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.

The Contradictions of Utopia

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.