Postcard: Tokyo

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 13 April, 2014, 3:57pm
UPDATED : Sunday, 13 April, 2014, 3:57pm

Remakes of classic films may serve a purpose, if only to steer the younger generation towards the original, but they don't often get good press.

A recent example is Takashi Shimizu's Kiki's Delivery Service, a live-action film about a young witch's eventful year in a strange city. Only 13 when she leaves her witch mother (Rie Miyazawa) and ordinary human father for her traditional witch "apprenticeship", Kiki (Fuka Koshiba) is a spunky sort, flying high and free on her broom, with only her talking black cat, Jiji, for company. But when she finally picks Koriko, a charmingly retro port, as "her city", she has to solve the mundane problems of existence, from finding a place to live to financing her year-long stay.

Fortunately, she encounters a friendly, very pregnant baker (Machiko Ono), who not only puts her up in a spare room in her shop, but suggests she start a delivery service, using her flying broom to beat the traffic. Kiki jumps at this idea and has some initial success, but she is still a stranger in a town not sure what to make of this witch in its midst. An aviation-obsessed boy, Tombo (Ryohei Hirota), takes an interest in her, but is also jealous of her power of flight. What would she do without it? And what will happen if the locals turn on her?

Based on Eiko Kadono's 1985 fantasy novel of the same title, Shimizu's film was preceded by Hayao Miyazaki's 1989 animated feature. The first major hit of Studio Ghibli, the animation house Miyazaki co-founded, the original Kiki's Delivery Service is now a beloved classic.

When I interviewed Shimizu before his film's release in Japan, the director admitted that fans and critics were going to compare his work to Miyazaki's. "His film is famous, it came first and a lot of people don't know the novel."

And every review I've seen so far, in English or Japanese, mentions Miyazaki's film, but few say Shimizu's is an improvement.

Shimizu is best known for his horror films, beginning with Ju-on: The Grudge, a 2002 hit shocker he later remade in Hollywood. His take on Kiki's story is also dark. Whereas Miyazaki's film treats Kiki's powers as an unusual gift - her artist friend Ursula compares them to a talent for painting - in Shimizu's version, Kiki becomes feared and ostracised for her witchcraft.

Also, although Miyazaki subjects Kiki to some hair-raising adventures, climaxing with a desperate air-borne rescue of her friend (or rather kind-of-a-boyfriend) Tombo from a collapsing dirigible, he also spares his viewers any sense that Kiki is in true danger. Her often-erratic flights on her magical broom are more thrilling than chilling.

By contrast, Shimizu and his CGI specialists have created more realistic dangers for Kiki, such as a terrifying ride through a raging thunderstorm to deliver a baby hippo to a kindly vet (Tadanobu Asano). They also add borderline creepy atmospherics, as when Kiki visits a witch-singer who has lost her voice and now sits brooding in her gloomy apartment.

Shimizu's aim seems to be to make a Japanese version of the Harry Potter films. At the same time, his film covers the same narrative ground as Miyazaki's animation, including Kiki's crisis of confidence when she loses the power to fly - a development that's not in Kadono's novel. In doing so, he invites comparisons, while trying not so successfully to escape them.

I suspect that if Miyazaki's film did not exist, Shimizu's would get a better reception. The 16-year-old Koshiba may not be much of an actress yet, but she has the feisty charm and youthful vulnerability needed for the role.

But Miyazaki's film does exist and it is superior in every way. With its combination of meticulously observed realism and masterfully realised fantasy, this quarter-century-old animation is still a delight to look at. It also is filled with scenes that simply, but powerfully, evoke Kiki's inner world, from the pain of her isolation to the joy of her friendships with the strong women she meets and learns from.

After watching Shimizu's oddly oppressive film, I felt a need for fresh air. And after viewing Miyazaki's feature for the first time in many years, I was stirred by memories, cleansed by tears - and reawakened to its maker's genius.

Once again, a remake has served its purpose.

Hayao Miyazaki's Kiki's Delivery Service is available on DVD and Blu-ray; Takashi Shimizu's remake opens on Thursday