Kiki’s Delivery Service (1989)
Written & Directed by Hayao Miyazaki
Japan often remixes Euro-American fantasy tropes to create incredibly different contexts and characters. This is done with traditional Western witches in Kiki’s Delivery Service. The black cats and flying brooms are here, but the context is changed so that being a witch is passed down from mother to daughter. There are no wicked witches here; instead, the women serve as community healers and advice-givers. This does tie into the Japanese folklore of tsukimono-suji (hereditary witches), but the iconography is most definitely the classic Western culture witch.
Kiki is thirteen and decides it is finally time for her to leave home and beginning her training period as a witch. Accompanied by her black cat Jiji, whom only she can speak to and understand, Kiki flies far from home, ending up in the sprawling port city of Koriko. A chance encounter leads the young witch to board with a kindly baker, Osono, and her husband. Kiki finds she makes a wonderful delivery girl and uses her ability to fly on a broom to travel above the land and drop off all sorts of packages. Tombo, a local boy, has a crush on Kiki and keeps inviting her to his flying club despite her ignoring him. Without warning, Kiki loses her witch abilities and must find the strength within herself to recapture that lost magic.
Kiki’s Delivery Service is most obviously a film about growing up and becoming an adult. The protagonist struggles right away when she moves from home, intimidated by how others in her position already seem to have it together and are being successful. To make ends meet, Kiki has to find a job, discover her place in a new community, and make sure she takes care of herself physically and mentally. The whole picture is a meditation on what Miyazaki experienced or saw young adults going through when making those first steps into life. Kiki struggles with anxiety and self-isolation almost right away in Koriko. She wants to stand out and make a name for herself, but she also doesn’t want to be seen as odd.
That self-doubt is ultimately the culprit of Kiki’s loss of power, connecting her witch hood as something partially inherited but still dependent on the person’s inner light. Kiki struggles with tradition throughout the movie, knowing that her people traditionally wear black but throwing in a flashy red ribbon to differentiate herself. Miyazaki doesn’t frame these low moments as evil; instead, they are part of growing up. People who never encounter challenges in their development won’t as fully come into their own as those who struggle to an extent, particularly with that inner conflict. Kiki’s obstacles are not villains and external threats but emotions and the psyche. Miyazaki has expressed how important it was that witches in this world be shown not as people above the rest of humanity, but a profession devoted to helping their fellow humans with their magical gifts.
Miyazaki honestly seems to treasure young people who act independently against the old traditions and systems in place. As seen in Totoro, he sees ancient respect of the natural world as essential but modern urban life as a real nuisance to personal development. In Nausicaa, we glimpse the extreme ends, near annihilation of humanity, saved at the last moment by a young female hero who acts outside of the structures in place. Kiki is very similar even though she isn’t fighting evil armies or giant insects. Instead, Kiki has to confront her perception of how others see her. She’s always worried about being seen as a failure for making honest mistakes. It’s only when she glimpses past those minor flubs that she finds a strength to use her magical powers to save the day.
In this film, Miyazaki almost presciently spoke to the high anxieties experienced by some millennials and so many zoomers in reaction to modern life. Becoming an adult in a world already constructed and arranged can be exceedingly tricky. Western culture doesn’t have rites of passage any longer to help young people develop a new way of thinking more easily. Instead, children are shuffled through illogical and abstracted systems whose focus is on mass-producing “good workers,” not “strong, intelligent people.” When young people take the reins and focus their minds on becoming who they want to be regardless of what the cities around them demand, they truly soar.