From San’s ecofeminist rage in Princess Mononoke (1997) to Chihiro’s unlikely but triumphant heroism in Spirited Away (2001), Hayao Miyazaki has a special gift for writing compelling female characters that resonate with people of all ages. Amongst all these noble heroines, my personal favorite is Kiki from Kiki’s Delivery Service (1989), a thirteen year old witch who moves to a new town all by herself for a year to complete her witch training. With just her radio, her mother’s old broom and her snarky talking cat named Jiji, Kiki flies away from her humble village and settles in Koriko, a seaside town, where she initially struggles to build a new life for herself, but she eventually finds her way. Kiki first meets Osono, a gentle bakery owner who offers her shelter and a job. From then on, Kiki starts her own delivery business using her flying ability and she meets people along the way, including the young artist Urusula, the kind elderly Madame and Tombo, a teenage boy who is obsessed with anything that flies. At a certain point, after overworking herself and dealing with a difficult customer, Kiki burns out, loses her powers and falls into a depressive state. After taking some time to reflect, Kiki finally retrieves her confidence and her magic again, as she becomes the town’s hero after saving Tombo from an aircraft accident. By the end, she becomes a stronger version of herself.
If I could list all of the reasons why I love Kiki’s Delivery Service, it would include the absolutely stunning animation, the big “cottagecore” vibes, the wisecracking Jiji and above all, how much this film deeply resonates with any audience. As opposed to the rest of Miyazaki’s filmography, Kiki’s Delivery Service does not have boar gods, Forest Spirits, paper Shikigami, shapeshifters, grand battles nor cathartic moments of heroism. Sure, there is a little bit of magic, after all Kiki is a witch with a cynical cat as her sidekick, but Kiki’s journey is less monumental and fantastical then it is realistic and timeless. Her journey borrows a classic coming of age structure where a person goes through a transitional phase in their life where they are forced to grow up and ultimately mature in some way. What makes Kiki’s Delivery Service so unique is that it proves how a coming of age can occur at any stage of life and that more often than not, our biggest battle is ourselves. A thirteen year old girl might watch this film and feel seen by the awkwardness of entering teenagehood while someone in their twenties, like myself, can relate to the burnout she faces after overworking herself. Most importantly, through Kiki’s highest of highs and her lowest of lows, the women in her life, Osono, Ursula and the Madame, are always there for her in different ways, proving that a female community is vital for a young woman’s coming of age.
The beginning of Kiki’s adventure is anything but smooth. On the night of her departure, she gets caught in a thunderstorm and is forced to sleep in a freight train. The following day, after deciding to complete her training in Koriko, she flies into a busy street causing a total fiasco, she almost gets arrested and she cannot afford a place to stay. Completely hopeless, Kiki crosses paths with Osono, the heartwarming owner of the charming Gütiokipänjä Bakery, who appears as the embodiment of traditional motherhood not only because she is pregnant, but also due to her caring and protective nature. When the two first meet, Osono is trying to give back the pacifier of one of her customers’ baby, and good natured Kiki volunteers to do so. Amazed by Kiki’s flying skills and her selflessness, Osono offers Kiki shelter in the bakery’s attic in exchange for her help around the store. Osono’s generosity goes beyond just that as she continuously supports the young witch by offering her basic needs to thrive, whether that be shelter, food or advice. Indeed, Osono can be seen as a motherly figure for her care but also for her wise and attentive nature: she gives Kiki the idea to start her own delivery business, she helps Kiki patch things up with Tombo following their short dispute and she takes care of Kiki during her difficult episode. Thus, Osono is the first woman that Kiki meets in this strange city who gives her a sense of security and throughout the film, she constantly reiterates this safe space for the teenager, symbolizing the eternal care and wisdom of motherhood. As Kiki leaves the nest and her own mother behind to embark on this new chapter, Osono quickly fills this role, providing Kiki a solid foundation to forge her own path.
The other woman who helps Kiki come to terms with this new phase in her life is Ursula, a recluse artist living in the woods who spends her days drawing birds. Ursula and Kiki first meet when the teenager is delivering a toy cat that looks identical to Jiji. After being attacked by a swarm of birds in the sky, she drops the toy in the woods and goes down to retrieve it, where she finds the toy, now ripped, in Ursula’s wooden cabin. Ursula, who is sitting on her roof while focusing on drawing crows, says that she will fix the toy only if Kiki cleans her cabin, and despite this banter, the two surely get along. In this scene, we get a clear portrait of Ursula’s character: a street smart, sarcastic, independent and outspoken social outcast with a bohemian lifestyle, a mind of her own and a heart of gold. With Ursula being only a few years older than Kiki, she essentially doubles as Kiki’s metaphorical sibling. This sisterly connection does not only derive from their occasional teasing, but the two also have a mutual respect and understanding for each other. In the scene where they first meet, it is evident that Kiki is fascinated with Ursula’s lifestyle while Ursula admires Kiki for living on her own at such a young age. Furthermore, their sisterly bond is even more apparent when Kiki reaches her point of distress. When Kiki is unable to fly nor understand Jiji’s words and stays in her room all day, Ursula visits her at the bakery and clearly notices that her spark, whether it be her trademark positivity or her magic, has vanished. Thus, Ursula invites the young witch to stay with her at the cabin hoping it will make her feel better. During their sleepover, Ursula tells Kiki that she too struggles with burnout and that in her case, she goes through phases of artist’s block. She tells Kiki that in order to get her powers back, she needs to take a break from working and remember what made her start the delivery service in the first place. Kiki follows this advice, which inevitably works because by the end of the film, she is able to fly again, becoming the town’s hero by saving Tombo from the falling aircraft.
