Last Wednesday marks the 30th anniversary of one of my favorite films, and the film I default to whenever twitter asks to post your favorite or just *a* film from the year you were born. Thirty looks good on us, Kiki.
Kiki’s Delivery Service is a film directed by Hayao Miyazaki through Studio Ghibli. I remember when this movie first came to the US (in 1998), my tia bought it for my cousin, whose nickname was Kiki. She’d always make us watch it to the point that I avoided it for YEARS until I revisited it again in college and I was furious at all of the wasted years I could have been internalizing the messages of this film. So while it was technically my first Ghibli film, I wasn’t cognisant of that for a while.
Kiki is a film that gets more meaningful to me the older I get and the more I struggle to get back to who I was when I was…honestly, Kiki’s age.
The premise and overall plot of this film is simple enough. Kiki, having recently turned 13, is excited to now continue the tradition of witches like her mother, who leave their home for a year in order to hone their particular skill within witchcraft. Her mother, for example, is a potion master, and is seen in the film making medicine for a neighbor. Kiki moves to a new town with only one skill–flying–and she is admittedly not even that good at it. Through some lucky encounters with kind strangers, she’s able to start up a delivery service, and deals with the ups and downs of working, and of monetizing the thing you love. Eventually, she burns out and temporarily loses her powers. It’s through friends helping her through what is essentially her art block, that she pushes through and regains her abilities just in time to use her flying to rescue a friend in danger.
If you haven’t seen it and don’t want specifics spoiled, be warned.
Because I grew up with a lot of them, I’m used to and prefer the dubs for some of the older Ghibli films. I will note that there are some lines changes and localization choices that alter the sentiment or tone of some lines between the Japanese and English. The English dubs always take some liberties extra jokes or slightly changing the tone or personality of some minor characters/lines. Jiji’s a big one in this example. Nonetheless, the dub is what is seared into my soul, and what I default to when watching this film.
So, let’s talk about watching Kiki’s Delivery Service on its 30th birthday as a 30 year old who recently started down a new largely freelance career path.
Or better yet, let’s talk about all the moments this movie made me cry on this most recent revisit, or brought me pretty damn close:
Attacked By a 13-Year-Old
I set a new record for how quickly I started tearing up, because the waterworks started like 6 minutes into the damn movie. When Kiki decides tonight is the night she’s leaving home, she asks her dad to hold her and spin her around like he did when she was younger. He laments at how quickly she’s growing up, adding that if things are too rough out there that she can always come back home.
“And come back a failure!? Bleh!” she says, sticking her tongue out in disgust.
You sweet, sweet, beautiful child.
I am simultaneously in awe of Kiki and immensely wary on her behalf at the start of the film. This is a me problem though, and not Kiki’s problem. Yes, she is naive, and that’s ok–she’s thirteen. But she is also venturing out into the real world, so I want her to be a little more cautious. That’s also 30-year-old Jen talking.
As much as this film is about Kiki, it is also about community. And I live in a country, and in a point in time that is very distrusting and cynical about the individualism that exists in the place they live. Kiki would not have gotten as far as she did had it not been for the people she met, but also they would not have been such big supporters of her if she wasn’t the optimistic, honest, hard-working, kind young woman she was.
That she already was wary of “failing” despite having no skillset or life experience outside her small town, makes me sad. We of course live in a world that looks at failures as deeply shameful and embarrassing, and not trying new things and/or solving problems.
Kiki Leaves and Immediately Crashes Into Multiple Trees
I love this scene because it’s one that I didn’t…understand for so long watching this film. And then I think once I was in college taking film classes and properly starting to observe films more, it sort of clicked. Not that this particular moment in the film is so complex that it requires film studies, merely that I was just a bit oblivious. I liked movies but I hadn’t realized how much I wasn’t aware of them. I always was just like, “Aw how cute they hung bells in their trees, maybe like wind chimes?” But at some point I realized that they were basically warning bells so her parents would know when Kiki crashed into any of the nearby. And to warn Kiki she needed to focus more.
That she does so on the night she’s leaving, causing her parents to have those worrisome faces after expressing concern multiple times is just the cherry on top.
I love this scene because Kiki doesn’t have a skill that she’s been specializing in. Her mom expresses guilt at not teaching Kiki her own. Kiki doesn’t have a clear-cut skill to build a stable life with, but she decides she wants to leave and figure things out. Older me knows this is naive, but younger me was all about this. We’re always so eager to grow up when we have no idea what adult life actually encompasses.
Her first small taste of this is when she’s flying and encounters another witch who is at the tail-end of her first year away. She seems much more mature and grown up than Kiki, and Kiki’s made insecure, and aware she doesn’t really have a specialty (this girl’s is fortune telling).
Kiki’s First Customer
While the baker Asano is the first one to help Kiki get settled, it’s their neighbor (Maki) with the white cat (Lilly) that is her first true customer.
Kiki has no marketing strategy lol. She decides she’s going to use her flying skill set and start a delivery business after a fateful encounter with Asano, realizing that flying is a skill she sort of has, but can work with. She shares this with Asano, who cuts a deal with her for some help at the bakery, and Kiki gets setup with a room, a phone, and Asano’s word of mouth to her own established customer base.
