fantasy world that seems just up the road, and so not only that much more friendly and accessible but that much more humane.