To me, this scene in particular is what makes this film so special because of its straightforward and universal message. The idea of “taking things slow” is rarely discussed in children’s films and the simplicity of this advice can resonate with so many people, no matter their place in life. As for me, similar to Kiki, I would constantly try to be a people pleaser and be on everyone’s good side to the point where I would put myself and my needs on hold. On top of that, I threw myself into schoolwork and my job, eclipsing any social or personal activity, which just increased my feelings of isolation as I constantly tried to do “the right thing,” whatever that means. However, once I stopped overworking myself at school and disregarded my need to overperform, I shifted my focus onto my friends and I was slowly able to center myself back into my life. While this is an ongoing process, allowing myself to take breaks from school to focus on my friendships gave me a huge boost of confidence. Just like Kiki, I learned that relying on my community of female friends and being kinder to myself helped me, well, come of age.
Finally, the last woman in Kiki’s circle is the Madame. In fact, the Madame is a wealthy old woman who lives alone in her mansion with her maid Barsa. Kiki first encounters the Madame when she arrives at her place to pick up a delivery, but the herring pie that Kiki was supposed to deliver is not ready yet due to a problem with the electric oven. In classic Kiki nature, she helps the Madame bake the cake in an old wood-burning oven, just like she used to do with her mother. Following that, she helps the Madame with tasks around the house and the two form a solid friendship. Kiki finally delivers the pie to the Madame’s granddaughter who, to Kiki’s disappointment, is utterly spoiled and ungrateful for the gift, despite all the work and love that went into it, ultimately triggering Kiki’s depressive episode.
While Osono gives Kiki her basic necessities similar to a mother and Ursula offers Kiki advice just like an older sister would, the Madame and Kiki bond over their appreciation for more traditional and rustic activities, reflecting a grandmother-granddaughter relationship. The movie often highlights how Kiki is different from other teenagers in this town due to her embrace of traditional elements: she is a witch, an ancient and dying practice in the film’s universe, and she comes from a much smaller town than Koriko, where she is not in tune with urban trends, and clearly struggles to relate to people her own age for those reasons. This is apparent when she meets the Madame’s granddaughter and also when she encounters Tombo’s much more fashionable and intimidating friends. However, as the Madame and Kiki practice pastoral activities such as baking a herring pie, using a wood burning oven and having tea together, the Madame reassures Kiki that her traditional values, notably her identity as a witch, are valid.
Kiki’s struggle between modernity and tradition adds another layer to the film’s coming of age narrative. As she moves to a much bigger city where the lifestyle and culture is different from her own countryside upbringing, the film further emphasizes the transitional aspect that comes with growing up, especially when it comes to deciding what is worth leaving behind and what is worth taking along with you. She embraces the elements that make her unique, her identity as a witch and her rural background, but she leaves behind her self-doubt, her perfectionism and her social anxiety, in order to become the very best version of herself.
In the end, Kiki is different from the girl we saw at the beginning of the film who was laying on the grass and looking up at the sky, daydreaming of the perfect moment to leave her small town. In fact, she is now self-assured, she knows how to set boundaries and she can now listen to her gut. Kiki is so sure of herself to the point where she is at peace with not being able to understand Jiji anymore, who used to be her voice of reason. She would not have been able to come of age in this way if it were not for Osono, who gave her the essentials to blossom, Ursula, who taught her how to take things slow and Madame, who gave her a space to freely express herself. Some might say that coming of age and growing up is an individualistic process, but Kiki’s Delivery Service proves the contrary. Kiki moves to Koriko to complete her witch training and comes out of it with something more valuable: she finds a mother, a sister and a grandmother who consistently stand behind her throughout her new growth. In a world that is so focused on hyper-individualism, hustle culture and the self, Kiki’s Delivery Service gracefully reminds us that community and the idea of taking your time are the backbone of a meaningful coming of age.
“Kiki’s Delivery Service: More Relevant than Ever.” Youtube, uploaded by Noralities, 27 July 2021, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1gqc7mV-vaM&t=759s.