Tsunderin: Realizing that he must have hit a sweet spot with his previous small-scope, through the eyes of a child film, Miyazaki once more set forth to capture another important point in everyone’s lives through his next film, Kiki’s Delivery Service. The target this time: coming of age. It can of course be argued that Castle in the Sky was also a coming of age story, but that part of the plot was overshadowed by a larger storyline as opposed to Kiki’s. Success of such things either relies on a series of stories in which the characters have a chance to grow slowly and more robustly, or a narrow focus. Again, Miyazaki chose to go with the latter.
At the tender age of thirteen, Kiki decides to leave the comforts of her home and head off to train her skills. You see, Kiki is a witch and it’s tradition that around this age a witch leave her home and find a new town to live in for a year to hone her powers. Taking along only a radio and her cat, Jiji, Kiki heads south and eventually arrives in the port city of Koriko.
Life in Koriko starts out rough for Kiki as she bumbles around and is just generally awkward about the idea of city living. Additionally, her skills as a witch are vastly limited to the one thing she can do—fly on her broom—and even then she’s not superb at it. During her first day, after almost getting run over, arrested, and being bothered by some strange kid, she seriously considers looking for another city, but finds a home (literally) in the Gütiokipänja Bakery after helping the owner, Osono, return a pacifier back to a mother who left it behind in the bakery by accident. After this moment—and with a push from Osono and her husband—Kiki decides to put her one skill to good use and opens a delivery service.
As her stay in Koriko continues, Kiki deals with the hassles of having a job, living independently, and coming into contact with people that she just doesn’t like. Problem solving, coping, appreciation: good lessons to teach the youth of tomorrow. Kiki has her ups and downs, but she reaches her lowest low when her powers, and her confidence, disappear. This happens at the worst time, as such things are apt to do, for as she struggles to get her spirit back a dirigible that had previously been repaired on Koriko’s shores crashes into the town’s clock tower and her friend (previously mentioned bothersome strange kid) is now hanging on for dear life high above ground.
With only herself standing between her and success, Kiki manages to overcome her insecurities and negative feelings and comes to her friend’s rescue. With this, she finally makes a place for herself in Koriko and begins to relax around the others, finally coming into her own.
MadameAce: Kiki’s Delivery Service is certainly an interesting film, and like all the previous Ghibli movies, it avoids backstories. This is not our world that Kiki and the other characters live in. For all intents and purposes, it could be just like our world, with one notable difference: there are witches. Everyone knows that witches exist, and they seem more or less fascinated by and envious of them. Witches are an acceptable part of society. No one’s trying to burn them at the stake or call them evil, and there is absolutely no stigma against having them around. I’d argue that this may be because this universe has a completely different religious paradigm than our world, but God is mentioned at one point.
Furthermore, the witches themselves are based on the standard archetype we see over and over again: black robes, black cat, flying broomstick.
I’m not a fan of coming of age stories that are narrowly focused on a growing character with little else happening, and so I would say that the story suffers a little from not explaining the history behind witches and the rest of society. Like Totoro, Kiki’s Delivery Service does not have an antagonist. The drama comes from Kiki’s internal conflict. Kiki’s magic represents her self-confidence. She’s not very good at magic because she has low self-esteem. I feel as though the witches and magic were added simply to make the story more fanciful. I don’t want to suggest that the movie would have been better with some kind of Harry Potter-esque plot, or that there should have been epic battles between good and evil, but because Kiki has magic, I would have much rather seen her have to overcome something other than herself.
I’m not entirely sure where Kiki’s loss of self-confidence comes from either, and it’s never really explored in the film, which is a shame, since that’s the main conflict. She just wakes up one morning and cannot fly anymore.
Tsunderin: Unlike Ace, I do hold a special place in my heart for these kinds of stories, but I will agree that the tone of the film itself does suffer from not explaining the lore of the witches a bit more. It doesn’t seem like there are a lot of them—even that they may be dying out—but there must be enough of them that their existence is still somewhat normalized. We see one other girl like Kiki, but I guess my feelings can be summed up as, “where all da witches at?”
