This semester, I took a course on Postwar Japanese Film and Anime. For one of our individual assignments, we had to write an analytical essay on one of the assigned movies. With the semester finally over, it is my pleasure to present to you my essay on one of my favorite Ghibli movies, Kiki’s Delivery Service, focusing on how the theme of tradition and modernity is presented in the film.
Tradition and Modernity in Kiki’s Delivery Service
On the surface, the film, Kiki’s Delivery Service, is a simple story about a witch going on a journey of independence. However, upon closer inspection, I propose that the film is also used by Hayao Miyazaki to comment on and critique the negative aspects of modern society and the fading of the traditional values and the old ways. At the same time, he informs and reminds the audience of the importance of said traditional values and old ways. He does this through the premise of the film and through the portrayal of the characters, the settings and the events that occur within it. The themes of tradition and modernity are also explored in many of Miyazaki’s other works such as Spirited Away and My Neighbor Totoro, which I shall be referring to during the course of this essay.
Kiki’s is set in “a fictional European city whose architecture and landscape contain hints of both Stockholm and the Mediterranean”1 and containing “Western fairy-tale archetypes (such) as witches and black cats”2. Even though it is not explicitly mentioned anywhere in the film that it is a commentary on specifically Japanese society, the issue of tradition and modernity is definitely one that was close at heart to the Japanese people at the time.
The premise readily establishes the fact that there are fantasy elements such as magic and witches present in the world of Kiki’s. However, magic in the context of Kiki’s is set against the backdrop of a very realistic world that is currently undergoing industrialization and modernization, evident from the numerous smog producing factories that Kiki sees at the beginning of her journey. In this world, witches and magic, while readily accepted by most people, are seen as a rarity and is presented as a dying tradition. It is made clear by various characters in the film that witches are “not something you see every day” and magic is something that is “old-fashioned”. Here, magic and witches can be seen as being symbolic of the traditional and the old ways and this is further emphasized by the liminal setting.
In Kiki’s, according to tradition, 13 year old witches are supposed to leave home and go on a one year journey to begin their training. This entails leaving for another town and learning to be independent. The journey of independence itself is referred to as an “old custom” by Kiki’s mother. She also remarks that “nobody leaves home that young anymore”, once again hinting that the witches’ traditions are slowly changing or dying out.
With this setting in mind, Miyazaki presents to the audience the contrast between tradition and modernity through the use of his characters, their interactions and the trials that they go through.
The main protagonist of the film is Kiki. Unlike her mother, she is exceedingly eager to go on the journey of independence. Kiki is portrayed in the film by Miyazaki as an ideal and is symbolic of all that is traditional. She is not only eager to leave home and go on the journey, but she also wears the traditional witch’s clothes and embodies many “traditionally sanctioned virtues such as endurance and hard work”3. Kiki herself is a shoujo character, or young girl. This is significant to the theme of tradition and modernity as “the image of the young girl evokes certain crucial aspects of Japanese cultural tradition.” 4
When Kiki arrives in the new city, she is at first ignored by the people around her. Here, Kiki is made out to be the ‘other’ and this is made clearer though the difference in her appearance from that of the city folk, her stark black clothes standing out amongst the colorful clothes of the city folk. This scene not only deals with the very Japanese concept of the uchi, inside, and soto, outside, it is also used to again emphasize the disconnect between the traditional and the modern and comment on how the traditional is not readily accepted in modern society.
She gets discouraged, but she perseveres, even though JiJi, her cat, suggested to her that they should go to another town. This perseverance pays off as she is able to get lodging and breakfast at a bakery, in exchange for helping out. She also manages to set up a delivery service, helping the people of the town make deliveries using her ability of flight. As mentioned by Napier, the act of enduring and working hard is a prized traditional virtue and this allows her to be accepted into the community. Working to gain acceptance is also seen in another of Miyazaki’s films, Spirited Away, as Chihiro has to work to be “incorporated into the bathhouse collectivity”.5 Just like Chihiro in Spirited Away, the various jobs and tasks that Kiki has to undergo can be seen as trials in her rite of passage.
