STUDIO GHIBLI’S MORAL CODE: Kiki’s Delivery Service
KIKI’S WRITER’S BLOCK AND WHY NOT TO BE THE BEST AT EVERYTHING
A guest post from H. R. Gibs
Kiki’s Delivery Service
Director: Hayao Miyazaki
Initial UK release: 18th Dec 2003
Studio Ghibli’s self-effacing adaptation of Eiko Kadano’s 1985 children’s book ‘Kiki’s Delivery Service’ remains one of the most well-loved of the studio’s works. Directed by
Hayao Miyazaki in 1989, the film received a 97% rating on Rotten Tomatoes, won every award which it was nominated for and, come 2001, stood as the best selling anime DVD in Japan.
The premise of the story is a simple magical analogy which portrays a gulf between a need for independence and reliance within teenage girls. Like most Studio Ghibli films, Kiki’s Delivery Service is easy viewing with the use of; the colour blue paramount to the film in the infinite sky and equally deep sea beneath it, the sinister navy forest and Kiki’s distinctive black-blue dress. A coming-of-age tale more about the pains of growing into oneself than any external threat. It has mass appeal and kind-hearted morals, placing it in a similar ilk but in an altogether different league to the more western Disney classics.
Kiki’s Delivery Service is set in a fascinating world
Kiki’s world is an easy one to drop into. As a young witch who has just turned thirteen, it is a tradition that she leaves her family home in search of her own town over which she will reside. The witches of this world are more benevolent guardians than threatening sorceresses. Kiki is full of self-inflated confidence as she sets off on a wobbly broomstick with her feline companion Jiji. There is the sweet sense of adventure with Kiki who gets the grips of flying easily out of her parents’ watchful eye and something so teenage about how she hangs her cassette radio from her broom handle. When Kiki meets another witch on her journey, a subtle point is made about exclusivity in this story. The surface-level interaction is short and a little chilly but it makes us very much aware of several facts; that in this world, witches are the norm and Kiki is actually perfectly ordinary in the eyes of this community. We are so surrounded by tales of exceptional beings that to follow a character who is, in the grand scheme of things, quite normal is refreshing.
Normal is interesting
Of course, normal does not have to be synonymous with uninteresting. When Kiki does find a small seaside town to call her own, she intuitively finds a place to stay as the live-in tenant to the town’s baker. What is apparent is there is no guidebook for Kiki to follow when it comes to these rituals, the test being that she must find her own way. Kiki takes this in her stride in the early moments of the film. Setting up her eponymous ‘Delivery Service’ in order to make money and to gain favour in the town, she wishes to call home. Kiki’s youthful enthusiasm for her flying ability warms people to her whilst simultaneously exhibits her naivety. Her ambition is often larger than her ability, shown through her first few deliveries when she; gets lost, crashes her broomstick, is attacked by some Hitchcock-esque birds and is late with a delivery of homemade pie. Despite these shortcomings, Kiki is a novelty as the town witch and appreciated as such.
Not like the traditional stories
Where so many western stories teach that the road to ‘success’ is through complete individuality and being the very best of a craft or trait. Kiki’s Delivery Service diverges. Kiki’s sense of self is not entirely centred on but rather central to her ability to fly. Kiki can fly because of the joy it brings her, but it is still just something she does rather than who she is. This ‘special skill’ is not seen as a means to exempt her from hard work. Kiki is depicted as the hardest working character in the film for apparently little of the reward. Having to cover bakery shifts to help pay for her accommodation. Kiki must balance shift work along with her self-run business. At one point a customer requires delivery for a large package that is so heavy that a grounded Kiki can barely lift it. She struggles with an inability to turn down any business prospects but she lacks regard for her own abilities and self-worth. Many of her deliveries are to the families of the other children in town, showcasing the clear difference between Kiki and others her age. The other children voice their disbelief at this “she’s working? At her age?”. There is a clear disparity between their possession of fashionable clothing and comfortable living and Kiki’s lack thereof. Kiki feels out of sorts in the face of budding new friendships “ I make friends, then suddenly I can’t bear to be with them”. She begins to struggle with loneliness and her constant need to work “flying was fun until I started to do it for a living”.
