The Ghost of Modernity in Miyazaki’s Kiki’s Delivery Service

Miyazaki’s Kiki’s Delivery Service is not truly a witch’s story, but a ghost story of modernity.

Static and shock; the zeppelin drifts onto screen, rendered eerie and spectral in the grainy black and white. We watch it rake through the air and come careening towards the ground as terrified spectators try to get out of the way. The reporter frantically describes what the camera is already showing us because there’s nothing else he can do. This scene is a familiar one, recalling one of the worst catastrophes of the modern age. “Oh the humanity”, screams the reporter, voicing the now infamous sentiments of Herbert Morrison commenting on the 1937 Hindenburg disaster, but he doesn’t say it in the original English because we aren’t watching the footage from the Hindenburg disaster. He says it in Japanese because we’re watching a scene from Kiki’s Delivery Service, the 1989 children’s animated film by Hayao Miyazaki.

I’ve been a fan of Kiki’s Delivery Service for a long time, and I’ve always found the zeppelin sequence at the end of the film a little disorienting, even before I realized that it quoted directly from the Hindenburg disaster. The rest of the film up to that point is just a sweet, slow fantasy about a little witch setting up her own delivery service in Kokoro, a beautiful city by the sea. In interviews, Miyazaki has stated that Kokoro was inspired by Stockholm, Paris, and several other European cities and that the story takes place in an alternate history ‘50s, although it could just as easily be the ‘30s or ‘40s judging from the fashions and the level of technology shown.

This setting is a little strange, however, given that the tone of the Kiki’s Delivery Service could not be further removed from that which we associate with the Europe of the depression, the Second World War, and the fall of the Iron Curtain. In place of breadlines, fascist military marches, and the rasp of the radio screaming political manifestos, we get a beautiful city full of good and gentle people all drawn in the smooth lines and sumptuous colors of Miyazaki’s animation. Food and goods are plentiful, there’s no trace of any deep social antagonisms, and new technologies like the zeppelin and biplane are presented as whimsical machines full of novelty and wonder as opposed to weapons of war. Kokoro is nothing less than a utopia, and more: it’s a modern utopia; an idealized picture of what the 20th century might have looked like in the dreams of a Bellamy or a Chernyshevsky.

The film is very low-key and soothing, and everything progresses rather peacefully until about the last ten minutes when someone turns on an old black and white TV set and the resurrected Hindenburg comes bursting onto screen. We, with Kiki, are forced to watch as the little, fantasy town is terrorized by this ghost of 20th century reality before it lifts away with her friend, Tombo, dangling from a rope. Kiki uses her flying powers to rescue Tombo from the runaway zeppelin and the film gets a strong climax to end on, but the effect is still rather jarring. Why would Miyazaki recall into his modern fairytale one of the most graphic failures of modernity ever to be caught on film?

In my reading, this ironic contrast is no accident, but rather is part of a central contradiction which drives the film. Miyazaki as a director was fascinated by modernity, its innovations, and its problems, and there’s not a single film in his oeuvre that goes untouched by this fascination. It’s easy to see in films like Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind (1984), Castle in the Sky (1986), and Princess Mononoke (1997) where Miyazaki deals most directly with modern 20th-century problems, but what I find most interesting is how even in a benign film like Kiki’s Delivery Service where Miyazaki just wants to entertain, he still wrestles with modernity and its ghosts.

Miyazaki’s utopian recreation of wartime Europe and the dramatic resolution of the Hindenburg disaster is a way for the director to address and resolve the problems of modernity, but unlike those other films which give a sense of the real complexity and seriousness of the situation, Kiki’s Delivery Service resolves these problems only on the level of pure fantasy. Far from being a flaw, it is these unrealistic fantasy solutions to real world problems which makes the film such an enjoyable piece of escapist entertainment. Kiki’s Delivery Service is an excellent example of the theoretical model for entertainment in film outlined by Richard Dyer in his essay, “Entertainment and Utopia” (Only Entertainment, Dyer, 1992: 19-35).

Utopia’s Contradictions

Dyer argues that the pleasure of escapist entertainment comes from how it lets us vicariously experience utopia. It doesn’t do this by showing a real political model of how utopia might be achieved, but rather uses film magic to make utopia feel immanent in our current social structure (20). It is imperative that genuine ideas for how society might actually move towards utopia should not be discussed as real political and social solutions are far too contentious and upsetting for light entertainment; usually we go to the movies because we just want to relax, not because we want to get beaten over the head with a political manifesto.

