Kiki’s Delivery Service was a film from Studio Ghibli’s extensive library I came late to, largely because (much like The Cat Returns), I was not familiar with what it was about and so had little immediate interest. In many ways, coming to it after having watched series that could be claimed to draw on its positive approach to the world – like Aria – proved a benefit, for it provided the same kinds of ideas from a purer, more innocent perspective and considering how this was different was interesting. Aria, as I have mentioned in previous articles on the subject of these iyashikei animé (a term generally meaning “healing” or optimistic fiction), presents a world with no scarcity of resources or leisure time, in which society is free to work at whatever it likes and industry has returned – under the guidance of space-age super-technology to provide essentials – to craft industries and small-scale local businesses.
Essentially, Aria posited that society could combine the most desirable – and most readily remembered – aspects of the past with the benefits of modern life in an utopian future. With a basic premise that the needs of the people could be met without any conflict or worry, life could become idyllic. It is a concept that could only work in science-fiction, and what can be taken from it is a similarly idealistic view of a society where there is opportunity for everyone and prosperity even for those doing “lesser” jobs. That Kiki manages to be similarly uplifting while grounding itself in a very different pseudo-science-fiction world (an imagined 20th century with magic and slightly improbable technology) is particularly impressive. Both works focus on a young girl entering a new life of work and treats employment as a marker of adulthood – Akari in Aria is training to become a tour-guide, while Kiki in Kiki’s Delivery Service is of an age where she must leave home and find her own work based on her skills. There is a similar naivete and inexperience about both characters – they are both uncertain about the future and find the outside world to be forbidding – yet while for Akari this wide-eyed naivete is a defining character trait that is not so much tempered by education but transformed into aptitude, Kiki’s journey is most definitely one of maturation. Her circumstances are significantly different – she leaves home at a very young age because it is “traditional” in her society, and enters a world which seems to have modernised from the more rural one introduced in the opening. The expectation is that, as a witch, she will fulfil the usual roles expected of one – potion-making, or simple hedge-magic – yet she enters a world where science and technology rule and even in her eventual employment as a delivery-girl she is doing a job where a technological alternative exists in the postal service. Yet what differentiates her job from the technological alternatives is the emphasis of an apparently forgotten personal aspect – almost a predating of the ascetic scientism of the real modern day. This can be read as a trite progress-versus-tradition narrative – the story ends with Kiki resolving her crisis of faith and loss of magical power at the last minute to save her friend as all modern-day efforts have failed, rounding off a story that began with the city presented as too busy with its modern way of life to have time for a child trying to find her way – but such a reading is too negative for such a generally progressive and positive work.
The film’s message is not specifically didactic; the emphasis is not to make the viewer feel bad about the pace of modern life. Instead it emphasises – much as Aria does, made much later – that there is room for tradition even in the modern world and that modernity must embrace the best parts of tradition via a far more pleasant narrative. Rather than condemning the modern world for not finding the time to relax or for being too impersonal, it instead shows that these defined kinds of “goodness” and magnanimity still exist and can be found even in the unlikeliest of places. Kiki is not standing for an absent kind of goodness in society, but rather standing as an example of how that kind of personality and pleasantness can be found even in a society that is outwardly pre-occupied. Rather than seeking to correct, it reassures, and that is ultimately what makes Kiki such a relatable protagonist – she is not shown as exceptional or outstanding but instead as the epitome of the desirable status quo – an attainable role model. Her magic powers are immaterial in the grand scheme of things, because her story is instead one about the importance of finding the “right” job and always being a selfless and pleasant person. Put this way, any corrective message – about the need to be friendlier or closer as a community – becomes far more attainable. All it requires is a different approach to work and life that is nevertheless not far removed from the norm. Here a child protagonist works well – not so much as an insufferable beacon of self-righteousness in an “adult” world as might be expected but as evidence that one can teach others to change subtly. Kiki has been raised to believe her personal, personable way of life is the norm – and reminds others of this.
Thus while it can be argued that Kiki, like many Ghibli films, has an undercurrent of traditionalism and even agrarianism running through it – and the climactic airship chase in which magic outdoes technology is very much a sign of this – to obsess too much over this reading in adult terms is missing the much more universal positive message of the film. An adult may cynically read a message from the imagery of the film that society is too busy to care and the modern world is hostile, placing pressure on children too young. This reading is justifiable yet also not useful; consider it instead from a child’s perspective (as ultimately is fitting, given it is a family film with a child heroine). Kiki bonds with Jeff initially over a machine – his bicycle. She begins the film listening to the radio, and takes it with her as a memento. She does not have the preconception of technology, coming into the city from the country, that supports this entirely traditionalist reading of her as a character. Instead, she brings a very positive worldview – that one should do the best at what one is good at, and find time for others – and in her interactions with different characters such as the two old women or the artist Ursula has this belief reaffirmed by confirming the existence of others that share it. The message is not “the world is uncaring and self-obsessed” but that some people are, but many are not.