© Copyright 2021 Anjali Jaikarran, Ryerson University.
One of the most important things you can do on this earth is to let people know they are not alone.
― Shannon L. Alder
Studio Ghibli is a Japanese film studio, co-founded by Hayao Miyazaki, acclaimed animator, director, screenwriter. Studio Ghibli is renowned for its charming animated feature films which showcase their strong female characters, riveting storylines, and gorgeous art style. The studio’s most popular films include My Neighbour Totoro (1988), Kiki’s Delivery Service (1989), and Spirited Away (2001) amongst many others. This essay will focus on the Ghibli film, Kiki’s Delivery Service (1989). This film is an animated fantasy film about a young witch who goes on a journey of growth and maturation. Kiki and her pet familiar, Jiji move to the town of Koriko, where Kiki undertakes newfound independence and the task of honing her magic to become an experienced witch. Studio Ghibli has allowed access to its beloved films during the pandemic through Netflix, a streaming platform for television shows and movies. The film studio’s decision has allowed the film to be revisited within new contexts. Kiki’s Delivery Service (1989) skillfully uses its unique female protagonist, captivating storylines, and elegant art style to manifest a space for comfort and healing. This film, like many Studio Ghibli films, allows its viewers to indulge in a sense of escapism and nostalgia while watching. The fantasy genre serves to further bolster these themes by creating a space that is touched by magic; the combination of these elements allows the viewer to escape from the hardships that exist within their reality. These ideas will be asserted through analyzing the themes of nostalgia and escapism in relation to the film’s storylines and art, and the way in which Kiki serves as a revolutionary depiction of a female protagonist.
Escaping to A World of Wistfulness
Escapism and nostalgia are inherent and subtle themes that run throughout Kiki’s Delivery Service (1989), they service both the film and its audience. Alistair Swale draws on two scholars’ works when discussing the themes of nostalgia and memory in one of Miyazaki’s other works, Spirited Away (2001). Susan Napier, one of the scholars with whom Swale engages, takes on a culturalist approach of nostalgia, centring it as an ‘elegaic mode’, one of the three modes that she identifies in anime (the others ‘apocalyptic’ and ‘carnivalesque’) (Swale 415). As quoted by Napier, “The elegiac mode suggests that a sense of loss, grief, and absence… often connected with an acute consciousness of a waning traditional culture” (415). Napier situates this concept as important to Japanese anime and cinema, and Miyazaki threads this mode throughout the film. The film opens with Kiki lying in the grass listening to weather reports on her father’s radio (Fig. 1.). In this scene, Kiki is first seen with a pensive look on her face, the grass is drawn and animated to indicate that it is swaying in the wind. This scene is constructed as very melancholic and is used to establish the undercurrent of escapism and nostalgia within the film. It establishes Kiki’s longing to start her journey as a young witch and create a place for herself in the world. The soft yet vibrant colours used to depict the grass and budding flowers in Fig.1., suggests an otherworldliness, a world that is untouched by evil, violence, or war.
Furthermore, Kiki’s character design in itself is very nostalgic as it shares many similarities with Disney’s very first princess, Snow White. Both Kiki and Snow White share short, dark hair, and wear similarly styled dresses with signature red bows. Disney’s Snow White (1937) was released as the world, especially the US and Canada, was recovering from the effects of the Great Depression. Tracey Mollet in her article, “‘With a smile and a song …’: Walt Disney and the Birth of the American Fairy Tale” notes that:
“…People sought deliverance from their black and white lives, filled with unemployment, hunger, and despair, hoping for escape into a colorful utopia… the story of Snow White seemed to illuminate the spirit of the 1930s like no other. Disney felt drawn to fairy tales and the ideal of a “happily ever after” through the struggles he had undergone in his own life” (Mollet 112; 113).
Kiki’s character design is likely a nod from Miyazaki, an allusion to one of the very first animated films that allowed its viewers to escape from their difficulties.
