Kiki’s Delivery Service is a movie I will always associate with change.
I first saw Kiki’s Delivery Service when it came to the States on VHS in 1998. I was seven — not an age most people would think begins your transition to adulthood, but Kiki’s Delivery Service was the first Studio Ghibli film I ever saw, and the first media I recognized as anime. I learned the word itself because of this movie. It quite literally changed the course of my life, and the lives of everyone around me — including my aunt, who watched this with me countless times over the years. She went with me to my first anime convention when I was in junior high, took me to see Spirited Away in theatres, and always, without fail, wanted to know about the latest anime series or movie that captured my imagination. Looking back, it seems almost cliché: this is the origin story of Haley, always toddling along with her aunt, talking about something on the cutting edge for its time.
Kiki’s Delivery Service, fittingly, is the perfect movie for someone on the cusp of discovering the wide world around them — the story of Kiki, a cute little witch who, on the eve of her twelfth birthday, takes off on an adventure that will define her life. At that age, all witches leave their homes on broomsticks and train elsewhere, honing skills that will allow them to live and thrive wherever they choose to call home in the future. Each witch has her own special skill, and this year-long sojourn will define her path.
Despite the weight of this destiny, Kiki is extremely excited to start her new, adult life. The largely episodic film shows us the spectacular highs (her awe at flying on a broom on her first night out, radio blasting) and comical lows (causing a massive traffic jam by flying nearly straight into a bus) of Kiki’s adventures, but where it truly succeeds is in showing how fitfully we progress and change as we get older, and how there is still beauty in our lowest points.
Kiki, who started her journey with only her black cat Jiji and a flying broomstick, admits she isn’t sure what her skills are many times. She never learned how to brew potions from her mother, and an encounter with a mature fortune-telling teen leaves her wondering where she fits into a witch’s world. Even after the kindly Osono takes her in and hires her as a flying delivery girl and shop clerk for her bakery, Kiki’s confidence ebbs and flows from moment to moment as she grows to understand an unfamiliar city and the new rules that come with urban living. Shopping has its own highs and lows, from finding a delightful mug with Jiji’s mirror image on it to realizing that the cost of independence is much higher than she imagined.
Kiki’s unease about her place in the world is not limited to her talents as a witch — it extends to her social circle. Kiki is set upon early on by Tombo, an aspiring engineer obsessed with flight, and his overtures of friendship, and potentially romance, elicit extremely mixed responses. Initially, she doesn’t want him around, but as they grow closer, Kiki reacts to her widening social circle with anxiety and coldness. Kiki openly says that every time she gets close to someone in this new town, she feels like an outsider; even caring parental substitutes like Osono and her husband are not equipped to help Kiki with every problem.
After a disastrous delivery that ends with her getting seriously ill and missing a date with Tombo, Kiki’s magical powers begin to wane before finally vanishing altogether. In a movie defined by change, this one is the strongest and most traumatic for Kiki. She loses her lifelong friendship with Jiji when she finds she can no longer speak to him, and her efforts to fly afterwards are pitiful at best. She’s lost every connection she has to her childhood in these moments, and her pain is obvious. It’s hard not to relate to her in those moments of severe distress, wondering what her purpose is when the one thing she always relied on disappears.
Kiki does have kindly figures to guide her through her depressive period, and through that, we feel the full warmth of the film. Kiki has befriended an artist named Ursula, who helped her out of a jam earlier in the movie; when Ursula comes to visit Kiki in the depths of her depression, she whisks her young friend away to her woodland cabin to recuperate. In a quietly powerful moment, Ursula and Kiki talk about Kiki’s weakening powers, and Ursula confesses that she went through a similar fallow period with her art in her youth. She emphasizes the importance of discovering where her inspiration lies and resting to replenish herself. Her gift of flight and her desires, Kiki comes to understand, are the same.
Kiki builds to a triumphant ending. She reclaims her magic in a moment of crisis to save Tombo from a falling dirigible, flying spectacularly in pursuit of one of the many people who never stopped believing in her. While it makes for an action-packed finale, the real closure comes from seeing Kiki send a letter to her parents, assuring them that, although there’s been highs and lows, she’s happy with where she is and what she’s doing. Kiki knows that saving Tombo isn’t the moment that will define her life, and she has watched her time as a witch-in-training take her to places she never expected to be.
My life took me on similarly uncharted paths. I changed careers after decades of thinking I knew what I wanted to be when I grew up, made my way on my own as a young adult, and found my own special magic. My aunt was right beside me for it all, until she passed away in 2018, almost three years ago to the day I’m posting this essay.
The Ghibli Fest went on without in 2019 for the first time in who knows how many years. My mom and I decided to go see Kiki’s Delivery Service, both in her memory and for our own sakes, to try and move on as best we could. This year I did the same thing, sitting down to watch for the first time since that emotional viewing. It remained painful, but still touching and bittersweet. Kiki never does hear Jiji speak to her again, after all, even though she recaptures her magic. We can make the best of a dramatic change, but still never completely recapture our pasts.
Kiki’s Delivery Service, through all the years, is a beautiful reminder of how, even if life doesn’t go the way we want it to, there is so much joy to be found in the midst of tumultuous change. Much as I wish my aunt was here, I wouldn’t trade the time I had with her watching this and sharing my world with her for anything.