Asano has clearly been talking, because word gets out somehow and she slowly starts to see some customers.
I love this scene because she’s so excited. She’d just bought a map of the area from the store, and when the woman asks about the price, she doesn’t even know. The woman gives her an amount that Kiki excitedly reacts to. As an adult, I wonder if it was actually a high amount or if Kiki would have been excited about seeing any money.
Later in the film, we see her weighing a product and using the cash register to calculate a rate based on that and the address, so now we at least know she’s got some kind of process.
Kiki Learns Work is Work
Thus far into her career, Kiki has been met with nothing but kindness and appreciation. She returns that kindness several times over when she takes extra time to help an old woman prepare a pie that Kiki is meant to deliver.
While the setback of a broken oven makes her run late, Kiki arrives at the granddaughter’s house, who, upon seeing the herring and pumpkin pie, remarks:
“I hate Grandma’s stupid pies!” as she begrudgingly signs Kiki’s receipt book.
She takes the basket and slams the door before Kiki even has a chance to react. Dazed, she begins to leave for home, only to be caught in the heavy rainstorm.
Miyazaki addresses the sentiment perfectly in the art book:
“In her line of work, Kiki’s experience is hardly unusual. Kiki learns the hard way how naive she’s been. She thought she;s be appreciated. But that’s not how the real world works. She has to deliver the goods because she’s getting paid. You’re lucky if you have a nice client. Of course, she doesn’t say this in the movie [laughs]. I like the way the potpie girl talks. It’s very honest.”Hayao Miyazaki, The Art of Kiki’s Delivery Service, pg 118
Monetizing Your Passion
Through some more thoughtful meddling by Asano, Kiki is tricked into delivering something to her would-be-friend Tombo’s home. They have a short adventure as they bike to the beach, giving Kiki her first real laugh in a while. While sitting with Tombo, he expresses jealousy and awe at Kiki’s natural ability to fly, because lord help us if Miyazaki ever makes a film that doesn’t explore this obsession. Kiki sadly responds that she used to love flying, but ever since she started doing it as a job, she hasn’t enjoyed it.
Flying used to be fun…until I started doing it for a living.
Cue the tears!
I think this is especially something that applies for people who pursue careers in the arts, but of course applies everywhere. You spend your childhood obsessed with the thing, it becomes your passion, you probably become skilled at it and/or it becomes a big part of your identity, you likely study it in school, and you get your “dream job” doing the thing.
I know so many people like this in animation, who have the dream job at the big studio, and the last thing they want to do with their free time is look at anything to do with animation. I see that passion sucked out of so many people. Not everyone of course, but enough people. Or I see people trying to turn things they did for fun into a job and their relationship with the thing totally changes.
I’ve been very mindful of that for myself as an adult for sure. To not let bad experiences taint a thing I love, or to not take this site for example, too seriously, or else I’ll be paralyzed by perfectionism (still working on that). So this one hit home very much so for both my husband and I, as people who got into animation out of love and are doing what we can to continue to love it the deeper we get.
This was also something I was accidentally doing with hobbies. I’ve always been an arts and crafts type, but at some point in my life, I stopped doing a lot of things if I didn’t feel like I was good enough and that it wouldn’t lead to anything “more” beyond me just enjoying the thing. This is such a toxic thing, and a side effect of hustle culture and just a very uncertain time for people my age crippled with student debt, an unreachable housing market, etc.
It’s been on my mind as I navigate what I want my life and career to look like, and I’m so grateful to Kiki for being an early access point to this dialog.
Kiki Loses Her Magic
After returning home angry from her projecting her own insecurities onto Tombo, she laments to Jiji how bad she is at making friends. Jiji replies with meows instead of words. Fearfully, she grabs her broom and makes several attempts to fly, with no success. Her magic is gone. It happened so gradually that she didn’t realize it until it was too late.
My concept of ‘magic’ in this film departed from the traditional approach to magic stories. I only wanted it to be a limited talent. So at times she won’t be able to fly. It would’ve been pointless to explain, for example, how she couldn’t fly because of her fight with Tombo. I thought that girls watching this would understand the film on its own terms. We sometimes aren’t able to draw something that once game so easily. We might even forget how we learned to draw it in the first place. I really don’t know how this happens. Hayao Miyazaki, The Art of Kiki’s Delivery Service, pg 128
Burnout is real, y’all. Kiki is at her lowest low.
Ursula, a friend Kiki makes earlier in the film, is in town getting supplies. After hearing Kiki’s dilemma, she invites Kiki to tag along with her back to her cabin in the woods.
There, Kiki sees the painting Ursula’s been working on, and how Kiki was the inspiration for it. Ursula shares that it gave her trouble though, that she almost gave up on it a bunch. Ursula compares her skill as a painter with Kiki’s magic–something Miyazaki stresses a lot. That her magic is like that of an artisan or craftsman. It’s a skill that has to be honed. It’s a passion that can lead to burnout and artist’s or writer’s block.
Ursula encourages Kiki that when this happens, you don’t think about it. You do other things, since the more you think about it, the more you’ll stress about being unable to create and the problem we’ll worsen.