Miyazaki is able to once again critique the modern values of self-indulgence and commercialism and the loss of traditional values though the modern girl and her interaction with Kiki. Kiki braves the rain to deliver a pie to the modern girl that was lovingly baked by her grandmother. The modern girl responds with a brief and crude “I really hate Grandmother’s pies” and shuts the door in Kiki’s face, not even offering her a towel to dry herself off. Here, Miyazaki critiques the current state of the youth and the modern values that they possess by depicting the modern girl as being rude, uncaring and unappreciative. The contrast between the two characters is again made all the more apparent by the dressing and the state that the two characters are in. Kiki’s traditional witch’s robe is drenched and dirtied by the rain. At the same time, the modern girl is dolled up in a gaudy outfit with numerous accessories hanging off her, perhaps a comment by Miyazaki on materialism and consumerism that comes with modernity. Like Spirited Away, it is a “critique of the materialism and toxicity of contemporary Japanese society.” 6
Going back to the previous point on how hard work is considered to be a “traditionally sanctioned virtue” 7, unlike Kiki, neither the modern girl nor her friends work. This shows that the modern children of similar age to Kiki do not possess these prized traditional values and is representative of how such traditional values are getting lost in the modern society.
In many of Miyazaki’s other works, flight is used to represent escapism and the limitless possibilities. Flight in Kiki’s, however, is more than just that. Aside being a magical power and thus, symbolic of tradition, flight is also noted to be Kiki’s sole talent as mentioned by herself, “I have one skill… Flying.” This would signify that the power of flight is closely related to her identity and her self-confidence.
A major event in the film is when Kiki loses her power of flight. The explanation for this phenomenon is not explicitly told to the audience. However, it can be inferred that her loss of her witch powers is due to the loss of her self-confidence when her identity and place in the city was put into question. That was the result of Kiki’s own apprehension and reluctance to join the group of modern children. This is possibly because she felt that she didn’t belong, once again bringing up the concept of the uchi and soto. One can easily assume that this was the result of her previous interaction with the modern girl and the difference in values that she witnessed first-hand. Kiki, questioning her own liminal identity and place in the new city and her reluctance to integrate with the modern children, is representative of the fact that the traditional and the old ways are not easily integrated into the modern society. Furthermore, her loss of self-confidence and powers at the hand of the modern children illustrates again the loss of tradition in modern society. The close relationship between the loss of identity and power at the hands of modernity is also seen in Spirited Away as Haku loses his powers and identity when his river was filled for a housing development project.
Aside from the characters, Miyazaki uses the settings and their presentation in Kiki’s to critique modernity and to reaffirm traditional values. This is done mainly through the juxtaposition between nature and civilization. Nature constantly plays an important role in the works of Miyazaki, from being a force to be reckoned with in Momonoke Hime to being linked closely with the supernatural in Spirited Away and My Neighbor Totoro.
Nature and civilization in Kiki’s can be seen as another commentary on the current state of the traditional and the modern in contemporary society. Keiko McDonald states that “oneness with nature, for example, has long been considered part of the Japanese national character” and that “by 1988, parents had reason to be concerned that their children were losing touch with nature. Urban sprawl was purely to blame.”8
After losing her powers, Kiki also moves out of the city, which is nearly devoid of foliage, to live for a day in the forest with Ursula, a friend she made during one of her deliveries. It is in nature that Kiki is able to heal and ‘find herself’. The ‘returning to nature’ that is also seen in My Neighbor Totoro, where the protagonists live in the countryside, is symbolic of going back to the old ways and reaffirming the traditional values. It of course makes sense that Kiki’s original home is also in the countryside, close to nature. The advice that Ursula gives Kiki is to “Take long walks, look at the scenery, doze off at noon.” when she is unable to fly are all very close to nature as well.
Lastly, another way that Miyazaki critiques modernity through Kiki’s is through the portrayal of technology and its comparison to the old ways as technology is a critical part of modernity.
The climax of the movie is when a newly launched air ship loses control, brought about by the strong wind, an act of nature, and is crippled. Tombo, one of Kiki’s friends, is left dangling for his life from a rope trailing from the damaged air ship. The air ship eventually crashes and lodges itself onto the side of the clock tower with Tombo still struggling to hang on. Kiki rushes to Tombo’s rescue and her powers are miraculously restored as she flies to Tombo’s aid and saves the day.
This scene can be interpreted in a couple of ways. Firstly, the air ship represents the modern and industrialized society. Depicting the air ship, artificial, man-made flight, bursting and destroying itself hints at the destructive and negative impact of over industrialization. On the other hand, Kiki’s natural powers of flight and broom do work, albeit not perfectly, and are able to successfully save Tombo. The failure of man-made flight contrasted with the success of traditional magic flight is Miyazaki’s way of commenting on the unreliability of modern technology, while championing and reaffirming the reliability of the old methods. Not only is this a commentary by Miyazaki on people’s overreliance of technology and the modern, it is literally symbolic of the Japanese economic bubble bursting in the late 1980s. Kiki rushing in to save the day with her newly restored powers is a commentary of how in such times of crisis, people must not forget the traditional values which will eventually ‘save’ Japan.