However, this leads to a contradiction right at the heart of utopian entertainment. Dyer writes that “To be effective, the utopian sensibility has to take off from the real experiences of the audience. Yet to do this, to draw attention to the gap between what is and what could be, is, ideologically speaking, playing with fire” (27). We want entertainment to give us a sense of resolving our own real world problems without presenting a genuine challenge to the status quo. The difficulty is that the political status quo is often the source of those very same problems. This means that the filmmaker must appear to resolve the problems of the dominant ideology using only methods implicit in the dominant ideology. They must make the poison seem its own cure.

Dyer was writing specifically with the genre of the Hollywood musical and its relationship to capitalism in mind, but I want to use his ideas to understand Kiki’s Delivery Service as it relates to modernity more generally. The film’s setting and story are both distinctly modern, and it is replete with loving, celebratory depictions of many of the machines emblematic of technological modernity—early automobiles, radios, ships, the zeppelin, biplanes, etc. The central contradiction of utopian entertainment mentioned by Dyer makes itself apparent, however, in that the problems driving Kiki’s Delivery Service are also distinctly modern.

The film kicks off when, spurred on by passion and a good weather forecast, Kiki goes flying into the night looking for a new city to live in. She has little in the way of possessions or money, no plans of what to do, and no idea where she’s ultimately headed or even where she is going to sleep that night. This situation is modern in how it reflects both social mobility and the uncertainty that people were, and are, confronted with in the breakdown of their traditional societies. Like Kiki with her flying broomstick, the advancements in technology and social and economic structures opens up an entire world for us. Like Kiki, a 13-year-old girl already leaving her parents, we find ourselves emancipated from the comfortable social roles traditionally provided and are forced to figure out new ways to fit in in and get ahead. This mobility is celebrated today, but it has its dark side in the anxieties that come with such radical uncertainty, and these anxieties are touched on more than once in the film. Contrary to the optimistic predictions of the weather forecast which spurred Kiki to leave home, it soon begins to rain, and rain hard.

So how does the film resolve this? Is Kiki forced to learn by lesson of painful experience just how harsh the world is and that only the cunning and scrupulous can survive? Is Kiki forced to go back home and recede into the safety of family, community, and traditionalism, and under their careful guidance, plot out a safer course for the future? No, Kiki gets out of the sudden storm by taking refuge in a train car which begins to move after she falls asleep. When she wakes up, she finds that by pure chance the train—another ubiquitous symbol for modernity, incidentally—has taken her to an idyllic, little city by the sea: one much more beautiful than the dinky towns she was scouting out the night before. Kiki is pulled (rather literally) by the advent of modernity to an outcome that was better than she could have imagined.

This motif of uncertainty — particularly uncertainty about home, job, and living conditions — resolving in ways better than could be expected recurs constantly throughout the story. Kiki’s uncertainty as to where she will stay in the city resolves with her meeting the kindly and supportive Osono who gives her free lodging. Kiki’s uncertainty, where the lost doll from her crucial first delivery has gotten to, resolves in her making acquaintance with the artist Ursula who repairs the doll for her and later gives her some inspirational advice. Kiki’s uncertainty about her flying abilities resolves with her rediscovering those abilities just in time to save her friend’s life and become a town hero. The solutions to these problems are clearly unrealistic, but they function beautifully in the film to allow for the anxious uncertainty of modernity to be perfectly resolved by the unbridled opportunity of modernity.

In his essay, Dyer suggests five utopian needs — namely the need for energy, abundance, intensity, transparency, and community — that he feels entertainment in modern capitalist society needs to fulfill in order to impart a sense of utopia (22-23). Kiki’s Delivery Service easily satisfies all five: There is energy and freedom in Kiki’s spontaneous decision to leave home; abundance in the generous portrayal of money, groceries, and food throughout the film; and a strong sense of intensity, transparency, and community in the characters and the way they interact. However, Dyer takes pains to stress that this list is non-exhaustive (25-26), and instead of going into detail about how Kiki’s Delivery Service fulfills Dyer’s five outlined needs, I would like to talk about an additional utopian need that the film took more effort to fulfill than any other: the need to reconcile tradition with modernity; to assure the audience that their traditional mores and beliefs can survive in a contemporary world evolving at lightning speed around them, melting everything solid into air.

