There is a timeless element associated with the filmography of the great Japanese animation director Hayao Miyazaki. Each of his films can be revisited like a children’s storybook as his work is overflowing with life lessons that convey new and different meanings depending on how old you are when you watch them. Yes, most of his work is known for its fantasy aspect — worlds where magic exists and otherworldly creatures inhabit them — yet they are always grounded by human elements that the audience can relate to.
One such film tells the story of a young witch. Based on the 1985 children’s fantasy novel of the same name by Eiko Kadono, Kiki’s Delivery Service is widely considered to be the director’s first coming of age film. Miyazaki’s third feature for Studio Ghibli, the company he created in 1985 (and fourth film overall, including his debut, Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind), it follows the story of a girl named Kiki, accompanied by her talking cat familiar Jiji, as she follows witch tradition and must leave her home for a year at the age of 13 to embark on her training to become a full-fledged witch.
Like many of the other female characters we encounter in Miyazaki’s filmography, Kiki is strong-willed and independent. Nurtured by caring parents, she is ready to take on the world, but leaving the shelter of her home and small-town challenges Kiki’s will as she must learn to adapt to a vast and contemporary city. From the onset of her journey, Kiki’s viewpoint and identity face challenges as she encounters another young witch who is close to finishing her one year of training. As the witch questions Kiki about whether she has a special skill set to help her make a living away from her parents, the audience begins to see seeds of doubt planted into the heart of the girl. This scene is just the beginning of where Miyazaki’s adaption diverts from the original novel, as the director leans more into the sense of loneliness and depression Kiki faces.
Once she arrives at the port city of Koriko, her home for the next year, Kiki realizes she must learn a new set of rules as the citizens aren’t easily impressed by witchcraft. To them, Kiki is a strange outsider who dresses and acts differently from them. While she seeks a place to stay and work, most people are puzzled that parents would even let a 13-year-old journey alone. Miyazaki brilliantly uses these several scenes to convey a sense of isolation and the hardship of finding a job Kiki experiences in the new city. Luckily, Osono, a friendly and very pregnant baker gives her a place to stay in exchange for help around the shop. It is here that Kiki sets up her delivery service, which brings along a new set of challenges.
Kiki’s obligation to witch tradition and society is brought into question when she meets a young painter named Ursula during one of her deliveries. Ursula is rather free-spirited and does things her way, free of tradition, something that is new to Kiki. This sense of doubt is only strengthened as she feels estranged from other kids her age. While other kids are out having fun, wearing fashionable clothing, and attending parties, Kiki is stuck working. This resentment festers when Tombo, a boy her age obsessed with aviation and therefore Kiki’s ability to fly, tries to befriend her. She often halts his advancements due to his odd sense of humor and way of life, but she slowly warms up to him.
Kiki’s frustration, depression, and loneliness result in the loss of her powers, causing her to postpone delivering packages. Losing her powers means that she can’t even confide in her cat, as she can no longer understand him. Without anyone left to really confide in, Kiki loses her sense of direction and, in effect, her strong sense of confidence. Vulnerable and unknowing of what’s to come next, she is propelled into action when Tombo’s life is shown to be in danger. Propelled into action Kiki regains her powers, saves Tombo, and is viewed in a new light by the citizens of Koriko.
As Kiki transitions from childhood to adulthood, we realize Miyazaki’s version of Kiki’s Delivery Service is a story we have all experienced or will experience in our lives. A story of learning to be independent and trusting one’s instincts. Leaving home for the first time without parental guidance can be daunting, whether it be venturing off to college, a lengthy vacation, or maybe a business trip, Miyazaki subtly conveys the sense of having to do certain things for yourself.
Often we try to honor our parents and or certain traditions of our culture despite some it feeling outdated. During the beginning of the film, we see that Kiki loves her traditional all-black witch garment, but when she realizes nobody dresses like her and as her dress becomes the center point of jokes, we see this viewpoint change. Her desire to fit in with everyone else is something we have all felt, but as she becomes confident in herself she realizes that being different is not a weakness but a strength.
Kiki’s delivery service is not only Miyazaki’s first coming of age film but an introspection of how a person views themselves in society. What Kiki feels is very real, and although her experiences are quite different from ours, they are still relatable. Having a job for the first time, learning to make a living, and balancing a social life are all things associated with adulthood, and what better way to reflect on that by watching Kiki’s Delivery Service on its 30th anniversary?