Continuing lessons on living from the animation maestro’s oeuvre
Previous life lessons:
Part 1: LUPIN III — THE CASTLE OF CAGLIOSTRO
Part 2: NAUSICAÄ OF THE VALLEY OF THE WIND
Part 3: CASTLE IN THE SKY
Part 4: MY NEIGHBOR TOTORO
Welcome back to our continuing series on “Living With Miyazaki,” as we examine the lessons one can take from his various films through their recurring motifs and varied approaches. After the massive success of My Neighbor Totoro, Hayao Miyazaki turned his energies to his first adaptation of someone else’s work since Castle of Cagliostro, this time bringing the full weight of Studio Ghibli’s animated magic to author Eiko Kadono’s tale of a young witch-in-training’s misadventures in the big city.
THE MOVIE: Kiki’s Delivery Service
Kiki’s Delivery Service begins in a moment of tranquility, perhaps the only one the titular fledgling witch will experience for the remainder of the running time. When we meet her, Kiki is lying in long grass while a gentle breeze stirs the long blades all around her. Fluffy white clouds drift across a bright blue sky while a song plays softly on a nearby radio.
It’s Kiki herself who shatters this idyll with her impulsive decision to set off that very night and begin her year-long training (we’re told that this sort of working Rumspringa is a tradition for young witches, but otherwise the rules and history of magic in this world are deliberately vague and unimportant). The moment Kiki makes her choice, she becomes a flurry of energy, motion, and single-minded purpose, no matter how much cooler adult heads prevail upon her to slow down, reconsider, take her time.
Kiki doesn’t want to slow down. The world of adulthood and all the independence and adventure that adulthood represents are irresistible, and, anyway, Kiki isn’t interested in resisting.
For the rest of the film, Kiki will never once experience a moment even half as calm as the one she so easily throws away in the opening frames. Adulthood, Miyazaki informs his young audience and affirms to his older one, does not afford one many opportunities to simply lay about on a lovely morning and listen to the wind.
Like My Neighbor Totoro, Kiki’s Delivery Service is functionally plotless. There is no central threat or mission that Kiki needs to complete. No ticking clock tick-tocking down to zero. There is no villain who shows up to derail the proceedings. Instead, the movie largely consists of self-contained episodes that all progress at a naturalistic pace to illustrate how simple tasks go astray. No matter how easy the task, there are inevitably complications, and the solutions to those complications only makes things even more complicated, leading to more solutions which beget more problems. For Kiki, the consequences often manifest not in magic, but in the basic banalities of young life, a blend of realities that still feels distinctive even decades after the movie’s release.
I mean, there are countless movies about young witches and/or wizards coming of age, but how many of them feature a scene where the pubescent magic user goes to the grocery store and frets over how expensive everything is? Kiki can fly around on a broomstick and talk to her black cat, Jiji, but she can’t magic her way around a freelancer’s limited budget.
At every turn, the film underlines just how complex and difficult it can be to navigate the adult world, especially when you are just starting out, and especially-especially when you are largely on your own. Miyazaki even stacks the deck in Kiki’s favor by surrounding her with an ensemble of kind and helpful adults who go out of their way to support the little witch in her efforts. But even with lucky breaks, even with consistent positive reinforcement, Kiki’s progress remains stuck in a loop of two steps forward and one step back.
In one of the film’s more casually devastating episodes, Kiki volunteers her time and energy to help a customer, a nice old lady, make a special pie for the lady’s granddaughter. For her efforts, Kiki not only misses a date with a lovelorn acquaintance, she also gets stuck out in a torrential downpour, resulting in a nasty cold that leaves her bedridden. And for all that, when she does finally deliver that precious pie, the granddaughter dumps it, unseen and untasted. No cruelty was intended, but the effect is shattering on Kiki.
Later in the film, Miyazaki draws a one-to-one comparison between Kiki’s magic and artistic gifts, via the amiable painter Ursula who takes Kiki under her sisterly wing during a low moment. With this connection made explicit, it’s easy to equate Kiki’s sudden loss of her abilities for flight and speaking with Jiji with writer’s block, painter’s block, with any sudden stagnation of creative willpower and energy.
We live in a moment that is still very much at the beginning of the conversation around burnout and the psychological impact of monetizing our hobbies. The ever-present need for a “side-hustle”, if not multiple, means that people turn the things they do after-work for fun into things they do after work to earn extra money, which means that suddenly work is the end-all be-all of every waking moment.
If there’s a fiduciary consideration to every single thing you do, then there’s no room for art and creativity for their own sake. No room for experimentation, for pleasantly wasted time and mental holidays. We’ve built a culture that sees a young girl lying in the grass, studying the arcs of clouds, and demands to know why she isn’t making better use of her time.
It’s Ursula who comes to Kiki’s rescue by speaking with her, not as a customer or even as a friend, but as one artist to another. Ursula equates Kiki’s lost magic with her own bouts of creative blockage, periods of utter frustration where a power that once seemed totally innate and intuitive suddenly becomes something foreign, abstract, unobtainable. Ursula’s advice on the matter (don’t stress, take a mental breather, trust that the talent will come back on its own time) holds true for any creative field.
Ursula likens herself and her painting not only to Kiki and her magic, but to bakers with their baking, with anyone tilting away at the mysteries of creation. In conversation with Kiki, Ursula expresses the double-edged sword of creativity: It’s a gift from God, and it’s also an awful burden.
Adulthood, Kiki’s Delivery Service reminds us, isn’t about circumventing one half of that equation. It’s about making peace with the balance of a gift and a burden. Kiki ends the film having regained her ability to fly, but tempered with an understanding that frustration and depression are part of her life now, and will remain so going forward.
We’ll all face similar hardships in whatever fields we dedicate ourselves to, and there will assuredly be times when all we want to do is face-flop onto bed and refuse to come out until the world figures its crap out. Kiki’s Delivery Service fully empathizes with the feeling. But it also serves to remind us that no matter how maddening and/or demoralizing daily life can be, however much we might feel worn down to the barest nub, if we can find it in ourselves to have faith in other people and in our own talents, whatever they might be, then no matter what this life throws at us, we will always find a way to soar again.
Next up, we take to the sky’s once more with the Crimson Pig: Porco Rosso