Before Disney realized that the world needed female leads who had more than one-dimensional personalities, Ghibli studio was already serving us with incredibly thought-out female characters. Characters like Chihiro in Spirited away, Sophie in Howl’s Moving Castle, and even Shizuku from Whisper of The Heart.
For those who aren’t familiar with it, Ghibli Studio is a Japanese animation studio that was founded by the directors Hayao Miyazaki, Isao Takahata, and the producer Toshio Suzuki. The name Ghibli is actually …wait for it… a Libyan term used to refer to a specific type of wind, Miyazaki chose this term hoping that the studio will bring about a wind of change to Japan’s anime industry.
I was introduced to Ghibli Studio through Spirited Away, which was their biggest international success, and it took me a while to see the rest of the movies (not being a huge fan of anime to begin with) but when I saw Kiki’s Delivery Service, I was blown away.
The story revolves around Kiki, a 13 year old witch who is leaving home in order to start her year of training. As is apparently tradition for witches. Kiki’s mother, the senior witch, mixes potions and is concerned about Kiki leaving, but understands. Her father, a worried but supportive figure who twirls her around and lets her take his radio with her on her journey. At midnight, on a cloudless starry night, Kiki gets ready to leave, with everyone wishing her luck, she mounts her broom and kicks off with nothing but her radio, some savings, and her cat Jiji (whose pessimistic character provides a nice contrast to Kiki’s good natured optimism).
What amazes me about this movie is that it manages to naturally convey such a positive and empowering messages to girls, women, and even boys. It softly portrays the hardships of independence and fitting in, while depicting some of the many different types of the strong independent women that exist around us. Kiki, at the beginning is not sure of her skills, she knows that she can fly, but that is about it, and it isn’t until she meets Osono and her husband that she realizes she can turn flying into a profitable job.
Osono herself is a perfect display of the maternal, supportive, and strong kind of female character. Cheerful and very pregnant, she runs a bakery with her husband in the town Kiki chooses to settle in. And she is consistently there for Kiki in her time of need (which was only twice, Kiki is a strong girl after all). Ursula, who we meet when Kiki loses a toy she was supposed to deliver in the middle of the forest, is a quirky artist living in a cabin, surrounded by nothing but trees and crows, is another type of strong female character Miyazaki blesses us with in this movie.
Miyazaki also blessed us by giving Kiki a cute as hell, but innocent love interest. However, it all loses its color when Kiki falls into a bout of what can be only be described as depression, she loses her ability to fly and she can no longer communicate with her cat.
She worries that she is now unable to be a witch, and while Osono tries to comfort her, it is Ursula who tells her that she ought to come to her cabin for a while to regain her strength, and with this we have the most incredible sequence in the movie, the heartfelt conversation between two women on what it is to be discovering themselves and finding their inspiration.
The magic of the movie doesn’t lie in the force of its message, she is not a sword wielding warrior who is stronger than a thousand men, she isn’t a princess with a spell on her, she is a little girl who is accompanied by the doubts that are embodied in Jiji (her cat), the insecurities of looking pretty, and the fear of failure. Along her journey, Kiki continually feels like an outsider, like she does not belong anywhere, but at no point does she consider changing who she is at heart, it was a question of patience and time at the end.
Along with the beautifully written characters, some of whom are role models for Kiki, others like guardian figures (Osono’s husband making Kiki a sign out of bread, and pacing back and forth in the bakery to make sure she is home safe) , and a cute Tombo who was besotted with her and her flying until the end. Kiki’s Delivery Service is powerful because its subtle as the sun creeping up at dawn, not shocking but pleasant in its warmth and illuminating with its light.
You’d be happy to know that Kiki found her inspiration in the end, and was able to fly, but what troubles me is how many young girls never do get the chance to discover a unique identity, or a purpose of their own, because we as a society can’t afford for them to take a “one year training period”, instead we force them into moulds and cast them out when they do not fit them.
I will continue watching this movie, and I have a strong suspicion that it will be the movie I will show my children, because I want them to understand the importance of independence, of finding their purpose, their inspiration, and that it is their responsibility to be as supportive as Osono and Ursula to the people they run into in life, because we are all Kiki’s in the end, and that it doesn’t matter what you are, what matters is what you do…