17 March 2013

Kiki’s Delivery Service and the gently-radical imagination of Miyazaki Hayao

Warning! This post contains movie spoilers!

If I were to choose my favourite movie directors of all time, some familiar names might appear prominently on the list: Peter Weir, Paul Verhoeven, Kurosawa Akira. But the top name would not be a person associated with films in the traditional sense – Miyazaki Hayao. As an animator, though he is very well-known in the West and in China, not to mention Japan, and many people are familiar with some of the radical political themes in his work (whether ecological, feminist or socialist), I think one film of his in particular gets pretty roundly overlooked.

Kiki’s Delivery Service is not a typical Miyazaki film, in spite of the prominent themes which generally recur in Miyazaki movies (like flying). In Kiki’s Delivery Service there are no primal, elemental Shinto nature-gods warring with (or helping) humans; no legendary lost flying cities; no crypto-Christian Messianic prophecies to be fulfilled; no malign curses to be overcome – in spite of the fact that the protagonist is a witch, Kiki’s Delivery Service is a wholly human story. However, this being a Miyazaki film, there are definitely religious and mystical overtones to it (including some he himself did not intend, perhaps, since he is on record as viewing religion with a somewhat distrustful eye). The most striking thing about Kiki’s Delivery Service, though, is the imaginative way in which Miyazaki portrays human relationships and motivations, and thus begins to offer a commentary on modern economic, social and religious life.

The basic conceit of the story is that when a girl born into a witch family comes of age, she must leave her parents’ home on the night of a full moon and seek out a new town to train herself and practise her craft. We see Kiki, accompanied by her black cat familiar Jiji, leaving her parents’ home (her mother is a skilled potion-maker with a slight tendency to be distracted, causing her potions to explode) – in spite of this radically-individualist custom the witches seem to have with regard to their trade, both her parents clearly love her and wish her the best, and she is surrounded by friends and neighbours who come to see her off. This is part-and-parcel of the rural intimacy which Miyazaki uses his incredible artistic talent to portray: the beautifully-drawn brooks and dirt roads, the man on the bike, the broken old picket fence and flower garden surrounding Kiki’s home. Notably, her mother gives her her own old broom to ride on – a broom which never loses its way even in a storm, which Kiki (reluctantly) accepts: filiality and the value of the old, the established and the personal are themes which return often in the film.

There is a definite shift in tone when Kiki arrives in her new town. The rural, intimate setting of her hometown, where people know her and her family, where the old lady Dora remembers perfectly well when Kiki’s mother arrived in their town, is replaced with a huge, impersonal city. Kiki is initially enthralled with the port city Koriko with its beautiful towers and bustling streets, but she soon discovers that she can easily be brushed aside in it. She stands at a corner, asking for permission to stay there and expecting the same kind of intimate, hospitable relationship her family had with their hometown. The scene is a heart-breaker: when confronted with this girl, the people around her all give her a wide-eyed look, before trading uneasy glances with each other and then hurrying away. It’s none of their business, after all. And that before a police officer threatens to ticket her for unwittingly blocking traffic. It’s little wonder that after this experience, she ends up blowing off the one person who does show up to help her – the flight-obsessed boy Tonbo.

Koriko certainly has its saving graces, though, and plenty of them. Not just Tonbo, but the baker Osono who runs the shop “Gütiokipänjä” – who stands as a striking counterpoint to the city folk we have seen thus far. She actively cares about her customers, which we see instantly as she is trying to return a pacifier to one of her customers who left it in the shop. Kiki returns it for Osono, and Osono immediately invites her in for coffee and gives her a place to stay. When Kiki comes up with the idea of running a delivery service, Osono offers to give her the use of the bakery’s phone to start up her business, with free room and board in exchange for some part-time help in the bakery. The economics which the protagonists of Kiki’s Delivery Service engage in are not capitalist economics – Osono does not charge Kiki rent or offer her a pittance in exchange for running errands, for example – but rather mutualist economics. No thought of reward is given when Kiki offers to return the pacifier, when Osono offers her a place to stay, when Kiki offers to help around the bakery or when Osono offers the use of her phone. Certainly both Kiki and Osono are entrepreneurs, and no governing authority makes its presence obviously felt here, but they treat each other with dignity and kindness rather than trying to swindle each other – Kiki helps out in the shop, and Osono steers customers toward Kiki. Both seem to do so out of deep-seated non- (if not counter-) capitalist values: in Kiki’s case, the customs of the witches; in Osono’s case, a sense of hospitality and pride in her trade which goes well beyond the profit motive.

