The Modern-Day Maturity of ‘Kiki’s Delivery Service’

How does an animated Japanese fantasy film made in 1989 help us understand the anxieties of young artists today?
Kiki's Delivery Service
By  · Published on April 19th, 2018

How does an animated Japanese fantasy film made in 1989 help us understand the anxieties of young artists today?

If you first watched the 1989 Hayao Miyazaki animated feature Kiki’s Delivery Service (its English dub was released ten years later in 1998) while growing up, your impression of the film is likely tinged with childhood nostalgia. It’s a vibrant, imaginative tale about a 13-year-old fledgling witch named Kiki, yet the story is far from a purely escapist fantasy — in fact, Kiki’s struggle to make a living while also honing her magical talents feels like a surprisingly apt metaphor for the lives of young people pursuing creative careers today.

A recent video from ScreenPrism shows us exactly how Kiki’s Delivery Service offers an empathic, oddly prescient take on the experience of the so-called “millennial starving artist.” Kiki, a young broomstick-wielding witch trying to make it on her own in the big city, is a clearly fantastic character — yet the circumstances of her life are exceptionally grounded. Rather than being a natural whiz at magic, she visibly struggles with flying and constantly doubts herself for not possessing any other specialized talents. Somewhat unusually for a children’s movie with supernatural elements, the stakes of Kiki’s story don’t rely on the bombastic, must-save-the-world urgency and clear good vs. evil distinctions of, say, the Harry Potter franchise — rather, Kiki’s arc revolves around the more grounded (and wholly human) effort to overcome one’s insecurities and become an adult.

In fiction, the ability to fly is often equated with absolute freedom, independence, and self-possession — but in Kiki’s case, as with most people who possess skills in creative fields like poetry, music, or the visual arts, that “power” alone is incapable of wholly sustaining one’s living. Simply being capable of doing something beautiful or miraculous isn’t enough. Kiki, all too aware of the uncertainty of her lifestyle, gets the idea to monetize her flying skills and founds the film’s titular delivery service — a one-girl operation that effectively translates her passion into a practical source of income.

However, merging a personal passion into a full-time job proves to be incredibly stressful, especially as more people begin to take her work for granted. “Flying used to be fun until I started doing it for a living,” Kiki says sadly. The resulting burnout causes Kiki to lose her connection to Gigi, the black cat who serves as her magical familiar, as well as her ability to fly altogether. It’s a level of fatigue that rings true to anyone who’s felt the pressure to give one’s self up entirely in order to follow the mantra “do what you love.”

Kiki eventually regains her powers, thanks to the reassuring advice of her artist friend Ursula and the spontaneous “motivation” of seeing her friend Tombo stranded on a broken airship. Seeing him in danger stirs her to action — it makes her remember that flying matters beyond simply being a way to make money, and the daring rescue prompts Kiki to regain her confidence as well. While most aspiring artists will likely never face such heightened stakes, the film nevertheless urges us to remember that pursuing an unconventional passion doesn’t have to be a futile or selfish choice. While Miyazaki may not have written this work with this generation in mind, it’s clear that its themes of creative ambition and coming of age are still deeply resonant today.

Watch the video below for an organized breakdown of what Kiki can teach us about modern-day millennial struggles.

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Aline is a writer and student. She is very passionate about campy period dramas, female-driven horror films, and obscure Star Wars lore.