Kiki and Tradition

Throughout the Kiki’s Delivery Service, we constantly see ways in which traditionalism is folded into the modern world. Sometimes this takes a visual form in the way which we see old-fashioned things get combined with new technologies: Kiki rides around on an old witch’s broomstick, but she has a portable radio tied to the handle so she can listen to pop music while she soars over beautiful backdrops of urban and industrial landscapes. At the end of the film, we see a shot of Kiki riding on her broom next to Tombo, riding in a plane, suggesting the two’s implied romance as a metaphor for the happy, loving relationship that can exist between tradition and modernity. Traditionalism is represented in the narrative by Kiki herself, who has an antiquated morality and sensibility (something which the film directly points out by having its characters say as much) and who is a witch, something often associated with folk traditions and people much older than herself. However, instead of being a stereotypical “hag” living in isolation, Kiki is only a young girl who very much wants to fit into the modern world blossoming around her.

Kiki’s journey can be read as an allegory for how all those old folk traditions must demonstrate their value and take their rightful place in contemporary society. Indeed, the only times modernity is ever shown to outright fail in the film is when traditionalism can offer a solution. When an elderly woman’s gas oven breaks, Kiki commandeers an old brick oven to finish cooking the food. This foreshadows the film’s climax, the recreation of the Hindenburg disaster, where modernity and its machines are allowed to fail spectacularly so that Kiki can use her power to save them.

One possible reading of Miyazaki’s choice to reference the Hindenburg disaster, then, was to make use of all the associations that come packaged with it to show that, for all its good, mechanistic modernity unchecked still teeters towards disaster. It needs something extra, a kind of understanding neither measurable nor quantifiable, but long spoken of in the folklore, myths, and metaphors of the pre-modern tradition, to save it from itself. This understanding is reborn through Kiki, a representative of tradition who is not some feeble relic of a bygone time, but rather is young, vigorous, and eager to prove herself. Using this repackaged wisdom, Kiki vanquishes the only real threat to the film’s utopian vision.

That modernity is shown lacking and must be saved through traditional means could be argued as proof against my central thesis that Kiki’s Delivery Service is bound up in the ideology of modernity, but I don’t think this is the case. Kiki doesn’t actually represent an encounter with any real tradition despite the film’s gestures otherwise, and the faux-traditionalism it shows us is in no way presented as a genuine alternative to modern life.

The basic structure of Kiki’s story, a person moving from the country into a city to sell her labor, mirrors the movement of populations from the farm to the urban factory which characterizes the beginning of industrialization. Her delivery service reduces what being a witch means down to one specialized function, namely flying on a broom, which reflects the Fordist production principles integral to modern labor, transforming witchcraft from something that was special and beyond the pale to simply another commodity on the marketplace. The beautiful sequences of Kiki flying are shot from a plane’s eye view–a cinematic style born from Hayao Miyazaki’s lifelong obsession with aircraft — and it’s doubtful he could have imagined such sequences without the influence technological modernity has had on sense perception.

Against all this, the only connection Kiki really has to witchcraft are a few classic motifs. She wears black, she has a black cat, she rides a straw broom, and even these are tainted by modernity. This image of the witch has no strong connection to any particular folkloric tradition of what a witch is supposed to look like or do, but rather conforms to the stereotype of the witch codified by modern films and cartoons. Kiki has much more in common with the Wicked Witch of the West from The Wizard of Oz (1939) than with Morgan le Fey or Baba Yaga.

Kiki is not a true representative of tradition, but rather a thoroughly modern girl in a black dress and with a broomstick that we rapidly begin to suspect may have rocket boosters hidden in its bristles. As for how we should read the treatment of the Hindenburg disaster, I believe the film provides us with an emotionally satisfying but ultimately empty resolution. Kiki is completely in tune with the modern paradigm, and her saving Tombo from the zeppelin is not an example of tradition fixing modernity, but modernity fixing modernity. Her actions are just another example of modernity generating the solutions to its own ills–exactly the central contradiction outlined by Dyer in “Entertainment and Utopia”. The problems represented by the Hindenburg remain.

“There has never been a document of culture, which is not simultaneously one of barbarism”, Walter Benjamin once famously wrote, remarking on how the ghosts of past violences and power-struggles infest every corner of our cultural heritage. In my opinion, there are few films that strike so pointed an example of this as Kiki’s Delivery Service. We love this film because of how it transports us away from the hard world we know to another, better one, where we can forget our concerns for a little while and watch a girl witch unravel her story for us.

If we dig just a little deeper though, we rediscover the world we were trying to get away from, and find that this is not truly a witch’s story, but a ghost story. The ghost died in a fire on 6 May 1937, foreshadowing the fires of a war that would change the world forever. The ghost is called the Spirit of Freedomin the film, but its true name is LZ 129 Hindenburg, and it’s not the spirit of freedom but the ghost of modernity.



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