However, while I was a little bit perplexed by Kiki’s sudden loss of powers and such, I do think it makes sense and that it was clever, not to mention beneficial to his audience, that Miyazaki chose to show this through the idea of a witch’s magic.
As a young girl straddled with many responsibilities and without a means to allow herself to escape them—after a point, she barely listens to her radio— Kiki puts a lot of pressure on herself not only to keep up a good impression of witches, but also to be the best. But she doesn’t have something that she feels she can be the best in, so her while her demands, placed on her not only by herself but now others too, keep increasing, she had no measure by which she can consider herself successful. She feels empty, not good enough, alone. Indeed, what I think Miyazaki was trying to convey through Kiki’s loss of power was Kiki’s descent into an illness that many young people suffer: depression.
I know that many of the things Kiki feels during this movie are things that I can relate with: feeling worthless, apathetic, wanting to be around people but at the same time hating the idea of being around them. These feelings are very real and they don’t always have a reason; you can’t pick a source and say, “yes, it all stems from this!” For children though, this can be difficult to understand fully, so to connect an intangible emotion to a visual event (losing her magic) can help to explain in terms that may be better understood.
Indeed, when Kiki speaks with Osono right after being unable to fly, she states that she’s not sure if she’ll ever get her magic back because she doesn’t know what’s causing it. The same comparison can be drawn with depression: some days it feels like you may never be happy again because there’s no good reason why you’re feelings manifest the way they do, they just do.
While this movie does have a happy ending—and Kiki overcoming her loss of power with the help of her friends—I don’t believe it implies that she’ll have her powers indefinitely. There’s no reason why she wouldn’t lose her powers again, but for the moment everything is going fine. It may be a little depressing to think of the movie that way, but with no indication on how this ‘witch’s spirit’ works it’s completely within the realm of possibility.
MadameAce: I’d say one of the movie’s strongest points is the secondary characters. Because Kiki’s now in the city, she bumps into a lot of people and has to learn to live with the fact that there is a person she’s going to dislike for every person she likes. Indeed, Kiki manages to make friends, but the movie explores a lot of secondary characters, some of which we only see once or twice. What I like about all these characters is that they feel real. They all have their likes and dislikes, and they all have personalities that show through for better or for worse.
This really helps the setting. Kiki chooses to live in Koriko because it’s near the ocean, and that’s her ideal place. Unfortunately, Kiki has to realize that just because it’s her dream town, that doesn’t mean everything in it will be perfect. As mentioned earlier, her first day in Koriko she almost gets arrested. Following that, she’s unable to get a hotel room due to being a minor, because the staff doesn’t care that it’s tradition for witches to leave home at thirteen, and Kiki almost doesn’t find a place to stay for the night until going to the bakery. She also discovers that her delivery job won’t be perfect either, as she mucks up her first order and gets attacked by crows.
When everything is laid out like this and combining the fact that Kiki obviously suffers from depression, it does make sense when she loses her magic, even if I’m not a fan of the story arc or the conflict.
Tsunderin: While Kiki’s Delivery Service may spend not enough time on getting the audience to care about background information or the implications of Kiki’s year-long sabbatical, what it does end up doing it does well. Every character ends up being a fully-fledged character and while you may not exactly care what they do—seriously, who cares about that dude that owns the car?—it’s clear that they do, in fact, have lives outside of Kiki.
Once again, the scenery is gorgeous. Even though it feels as though Miyazaki harbors a type of hatred for cities and city life, the buildings carry their own personalities and help to shape the people that live among them. It should also go without saying then that the scenes in the wilderness are also skillfully rendered, but damn someone must have gotten sick and tired of drawing crows.
With that, we leave the films centered on young protagonists and finally get around to one of Takahata’s films. Are you excited? I am!