(Every month, we at The Spool select a Filmmaker of the Month, honoring the life and works of influential auteurs with a singular voice, for good or ill. For the month of May, we’re taking a deep dive into the lively, humanist wonders of one of animation’s greatest voices, Hayao Miyazaki. Keep up with the rest of May’s Filmmaker of the Month coverage here.)
Question: if a Hayao Miyazaki film can be easily classified, is it still a Miyazaki film? Likewise, you could make a good case that Kiki’s Delivery Service technically falls into the category of magical realism, but it would fail to do justice to the complexity of what Miyazaki achieves in the story of the coming of age of a 13-year-old witch named Kiki. Eiko Kadono, the 83-year-old writer of the original Kiki books, described them thusly: “It’s all about this kid getting to fly with her own magic.” In that respect, Miyazaki’s adaptation succeeds mightily.
Kiki’s Delivery Service is actually one of Studio Ghibli’s more simplistic films. At no point will Kiki travel to another world or battle against evil, or really any external foe. All Kiki’s struggles are deeply relatable ones which involve her finding her place in the world as she follows in the footsteps of witches before her, who are expected to leave home for a year once they turn 13 and live on their own in another city.
In this world, planes, trucks, and televisions exist side by side with magic, with Kiki using a broom to fly around. When she eventually lands in the beautiful seaside town she decides to make her new home, she arrives by both modern and magical means. A train she takes shelter in during a rainstorm conveys her part of the way, while the rest of her journey is completed via an old broom that was handed down to her, rather than the new one she made herself.
People are amazed and startled by her flying abilities, but are apparently aware of witches even while they’re clearly unused to seeing them in the flesh. Kiki’s powers are no cause for persecution, and they’re not exactly what isolates her. What creates conflict is modernity, just not in the way it usually does.
It is not the loss of traditions that Miyazaki gently mourns in Kiki’s Delivery Service. Rather, it is a loss of respect for tradition itself, and the elderly who are the living reminders of them. Kiki respects the elders around her and often prefers older technology, such as wood-burning stoves to electric ones. In contrast, many other young people her age think about little beyond their own pleasures and are sometimes outright disdainful of anyone outside their circle.
Kiki’s only friend her age is Tombo, a boy obsessed with aviation and is also somewhat of an anomaly among his circle of friends. Kiki can’t afford the trappings of modern femininity and feels out of place in the simple black garb that is the standard dress code for witches. Not to mention that her work often has her basically running errands for her more privileged peers.
It is not the loss of traditions that Miyazaki gently mourns in Kiki’s Delivery Service. Rather, it is a loss of respect for tradition itself,
Small wonder then that the people Kiki feels closest to are mostly older – from the kindly, heavily pregnant baker Osono, who gives Kiki a place to live in the attic above the bakery and helps her start her delivery service, an elderly woman for whom she becomes a kind of surrogate granddaughter, and Ursula, a painter who helps Kiki overcome her painful struggles once her business becomes a success.
In an especially modern twist, Kiki stops taking pleasure in flying once she starts making a good living from it, and is thrown into a metaphorical tailspin (rather than the literal ones she’s used to), struggling to discover how she accomplished something that was once so effortless for her. “Flying used to be fun until I started doing it for a living,” she muses.
In a film where artistry and magic have much in common, it is Ursula who is able to help Kiki continue to see the beauty in herself and the world, encouraging her to find the inspiration to do what she loves. Even the crows who once obeyed witches, and have little love for Kiki, seem to obey Ursula.
Such insight on various obstacles in finding and coping with success has certainly given Kiki’s Delivery Service a long shelf life. It has a special place for millennials who grew up with the film and enjoyed its kid-friendly humor and can appreciate it even more for its insights on balancing work and creativity.
By the end, Kiki has not only found that balance, but she’s also created a warm, supportive community all her own, and not just among the people she knows. During the end credits, Kiki sees a young girl walking by in a dress and bow just like hers, complete with a tiny broom. In this way, Kiki has given girls another way to express themselves and a whole new set of aspirations. She’s achieved the artistic dream, not only finding a way to fly higher but encouraging others to do so as well.