By Geoffrey Bunting
There is a cruel trick we play on ourselves in which we look at our early lives and wonder how and why we wasted so much time achieving next to nothing. This is done in an active way – living the moments and questioning our failure to produce anything – and in a passive way as we look back on wasted time in retrospect and rue its effect on our present situation. It’s a somewhat strange phenomenon in which we, fundamentally, are incapable of recognising the time we have been given and the work we have done or the time that things take. We are conditioned to believe that life moves very quickly; to develop a kind of chronic impatience, and to believe that by experiencing any kind of inertia we are, in some way, a failure. As such we expect that, through some superhuman endeavour, we should have garnered the success we’ve been working for as soon as possible. And when we naturally do not; we wonder if we ever will.
Housing prices have tripled in the last twenty years, while salaries have remained the same. University tuition has also tripled, leaving graduates in more debt than ever, while, as we move to a life subscribed, we are lumbered with so many monthly bills – bills, phones, cars, Internet, et al – that simply getting by is hard enough. So many people, crushed under these payments, are living with their parents into their late twenties that it is becoming something of an epidemic. The response to this from previous generations is simple: we’re failures.
Meanwhile, we can’t help but compare ourselves to those lucky few who do find success early. We watch as other people take opportunities we desire; people we assume don’t deserve it or haven’t worked as hard as us. We see younger people all over television, as sports stars or actors, succeeding daily, and we are filled with resentment and shame. It is easy, when faced with this kind of adversity, to fall into both bitterness and despair. So often, we want what we want so much that we make ourselves miserable in the pursuit of it. Thus, we lose the objectivity that might let us realise that there are factors at play that we might not be able to control, principally time and cost, but also that we’re not ready or may not be evolved enough yet to contain our inspirations.
In this process, it is easy for us to lose our way: we give ourselves unrealistic deadlines that, when we fail to meet them, lead us to give up on dreams; or get so taken over by our despair at our perceived failure that we simply stop working in order to indulge that despair. How many people have, due to external and internal pressures, given up on their dreams in order to fall in line with the general expectations of an ordinary life? How many people work dead-end jobs during the day and spend their nights dreaming of what could have been?
Few films have illustrated this constant battle with ourselves quite as well as Hayao Miyazaki’s Kiki’s Delivery Service. The motif of transitioning from adolescence to adulthood will be familiar to any Miyazaki viewers, with many of his films including this theme. But few films in his catalogue, and in general, have painted such a vivid picture of what our twenties look like, or told us that it’s okay to take it slow quite so elegantly.
Kiki’s Delivery Service opens with the Ghibli-typical tones of Joe Hisaishi’s theme and a thirteen year old witch Kiki, after listening to the weather report, declaring that “tonight’s the night”. Despite not having any magical specialism and being a weak flyer, Kiki leaves home to honour the tradition of young witches spending a year away to complete their training. Her leaving is full of enthusiasm and fantasies of how life will be once she leaves – it is the naivety most graduates venture into the world with.
She has one ethos that she will try to hold true to throughout her journey: “I’m going to be the very best witch I can be”. This proclamation is important. It is the phrase that constantly illustrates her struggles throughout the film, and highlights the gulf between her ability and readiness and her expectations. While we are completely aware of what this phrase should mean – that Kiki should use the abilities she does have to be the best witch she can be – Kiki constantly tries to be the best witch in general, falling into the familiar trap of comparing herself to others in the process. She has fantasies of being welcomed and immediate success, and when this doesn’t pan out she struggles to rationalise it.
Arriving in the port-city of Koriko, Kiki initially finds it difficult to find a place to stay. On hearing that she is witch, people dismiss her and we see the first signs of the dejection that will overcome her later in the film. Within the first few moments of her arriving in her new home, her fantasies are already being shattered. It is only the chance encounter with Osono, and the subsequent delivery of a forgotten pacifier to a customer, that sparks in Kiki the idea to use her already improving flying skills to start a delivery service – a service unburdened by the traffic and business of the town.
To most it might seem that flying is her only power. Whereas her mother had specialised in potion-making and the witch Kiki meets on the way to Koriko is a fortune teller, Kiki has no other specialism to speak of. She does not appear to have learned much from her mother, at least. But Kiki’s real power, the one that is highlighted most by Miyazaki, is her kindness. As such, her power really lies in being true to herself. The film’s greatest conflict comes when Kiki stops doing this; when she stops believing in the power of kindness and starts to perceive that she is neither a good enough witch nor a good enough person, and she falls into a deep depression. This manifests in the complete loss of her magical powers: she can no longer fly and she can no longer communicate with Jiji, her familiar. She feels isolated and inadequate; believing somehow that her powers were the only things that defined her. Now, craving definition and real data, she completely shuts down.
Unsure of whether her powers will ever come back, she starts to believe that her life is fundamentally over. She has lost her identity and she cannot see how she could resurrect her career. Without being Kiki the Witch, she cannot see how she can be of any use at all.
It takes a long while for Kiki to realise that her being a witch isn’t important to the people that care about her, nor is it her defining feature. Without her powers she is able to take stock, speak to her clients and friends as a normal person rather than the resident witch, and gain an important sense of perspective. Kiki realises that these people don’t like her because she is a witch, but because she is a good person. She may not be doing anything “cool” like other witches, but that doesn’t matter, because her real power is that she uses the skills at her disposal to help others.
The journey that Kiki goes through in the course of Kiki’s Delivery Service is the same as so many people in their twenties. They burst out of their formative years full of enthusiasm and excitement, perhaps from university where they may have been top of their class, and ready for what they believe will be the beginning of their real life. However, it is not long before they realise that things aren’t going to be that easy or that exciting. They soon see that their talents and ambitions are not necessarily unique, that there is more competition than they anticipated, or that they don’t actually know what to do with what they have – maybe even all of the above.
It is not uncommon in these situations to enter a kind of prolonged panic mode. If the realisation hasn’t hit before, coming upon the fact that the world is populated with an awful lot of bad people who can get in your way can leave someone reeling. Many people in their twenties find themselves isolated, losing friends, and perceiving that they are losing their powers; that their skills are fundamentally useless.
One of the most telling scenes in the film is when Kiki is held up during a delivery to a particularly spiteful girl and misses Tombo’s party. The sadness we see in Kiki; the feeling that there isn’t much good in the world at all, is bitterly relatable for anyone struggling through their twenties. In a world that tries to compress more and more into the working day, we often find that work gets in the way of the things we enjoy. It can deepen that already growing feeling of dejection that we all seem to feel nowadays.
Yet, eventually, we may begin to relax. We start to take our time and recognise that success doesn’t have to happen straight away. We see that we don’t need to let work take over and that we are not beholden to a position that is ruining our lives. More than that, we recognise that one can be successful in many ways. In the end, Kiki’s success isn’t about her delivery service, but rather that through everything she remains a good and decent person, and that she able to overcome these hardships to see the bigger picture.
At the beginning of the film, Kokori, Kiki’s mother, tells her to “follow your heart and keep smiling”. But this message is coming straight from Miyazaki. He is trying to show us that staying true to oneself is the way to success. The entire film is an illustration of how many different ways there are to achieve a kind of victory and that how we view success may be entirely wrong. While some may quantify success by how much money someone makes, the letters after their name, or their position in a company, Miyazaki sees Kiki’s kindness and how much she helps others as her success. Kiki has to learn this for herself throughout the film; to not worry about what others think and just be herself, and it’s a lesson we will all learn eventually. But we can all benefit from the occasional reminders – especially from unexpected places – that there are many ways to succeed in life.