After the air ship accident, which can be considered as Kiki’s trial, she is finally accepted into the city as everyone cheers her on. In Spirited Away, Chihiro also earns “the approval of her fellow bath attendants” and “develop(s) her own confidence”9 as she overcomes her own trials by saving the day from problems caused by consumerism and modernization, be it the polluted River God or the greedy and excessive consumption of No-Face, “a signifier of excess and carnival gone out of control.”10
Another not as climactic, but equally telling scene of the unreliability of technology and the importance of the old ways occurs earlier in the movie when an electric oven fails to heat up when needed. In the end, an old wood burning oven is used to cook the pie. It is fortunate that Kiki had the knowledge to use the wood burning oven.
It is interesting to note that both Kiki’s loss of powers and the air ship incident were not in the original source material that Kiki’s is based on, a book similarly titled Kiki’s Delivery Service published in 1985, before the economic bubble burst. As the film was produced after the Japanese economic bubble burst, it can be inferred that the two incidents were specifically placed into the film by Miyazaki as an attempt to critique the evils of modernity and to remind audiences of the importance of traditional values and the old ways.
However, the ending of the film is upbeat. The final message is one of optimism. From the movie, it would appear that Miyazaki himself wishes that people should return to the old ways and embrace the traditional values instead of the new and to not over rely on technology. However, in the end, it is an impossibility. It is possible that he realizes this and thus, the final message is one of co-existence between tradition and modernity, as seen it the final scene of Kiki flying alongside Tombo in his man-made airplane.
In conclusion, through the analysis of the premise, characters, setting and depictions of technology in the film Kiki’s Delivery Service, it can be seen that Hayao Miyazaki uses the film to comment on modernity, modern values, consumerism, the over reliance on technology and the loss of traditions, traditional values and the old ways.
1. Susan J. Napier, “Confronting Master Narratives: History As Vision in Miyazaki Hayao’s Cinema of De-assurance,” positions: east asia cultures critique 9, no. 2 (2001): 472
2. Susan J. Napier, Anime from Akira to Howl’s Moving Castle: Experiencing Contemporary Japanese Animation (New York: Palgrave Macmillian 2001), 162
3. Susan J. Napier, “Matter Out of Place: Carnival, Containment, and Cultural Recovery in Miyazaki’s Spirited Away,” The Journal of Japanese Studies 32, no. 2 (2006): 301
4. Susan J. Napier, “Matter Out of Place: Carnival, Containment, and Cultural Recovery in Miyazaki’s Spirited Away,” The Journal of Japanese Studies 32, no. 2 (2006): 297
5. Susan J. Napier, “Matter Out of Place: Carnival, Containment, and Cultural Recovery in Miyazaki’s Spirited Away,” The Journal of Japanese Studies 32, no. 2 (2006): 290
6. Susan J. Napier, “Matter Out of Place: Carnival, Containment, and Cultural Recovery in Miyazaki’s Spirited Away,” The Journal of Japanese Studies 32, no. 2 (2006): 288
7. Susan J. Napier, “Matter Out of Place: Carnival, Containment, and Cultural Recovery in Miyazaki’s Spirited Away,” The Journal of Japanese Studies 32, no. 2 (2006): 301
8. Keiko McDonald, “Animation Seminal and Influential – Hayao Miyazaki’s My Neighbor Totoro (1998)” in Keiko McDonald ed., Reading a Japanese Film – Cinema in Context, Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 2006: 178
9. Susan J. Napier, “Matter Out of Place: Carnival, Containment, and Cultural Recovery in Miyazaki’s Spirited Away,” The Journal of Japanese Studies 32, no. 2 (2006): 302
10. Susan J. Napier, “Matter Out of Place: Carnival, Containment, and Cultural Recovery in Miyazaki’s Spirited Away,” The Journal of Japanese Studies 32, no. 2 (2006): 294
Napier, Susan J. Anime from Akira to Howl’s Moving Castle: Experiencing Contemporary Japanese Animation, New York: Palgrave Macmillian, (2001)
Napier, Susan J. “Confronting Master Narratives: History As Vision in Miyazaki Hayao’s Cinema of De-assurance,” positions: east asia cultures critique 9, no. 2 (2001): 467-493
Napier, Susan J. “Matter Out of Place: Carnival, Containment, and Cultural Recovery in Miyazaki’s Spirited Away,” The Journal of Japanese Studies 32, no. 2 (2006): 287-310
Mc Donald, Keiko. “Animation Seminal and Influential – Hayao Miyazaki’s My Neighbor Totoro (1998)” in Keiko McDonald ed., Reading a Japanese Film – Cinema in Context, Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 2006