Over a short period of time, after a bout of sickness, she finds she is unable to lift more than a few centimetres off the ground. Seeing this as her own shortcomings as a witch, Kiki attempts to rectify her magical abilities by over-practising, symbolically snapping her broomstick in the process. Simultaneously, her loneliness becomes more palpable when she realises that she can no longer communicate with Jiji as he has found a new companion in a neighbourhood cat. The bleakness of her situation is not exactly magical in its origin but rather the result of feelings of isolation and the fear of being deemed dispensable. As Kiki sees her only value in her ability to perform her delivery service for the town’s populace. Her inability to do so renders her worthless in her own eyes, cutting a sharp critique of the capitalist work structure. In actuality Kiki’s problems are cyclical; her fever due to working overtime in poor weather and her feelings of isolation due to a lack of free time to socialise. It is true that Kiki is the town witch, but she is also a thirteen-year-old girl.
Disheartened and lonely
Traditionally in eastern story-telling, the middle of the story is where the crux of the tale lies and as much is true in this film. A disheartened Kiki is visited by her friend Ursula who lives in the woods. Previously Ursula had been introduced as a rather mysterious worldly figure during a mishap during Kiki’s first delivery. Where Kiki flusters, Ursula is relaxed and this is shown most explicitly through their opposing reactions to the forest’s rather assertive birds; Kiki panics whilst Ursula remains unfazed. To look at this as a metaphor is to suggest that Ursula, a little older and more independent has generally made peace with the things in life Kiki still struggles with. Upon their second meeting, she comes across as much less aloof and much more as the older sister role she fills throughout the remainder of the film. It is Ursula who recognises Kiki’s difficulty with performing magic as a form of writer’s block and identifies it as temporary.
Self-care routines are important
She invites the depressed Kiki to take some time away in the woods as a kind of sabbatical. Here she reveals herself to be a painter and while sketching Kiki’s portrait she comforts her young friend. Passing on her wisdom as the moral lesson of the film. Kiki confesses that “without even thinking about it, I used to be able to fly, now I can’t remember how I ever managed to do it,”. Ursula listens to her friend’s grievances, kindly offering her two solutions. “when I can’t paint, I try to paint anyway” she reveals, “that’s how I get rid of my frustrations”. When this method has little success Ursula advises to “stop [trying]; take long walks, look at the scenery, doze off at noon, don’t do a single thing”.
Work and rest in equal amounts
This on-the-nose advice comments on an overlap between work and rest that many artists struggle with. Ursula reminds Kiki that she must remember why she flies in order to rediscover her ability to do so. She must learn not to be defined by her ability. She expresses importance in self-care, as both painting and flying come from within the self. This contrasts largely to the early approach Kiki took to work as hard as she could and survive on the bare minimum. Success here looks different from the traditional as it is not a means to make more money or produce better work. But rather to remain happy and healthy in the approach to the work.
Ultimately, when Kiki needs to fly again, she finds she can. Darting to the rescue of her friend Tombo. Kiki is able to navigate flight on an old broom borrowed from an old man, proving her magic was still within her all along. With the exception of Tombo’s rescue, the stakes throughout the film are relatively low; there is no threat of death or malignant higher power nor is there an actual antagonist to the story. The impact of Kiki’s Delivery Service should not be underestimated. Inspiring countless television spin-offs and an entire book series. It played a key role in winning Kadano the Hans Christian Andersen Award in 2018. Kiki is something of a legacy.
Life is about balance
The story of Kiki’s Delivery Service is easily digested. The shifts of visual perspectives between birds’ eye and up-close town life exemplify cleverly how Kiki is feeling; whether it is in control, when her problems look and feel far away, or overwhelmed when they pile up on top of her. At the end of it all, Kiki simply returns to her work without much upheaval. She has learnt the gentle power of balance. Kiki’s Delivery Service is forgiving in its nature and nurturing in execution. Focusing on a rarely explored phenomenon of how it is important to know that one does not have to be the very best at a certain thing to do it well.
All Studio Ghibli animated films are available on Netflix UK from February 2020
About the contributor:
H. R. Gibs, also known as Hannah Gibson, is a freelance journalist based in Belfast. She can be found on twitter and Instagram: @hrgibs
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