Understanding that, Kiki also realizes that she’d never really thought about why she flies. And yet this thing was so integral to her identity: if she can’t fly, she can’t be a witch, and if she can’t be a witch, then who is she?
Kiki: Without even thinking about it, I used to be able to fly. Now I’m trying to look inside myself and find out how I did it. But I just can’t figure it out…
Ursula: Then stop trying. Take long walks. Look at the scenery. Doze off at noon. Don’t even think about flying. And then pretty soon, you’ll be flying again.
This was the artist retreat Kiki didn’t know she needed.
She is understanding her relationship to her art. She is seeing herself as an artist, and has to further understand her relationship with her work, and how to protect herself from it. Maybe she’s recognizing that too much of her identity is tied into this thing. And not for nothing, embracing the people who have reached out to her in friendship will also help her learn about and explore new things. Ursula is already a great friend and mentor.
Ursula: When I was your age, I’d already decided to become an artist. I loved to paint so much. I’d paint all day until I fell asleep right at my easel. And then one day, for some reason, I just couldn’t paint anymore. I tried and tried, but nothing I did seemed any good. They were copies of paintings I’d seen somewhere before… and not very good copies either. I just felt like I’d lost my ability… It’s exactly the same, but then I found the answer. You see, I hadn’t figured out what or why I wanted to paint. I had to discover my own style. When you fly, you rely on what’s inside of you, don’t you?
Kiki: We fly with our spirit.
Ursula: Trusting your spirit! Yes, yes! That’s exactly what I’m talking about. That same spirit is what makes me paint and makes your friend bake. But we each need to find our own inspiration, Kiki. Sometimes it’s not easy.
Kiki: I guess I never gave much thought to why I wanted to do this. I got so caught up in all the training and stuff. Maybe I have to find my own inspiration
Does this not just slap you in the face? DOESN’T IT?
After this. she returns home and takes some time off. She decides to continue staying in the town (rather than going home) and trying to be more open to meeting people.
A Letter to Mom and Dad
A mid-credit scene has Kiki’s parents receiving a letter from her, updating them about her life. She’s honest in saying it’s not always easy, but she loves her town. Her parents can breathe a sigh of relief that Kiki has landed on her two feet.
Miyazaki mentions in the artbook how he didn’t want the climax and resolution of the film to center on her job or becoming a town celebrity, but rather leaving audiences “…with the impression that no matter how dispirited she gets…she’ll always rise above.” (pg.143)
In that vein, I also do love that there’s no antagonist in this film, nor is there really anyone explicitly mean to her.
He Made a Movie About Himself
While watching this film, it struck me that Miyazaki made a movie about being an animator. I thought, he made a movie about himself. Maybe a younger self…and to be fair, there’s an argument that all of his movies are about himself considering how much creative control and influence he has on them. Regardless, it is still clear he had artists in mind. He shares a similar sentiment in the opening of the artbook:
“The issues of independence girls have to confront now are in some ways more difficult since they must discover, develop, and then actualize their talents. There are girls, for example, who move to Tokyo hoping to pursue a career in the manga industry…One can even make a living at it. The real challenge occurs when it becomes a routine part of your life…Kiki experiences loneliness–a yearning to connect with others. She represents every girl who is drawn to the glamour of the big city but find themselves struggling with their newfound independence…today’s girls also share Kiki’s naivete and lack of awareness.”
Learning a craft like animation–any aspect of it–is extremely isolating when working on your own skill. Of course, its crucial that you build a network and learn to work on a team to create things.
Knowing Miyazaki tends to board his films straight through from beginning to end by himself, I wonder how aware he was that he was sharing these parts of himself with us. While it is based on a pre-existing work, he changed it when writing the screenplay, knowing she needed to struggle for the story to work as a film. From various readings and documentaries about him, he’s definitely someone who develops a lot in his head, and he himself has said he doesn’t actively think about messaging so much as making sure it’s entertaining, and yet he always manages both.
Failure is a natural part of the creative process. It is also temporary. These are difficult things to remember, personally. These are difficult things to accept when you’ve developed taste that your skills don’t match. When you’re online all the time being bombarded by people’s highly curated work and lives.
There are clearcut moments in my career and my artistic journey where I absolutely lost my magic. I think it’s up and disappeared right now, to be honest, and that was why my brain kept telling me to make some time to watch this film uninterrupted. It was some medicine my heart needed. And when I’d learned on twitter that that day was its 30th birthday? Talk about a sign from the universe.
I’ve had so many ups on my journey that end up being fleeting moments before I want more and strive for the next one, and so many lows that, without even realizing it, made me scared to keep trying to soar higher and higher. You remember the pain more clearly than you remember the victories. You set the bar so high in the sky that you can’t see it anymore, so what’s the point in trying to clear it? It’s like Kiki and Ursula said, one day you just forget how to do it. You hit a wall. Some times its drawing, or filming or writing. Some times it’s being creative in general and then I really feel like a failure. It’s something I still struggle with and am working through. I’m learning to trust myself again bit by bit, and get back to being that self-assured witch-in-training I was.