Miyazaki’s Haunted Utopia: The Ghost of Modernity in ‘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).

Call for essays, reviews, interviews, and list features for publication consideration with PopMatters.
Call for essays, reviews, interviews, and list features.