I first saw the film Kiki’s Delivery Service as a four-year-old at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. The 1989 animated film by the Japanese company Studio Ghibli had won many accolades domestically, been dubbed into English by Disney and launched onto the international film scene.
Kiki’s Delivery Service tells the story of a young witch, the eponymous Kiki, who has recently turned thirteen. By witches’ tradition, she must set off from home and ‘train’ for a year in the world. Initially, Kiki is very excited to do so and the film chronicles her move “south towards the sea” and the process of her settling into her new home. Capitalizing on her one skill (flying), she starts a delivery business, and gets into a bit of mischief along the way. This process does not always go smoothly for our heroine but she ends the film in spectacularly dramatic fashion, with many good friends in tow, including an artist, a young aviator and a pregnant baker’s wife.
I have always admired the beautiful skill of Studio Ghibli’s animation and this film is certainly no exception. The film is visually striking and features diverse scenes. From beautiful aerial scenes of the city by the sea (which looks suspiciously like Croatia), to the bustling city shots and one particularly beautiful forest vista, this film looks like a moving watercolor painting. Set in an ambiguous post WWII time period and vaguely European setting, the film uses the fairytale aesthetic while still featuring enough modern technology to be relatable.
But more than just a beautiful film, this is a beautiful story, the subtleties and nuances of which I think were lost on me upon first viewing. As a child, I could also easily understand this ‘slice of life’ storyline, but did not engage with it the way that I did with the more action-packed Disney films. I had lost touch with Kiki’s story for many years, especially with the much more glamorous Ghibli films (like Howl’s Moving Castle and Spirited Away) which gained more attention in the US during my teenage years. But I rediscovered the film by watching it for my Japanese class a couple years ago and lately this film has become much more poignant for me as a young graduate going out into the world. Re-watching this film as an ‘adult’, I have a much greater appreciation of the characters having done some growing up myself.
By other movie standards Kiki’s Delivery service may seem quite boring. As someone who was raised on a diet of Disney princess movies, it was no surprise to me that the plucky female lead would triumph against the ‘bad guys’and-but who were the bad guys here? There is no grand conspiracy against Kiki, no demons to defeat save for the ones inside of her, which slowly wear down her confidence. But the film’s realism is precisely why I find it so compelling, particularly at this point in my life and career. It depicts the transition into adulthood uncannily and does not idealize the process of going out into the world, showing Kiki’s struggles as well as her triumphs.
Kiki herself is a very realistic girl-she worries about clothes, romance and about fitting in. She is excited to finally be in the world but is slightly insecure and worried about what others think to the point that she gets in her own way of making friends. Instead of grand fight scenes, we have the time to see the everyday moments that would have been edited out of any other movie. We see Kiki at the supermarket, having spent most of her savings simply trying to eat. We see her moments of self-doubt and self-pity. We see moments of her introversion and the nadir of her confidence is a major plot point. She worries that her clothes are too plain or that she is not pretty enough to be painted-it’s almost as though the film makers tapped into my daily inner monologue.
Now that I am significantly older than Kiki, I see exactly how naive and young she really is. I can now sympathize with Kiki’s parents, worried about their daughter’s inexperience in the world and lack of marketable skills to help her carve a place for herself. Kiki starts the film bold and fearless but quickly finds out that she actually has a lot to learn in terms of dealing with authority figures, making a career path for herself and interacting with her peers, now that she has been labeled exclusively as a witch and an adult. Even though she is excited to leave the nest, I can see that in many ways she is unprepared for the life outside of her village and that there is quite a bit of luck involved in her success.
While there is always a happy ending just on the horizon, Kiki’s Delivery Service does not shy away from showing the less glamorous aspects of adulthood. The anticipation of great things to come and the anxiety of not meeting expectations. The inevitable introversion that comes with being in an unfamiliar place and the isolation of knowing you are different. Not everyone Kiki encounters is kind and she is certainly not infallible herself. Kiki succeeds through sheer determination and with quite a bit of help and inspiration from her friends along the way. Her ability to perform magic does not immediately solve all of her problems and she must work through them the way that we must all work through our own issues. Although Kiki’s Delivery Service is marketed as a children’s film, it still has much to teach those of us settling into our own new cities by the sea.