However, unlike Disney’s animated fantasy film which actively uses escapism to receive salvation from others (Snow White is saved by the dwarves and the prince). Miyazaki’s version of escapism, by contrast, is used to find comfort and companionship in others. Both Kiki and the viewer achieve this feat, the viewer through Kiki, and Kiki through the characters she meets throughout the film. For example, when Kiki loses her magical ability, she is unable to fly or talk to Jiji, and goes into a state of depression. Ursula, an acquaintance of Kiki’s, suggests that she take a break and invites Kiki to stay with her in her cabin in the woods (01:24:17-01:29:58). Ursula’s offer allows Kiki to physically escape from the place where her problems originate. The cabin and the woods symbolize a haven as it is isolated from the clamour of the city. It exudes nostalgia, offering a pastoral effect by embodying calm, beauty, and the promise of simpler times; which can be seen through Ursula collecting her water and cooking with firewood. Furthermore, Ursula shares her own struggles with Kiki, she offers this advice when Kiki admits she is not sure how to overcome her magical block, “Do nothing. Take long walks, gaze at the view, doze off at noon” (01:27:02). Ursula’s suggestions are emblematic of their location and its symbolism. What is more, is that Ursula offers Kiki comfort when she is struggling. She allows Kiki to understand that she is not alone and that there is always hope, even in her most difficult times. The effect is the same for the viewer, Kiki’s struggles allow the viewer to develop a sense of kinship with her as they root for Kiki’s ‘happily ever after’ (her ability to regain her witch’s spirit), and ultimately, their own.
Escapism and nostalgia can be immersed into films through the settings. Ruskin and Ruskin, a scholarly duo, note that “Animated films are often an art of fantasy par excellence, and Miyazaki’s work brings extraordinary imagination to this genre” (171). They go on to say that there is a stark difference between Studio Ghibli films immersed in the “imaginative fantasy genre and near-naturalism” (171). The film is set in Koriko, inspired by a European port town. A faraway town is a popular setting or trope to indicate starting anew, the addition of the port symbolizes furthering distance from past troubles; as well as the promise of a journey. Koriko is non-magical, they are immersed in normalcy and emerging technology such as aviation. Kiki, Jiji, and her mother’s old broomstick are the only magical aspects present in the town. Kiki’s very existence transforms the film from naturalist to near-naturalist; through Kiki, Miyazaki immerses fantasy and magic into the ordinary town to further reinforce the themes of escapism and nostalgia.
Miyazaki and Kiki, the Young Witch
As aforementioned, Studio Ghibli films are known for their unique image as wholesome, they depict the struggles of being human charmingly and understandably. Nina Cornyetz’s journal article, “Murakami Takashi and the Hell of Others: Sexual (in)Difference, the Eye, and the Gaze in ‘©Murakami’” discusses the nuance of otaku culture concerning notions of sex and the artist, Takashi Murakami. Murakami’s works are centred around a Lacanian perspective: the idea of the gaze and the self-awareness that comes with it, they embrace both sex and the gaze. Cornyetz references a particular installation of Murakami’s exhibit featuring two of Murakami’s characters taking part in their own sexual pleasure, Hiropon, one of the figures is characterized as a young girl who takes on maternal and sexual qualities, “Hiropon’s body hybridizes the bishôjo (beautiful little girl) figure with enormous maternal breasts and copious mother’s milk; a little girl mama, an impossibility, but what a fantasy…” (Cornyetz 183). Japan’s anime and manga are known for their hypersexualization of young girls and women. Whether or not Murakami’s work is meant to be ironic or a subversion of these tendencies, to an ordinary viewer, the image before them illuminates nothing new, merely reinforcing the predilection towards this tendency in Japanese media and artwork. As a fellow artist, Hayao Miyazaki illustrates the complete opposite within his work. Kiki, as the film’s female protagonist, is portrayed non-sexually (as are the rest of Miyazaki’s female protagonists in his later works. Focusing again on the stylistic choices of Miyazaki, Kiki is portrayed in a loose-fitting black dress and her signature red bow. This stylistic choice juxtaposes the tendency in anime and manga to depict young girls in tight blouses and short skirts. The dress draws attention away from her body, while the red bow insinuates her girlhood. Arguably, there is no need for Miyazaki to derail these tendencies by forcing a certain depiction of young female characters, however, Miyazaki intentionally frames the viewers’ gaze to remind them that characters like Kiki are still children. By firmly establishing this character as children, Miyazaki allows her characterization to shine through in the film, specifically Kiki’s identity and journey as a young witch.
Many of Hayao Miyazaki’s female protagonists are both magical and non-magical, but Kiki was Miyazaki’s first magical female protagonist. The archetype of the ‘magical girl’ is unique to Japanese cinema. The magical girl serves to shift gender norms and roles in Japanese society. The history of the ‘magical girl’ is used to construct Kiki’s character. The shift of the magical girl from the 70s to the 80s can be summed up by the following: “If the classic magical girl’s dilemma—magic as power and liberation on the one hand, and domestic duties on the other—stemmed from women’s split life across the turning point prior to marriage, these new magical girls reached an extreme by denying magic, that is, female maturity, including romance and sexuality” (Saito 1). Kiki’s Delivery Service was released in 1989, towards the end of the 80s which marked an era of the magical girl that focused on female maturity, romance, and sexuality. However, Miyazaki harkens back to the 70s (and perhaps, precedes the 90s) with constructing Kiki as a magical girl where magical girls are divided between magic as liberation and power and a young girl’s or woman’s domestic duties. Yet, Miyazaki frames magic as growth rather than power and liberation. While Kiki’s inclination towards her domestic duties (cooking her own meals and working in the bakery) is a nod to her independence during her journey rather than conformity to gender norms.
