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.

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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