Kiki takes pride in her craft also, and the customs and moral values of the witches in Miyazaki’s universe continue to take on their radical bent. When making a delivery, even though she is in a rush to get off work, she still refuses to take payment when it turns out the elderly woman who requested her services does not have what she was meant to deliver: a pie for her granddaughter’s birthday. ‘I can’t take money for nothing,’ Kiki says as she helps her elderly customer build a fire for the old wood-fired bread-oven which will be used to make the pie. Miyazaki’s attitudes toward technology are somewhat on display here as well.

Miyazaki’s attitude toward technology generally seems to be a Schumacherian one: it becomes more dangerous the less it conforms to human scale. In Nausicaä of the Valley of Wind, the small torches and wind turbines, even Nausicaä’s Möwe, are placed in a sympathetic light. Anything larger, though – the airships of Pejite, the tanks of Tolmekia, not to mention the gigantic God-Warrior – is seen to provoke the wrath of the giant insects. In Castle in the Sky, the very same destructive technology of the lost city proves to be the ruin of Muska and the city itself; Lucita, the true heir to the city, warns against the use of technology for its own sake, without its natural aims and without its connexion to the earth. The same pattern seems to hold true for Kiki’s Delivery Service – though no giant insects show up as the instruments of divine wrath, the dirigible Freedom Adventurer stands in for the sort of technology which defies the human scale. It crashes into the clock tower and very nearly kills Tonbo. Even the smaller-scale technologies are treated with a sceptical eye. The elderly Madame’s microwave breaks down, and no one knows how to fix it – only a wood-fed oven can save the day. Very notably, “Gütiokipänjä” does not use electric technology; even the phone is old-fashioned. (But Kiki does use her dad’s old radio and Tonbo ends up building a pedal-powered plane.)

And even some of Miyazaki’s old class politics show up. When the Freedom Adventurer breaks its tethers and nearly kills Tonbo, Kiki has no time to bring her own broom, but must borrow the old implement of a middle-aged proletarian in a work cap and overalls – and this is the broom she is seen riding ever since. It does not seem accidental that in the end, the day is saved by this humble broom and the talents of the brave young girl riding it.

It is in exploring the nature of talent that Miyazaki treads onto the religious ground that seems to offer at least a partial underpinning for the mutualist economic and social relationships of his characters. Miyazaki, being an artist himself, seems to offer a voice for his own craft in Ursula, the barefoot young artist who lives in a cabin in the woods. Shortly after Kiki loses her powers, and is no longer capable of flight, Ursula comes to visit her. They discuss the loss of her powers, and then start talking about inspiration and the creative spirit: ‘the spirit of witches; the spirit of artists; the spirit of bakers! I suppose,’ says Ursula, ‘it must be a power given by God. Sometimes you suffer for it.’

‘In today's society… where anyone can earn money going from one temporary job to another, there is no connexion,’ Miyazaki states, ‘between financial independence and spiritual independence. In this era, poverty is not so much material as spiritual.’ It is part-and-parcel of Miyazaki’s gentle radicalism that he recognises that poverty is not just something physical – though it certainly is that also – but something spiritual as well. He is not uncaring toward views of poverty which focus on the physical aspects; this is best demonstrated by his sympathetic portrayal of the flawed Lady Eboshi (and the women of Irontown) in Princess Mononoke. But at the same time, each of his films tries to point beyond that existence.


  1. Great post. I always like to show people Miyazaki films to prove to them that Japanese animation is not just fighting robots or graphic violence or nudity. Indeed, I think Studio Ghibli is superior to Pixar, which is currently considered to be the best U.S. animation house.

  2. Thanks, John!

    Pixar has done some really great work too, some of which can be seen to have a radical, even political edge (WALL-E, for example, or UP). But Studio Ghibli really is in a class all of its own. I like to say that Ghibli is to animation what Calvin and Hobbes was to Sunday morning newspaper comics.

    Watterson and Miyazaki share some other similar traits, too - both of them are conservationists, both take pretty strikingly anti-capitalist tones in their own work, and both are notorious cranks (I mean that in the best and most endearing possible way, of course) who demand nothing but perfection from themselves.

    Also, thanks for the cross-post on your blog; much appreciated!