Additionally, Kumiko Saito says:
“…magical girl anime tends to solely focus on the content. mahō shōjo as a genre signifies (usually serial television) anime programs in which a nine- to fourteen-year-old ordinary girl accidentally acquires supernatural power; majokko suggests the alternative setting that the female protagonist’s superhuman power derives from her pedigree as a princess of a magical kingdom or a similar scenario” (Saito 1).
Kiki, the protagonist of the film, is a magical girl who falls under the category of majjoko. Kiki is a witch, born into a family of witches. The premise of the film revolves around how Kiki’s identity as a magical girl is used as a means to encourage growth and development. Kiki’s ability to fly with her mother’s broomstick as seen in Fig. 2., is emblematic of her identity as a witch. Notably, broomsticks are an iconic symbol of witches in popular culture. Kiki’s ability to fly symbolizes her freedom and her agency. Kiki uses the broomstick to leave home while her family and friends bid her goodbye (00:07:16), it indicates a literal and figurative departure from dependence to independence. Additionally, Kiki uses her ability to fly to make deliveries, to bring others happiness or comfort (00:45:50). Kiki’s physical symbol of escapism and nostalgia is used to bring comfort and healing to both herself and those she encounters while staying true to her role as a young girl.
Miyazaki undoubtedly crafts a spellbinding and heartwarming film in Kiki’s Delivery Service (1989). His decision to use the female protagonist, the relatable storylines, and the breathtaking art style to elicit comfort and healing through the film is both clever and revolutionary. This space of comfort and healing allows the viewer to indulge in escapism and nostalgia; the elements of fantasy that exist within the film serve to further reify these themes by creating a space that is touched by magic. Collectively, these elements allow the viewer to remove themself from their difficult reality while watching the film. It is not outlandish to say that Kiki’s Delivery Service (1989) was ahead of its time by crafting an animated children’s film with illuminating and sophisticated undertones. Both Miyazaki and Kiki use their respective magic to influence a film that avidly seeks to give to those watching it. Kiki’s Delivery Service (1989) is certainly a film that one can return to again and again, whenever the world is rainy and they are in need of a friend.
Cornyetz, Nina. “Murakami Takashi and the Hell of Others: Sexual (in)Difference, the Eye, and the Gaze in “©Murakami.” Criticism (Detroit), vol. 54, no. 2, 2012, pp. 181-195.
Kiki’s Delivery Service. Dir. by Hayao Miyazaki, Studio Ghibli, 1989.
Miyazaki, Hayao. Kiki’s Delivery Service. 1989. The Guardian, 28 November 2016, https://www.theguardian.com/stage/2016/nov/28/kikis-delivery-service-japanese-classic-christmas-show-southwark-playouse-london.
Miyazaki, Hayao. Kiki’s Delivery Service. 1989. Vulture, 27 May 2020, https://www.vulture.com/2020/05/watch-kikis-delivery-service-studio-ghibli-on-hbo-max.html.
Mollet, Tracey. ““With a Smile and a Song …”: Walt Disney and the Birth of the American Fairy Tale.” Marvels & Tales, vol. 27, no. 1, 2013, pp. 109-124.
Rustin, Michael, and Margaret Rustin. “Fantasy and Reality in Miyazaki’s Animated World.” Psychoanalysis, Culture & Society, vol. 17, no. 2, 2012, pp. 169-184.
Saito, Kumiko. “Magic, Shōjo, and Metamorphosis: Magical Girl Anime and the Challenges of Changing Gender Identities in Japanese Society.” The Journal of Asian Studies, vol. 73, no. 1, 2014, pp. 143-164.
Swale, Alistair. “Miyazaki Hayao and the Aesthetics of Imagination: Nostalgia and Memory in Spirited Away.” Asian Studies Review, vol. 39, no. 3, 2015, pp. 413-429.
“Quotes by Shannon L. Alder.” Goodreads, https://www.goodreads.com/quotes/7365095-one-of-the-most-important-things-you-can-do-on. Accessed 11 April 2011.
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