Thoughts On: Kiki’s Delivery Service (魔女の宅急便, 1989)
After coming of age, a young witch ventures to find her place in a new city.
Kiki’s Delivery Service is a simple, yet heart-warming tale from Studio Ghibli that was the first to be distributed in partnership with Disney. The aesthetic approach taken in this film is predominantly a showcase of classical near-realist animation that is similar to that seen in Castle In The Sky (especially with the capturing of European landscape and architecture) and so may have been recognisable to Western audiences as a product of the ‘Japanese Disney’ (which Studio Ghibli is so much more than). There is nonetheless a strong sense of the elements – especially the wind and the weight of gravity – throughout Kiki’s Delivery Service that clearly mark this as a uniquely Ghibli film. Furthermore, there are common tropes of Japanese anime, such as the mahō shōjo, the magic girl, integrated into this story that are strongly bound to the film’s cultural context. So though, aesthetically and commercially, Kiki’s Delivery Service feels somewhat Disney-esque, this has an overt Ghibli stamp of quality and character.
Looking at the narrative of Kiki’s Delivery Service, we can see one of the most prominent Ghibli tropes executed in almost iconic fashion: the strong female protagonist. In many ways, this film is aimed almost solely towards young girls as a tale of independence and growth. And we see this articulated through numerous female figures, female-centric themes of freedom and meaning and, as attached to this, symbols of femininity such as pregnancy, birds and flight.
Superseding almost everything concerning femininity and drama in this film, however, is subtlety. In iconic female, or feminist, films, for example, Thelma and Louise, physical conflict is emphasised as to comment on the strengths of women in juxtaposition to the portrayal of the strong man; he who can fight off a 100 bad guys at once. This is a trope that is becoming increasing more familiar when we look to modern American blockbusters such as Avengers, Logan, Star Wars and Mad Max: Fury Road that sell the idea that ‘women can kick ass too’. Contrasting Kiki’s Delivery Service to these male films with females carved into them leaves Miyazaki’s narrative with an overwhelming sense of genuity that the mentioned films (and many of those alike) lack. And this sentiment is true of the multiple levels of Kiki’s Delivery Service, from the formal to the aesthetic to the narrative to the subtextual. Manifested at each of these levels of analysis is a natural and genuine sense of femininity and conflict. And it is this that lies at the heart of this narrative’s affecting abilities; there is no sense of manipulation, only story.
The story that is told with this wonderfully natural tone is one of discovering how to become a unified, functional adult. In such, this narrative sees Kiki go out into the world and act as the best person she can possibly be; she sacrifices her time and energy for others and in turn finds a place in a new community – and this point is made with contrast to the many ‘stuck up’ girls Kiki encounters. Kiki’s journey to sustain this higher being is detailed through the founding of her Delivery Service with her witchcraft seemingly representing naivety. We can come to understand Kiki’s powers as deriving from childishness because of the joy they represent and the imagination that they project; consider flying as a joyous act and talking to her cat as almost having an imaginary friend. But, what we see as Kiki’s powers become a functional job is her abilities beginning to wane. In such, she not only loses the ability to fly, but her talking cat becomes a normal cat.
At this point the her three mentors, one young, one middle-aged and one old, become more significant. In such, Onso, the pregnant baker, comes to represent responsibility and her job; Ursula, the young artist, comes to represent self-discovery and independence; and Madame, the elderly lady, selflessness and compassion. These are three traits that Kiki bares from the start of the narrative, but once she finds her stable job, she becomes fatigued in these respects. These three figures then teach her how to be taken care of – Onso looks after the sick Kiki – how to desire – Ursula and Onso seemingly spark Kiki’s interest in Tombo – and how to accept payment for ones work – not only is Kiki payed by her mentors, but she gains friendship and care.
Having learned these things, of the social push and pull, give and take, of her core personality traits, Kiki’s fatigue begins to wear away. However, she can only again fly when she has to save Tombo. This act of accepting another’s compassion, of following ones own moral compass and risking oneself signify Kiki’s growth and unification as an individual because she realises that who she is is not trapped within the domain of her own body and mind. What Kiki learns by the end of her story is that, to become an adult, one needs to split their being into other people and thus live with their community, friends and family as horcruxes, or soul containers, of their true being.
This conception of one’s self as fragmented amongst others is a profound and classical idea that mirrors the notion that true social living is about sacrificial acts forming a network of exchange; if we give our time and energy to deliver someone’s mail, we nurture an environment in which everyone, in a way and to varying degrees of intensity and distance, takes care of one another. What adds greater depth to this assertion of Kiki’s Delivery Service’s narrative is the fact that a symbol of naivety – flight – is returned to Kiki once she has learned this whilst she remains deaf to her talking cat. What this suggests is that naivety is a gift and a reprieve that we must earn by sacrificing ourselves to preserve someone else’s naivety whilst an over-active imagination is a kind of childishness that will not support a practical (non-artistic) person. After all, the complete opposite of naivety is hyper-awareness, or over-imagining, which leads to anxiety, dread and stagnation. Such an idea is referenced through Kiki losing her powers; she is overwhelmed by the reality she perceives as a new adult and stumbles into an artistic or spiritual block. This is because she hasn’t yet fully accepted the give of the ‘give and take’ societal structure around her and so only sees the demands of society, not its charity.
Once Kiki naively blocks the looming existential vacuum that is being (which can be defined as consciously and slowly dying once we pass our prime or enter adulthood), she not only realises greater meaning in life as attached to friends and family, but can enjoy being. And such is one of the greatest tricks our minds play; we forget the dangers and potential disasters of being itself and manage to live fulfilling, joyous lives (when we don’t stop for a moment with fear, depression and anxiety).
In capturing and articulating this beautiful and melancholic truth, Kiki’s Delivery Service transcends the average coming-of-age film by not focusing on the winding path that a pre-adult must walk, but the ultimate goal before their eyes. Moreover, this narrative transforms the idea of being a witch, almost as Dreyer does with Day Of Wrath, giving new meaning to ‘selling your soul’. If you have not seen this film, I then wholeheartedly recommend it. If you have, what are your thoughts on all we’ve talked about?
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