Hayao Miyazaki is without a doubt one of my favorite filmmakers. I can prattle on and on about his movies but I’ve always liked some more than others. For me he had two movies that I liked but just referred to them as his “delightful” movies. They were great to look at and I had fun watching them but I didn’t find much to unpack after viewing.
One of the two was Kiki’s Delivery Service (1989) but I recently had the chance to see it in a theater (in 35mm no less!) I was just going, because, honestly, I could see it for free and I love seeing actual film in a theater. But it knocked me on my ass. It touched me more than I ever thought it could.
A little background on me: last time I watched this movie I was still in high school and living at home. While the idea of striking out on my own like Kiki does at age 13 seemed very cool to me, I just thought the whole film was a pleasant A to B story without much else happening. Flash forward almost a decade later and I am in the huge new city of Los Angeles struggling to figure out my life.
Since moving to Los Angeles, I have been struggling to make ends meet let alone have a social life. I find this city to be a very hard place for an introvert such as myself and don’t find too many people willing to talk to me. This is also the plot of Kiki’s Delivery Service and boy does it speak to me now.
In Kiki’s witch culture, it is common practice for young witches to move away from home, choose a new town and utilize their special talent. This essentially becomes their job and the reason they get to live in a town on their own. For instance, Kiki’s mother makes potions and the young witch who Kiki meets on her travels reads fortunes. Interestingly, Kiki leaves home without really thinking about what her talent is, and is forced to pick flying as her talent. While this is cool for the average bystander, flying is just a given talent to every witch. Kiki isn’t even that great at flying as she crashes every time she takes to the sky. This becomes a point of sadness for Kiki and she doesn’t even feel like a good witch.
Adding onto her newfound moving depression, most people in her new town react coldly or just flat out ignore her. She stills feels very shy around Osono and Tombo, the only people who treat her warmly off the bat. Kiki runs and hides from Osono’s husband in the morning because she is too nervous to speak to him despite giving her a free place to stay at. Tombo, a boy her age, tries desperately to get Kiki involved with his life but Kiki pulls away because she feels embarrassed about herself.
The honesty Miyazaki uses to show the hardship of meeting new people in a city caught me extremely off guard. Having struggled to make new friends in Los Angeles, I found myself getting way too involved in Kiki’s struggle. I, too, find ways to leave hangouts or conversations because I am afraid to open up. In a scene with which I particularly identify, Kiki finally hangs out with Tombo and has a wonderful time. The mood gets spoiled when Tombo runs into his friends and invites them to hang out with Kiki. This straight up scares Kiki away because she was just getting used to one person and doesn’t have the energy or confidence to meet more new people that day. I’ve often had to cancel plans because I felt way too drained to socialize with new people and it feels pretty shitty.
This drives Kiki into a deep depression causing her to lose her magic, which can be read as her own self esteem. She even loses the ability to speak with her cat familiar Jiji, her only connection to her old home life. Trying to find steady employment for months has left me in a state similar to Kiki. My confidence wanes and I find myself feeling lower than I have in a long time. Even my oldest friends sometimes feel the most distant. It’s a horrible, paradoxical feeling when you want to be alone but also want some attention. While this emotion is difficult to describe or communicate in real life, Kiki’s Delivery Service really hits the nail on the head.
What I really appreciate most about this movie is that it doesn’t tell the viewer that depression is a bad thing. Much like Pixar’s recent film Inside Out (2015), Miyazaki tells the viewer that sadness is a regular part of one’s life and it is needed. Ursula, a hermit-like artist who lives in the forest, helps Kiki put her depression in perspective when she says, “We each need to find our own inspiration, Kiki. Sometimes it’s not easy.” She explains it’s okay to go through these periods and everyone from artists, bakers, and even witches will be unsure of themselves from time to time. Difficult moments will always be a part of one’s life, but one can work through them and learn from the experience.
In the end, Kiki is challenged to act when her friend Tombo is swept away by a runaway zeppelin. In order to save him she must search inside herself and find her ability to fly. And while the movie ends with her regaining her confidence and saving the day, that’s not what is important. Kiki still isn’t the best at flying, she still crashes every time she takes off. Hell, she hasn’t even beat her depression fully. After the credits, Kiki finally writes her parents a letter. In it she expresses that while she is finally enjoying being part of the town and has regained a lot of her confidence, she still has her sad moments. Basically, while ending on a high note, the film doesn’t sugar coat the ongoing challenges of her new life.
All together the film helped me put into words the feelings that have been building up inside of me since my move. It gave me some hope and reminded me that I’m doing okay even when I’m failing. While I still have some problems with the film, it has become so much more to me than I initially thought. This is one of those experiences that I couldn’t fully appreciate when I was younger, but can now see in a whole new light.