Kiki’s Delivery Service: Liminal States and The Abyss

(To check out my previous Ghibli essay click HERE)

Much has been written about almost all of Hayao Miyazaki’s films. But very few have received more narrow analyses than his 1989 film, Kiki’s Delivery Service. It seems that almost all critics and reviewers talk about this film in only the most overt terms, and they do it again and again and again. There’s the theme of self-doubt that creates a sort of witch’s block for Kiki in the film. Her self-doubt leads to an inability to fly for a short period and her familiar black cat, Jiji, being unable to communicate with her. She is young and awkward and trying to find her place in the world as a young witch who must specialize her skills for monetary gain and sustenance and as a young woman who is becoming interested in boys. The coming of age themes are the central themes of the film, but it seems lazy to continue prattling on about them.

What I would have the discussion be about are two of my favorite philosophical themes: Liminality and the Abyss.

The notion of coming of age always predicates that a few things be true. One, the person is currently a child. Two, they must undergo some quest or trial or ritual during which time they are no longer a child, but not yet an adult. Third, they must face adulthood and all the difficulties that come with it, acquiesce to them and change, and then become an adult.

Kiki is thirteen years old and must, as a witch, go through a potentially traumatic and dangerous trial to become an adult. She must fly far from home until she reaches a town she is unfamiliar with, land there and acclimate to her surroundings, use her skills to procure employment and housing, and establish herself as a fixture in the town. Unfortunately, she lands in a big city and the people don’t generally have the warmth of a small town populace. Many times they shy away from Kiki in the streets, the local girls make fun of her quaint dress and style, and modern medicine is widely available, so her potential skills as an herbalist are not needed or particularly desired. During this time, many don’t take her seriously and joke about her as a little clumsy witch out on the streets. She is neither a child any more (as she is independent, away from home, and physically maturing) and not yet a woman (she is not yet fully mature mentally, physically or emotionally).

This uneasy identification, and her persistent difficulties in making deliveries and courting (she stands up Tombo because of her current ineptitude at making deliveries: she was late), lead to an intense depression. Her stress and fatigue and uneasiness manifest themselves by making her immune system weak and she gets a pretty bad cold as a result. The pain of separation from her family, being bullied by local girls who can afford to dress in much more conventionally pretty manners, and other difficulties create such a mental and physical strain that her spiritual well-being suffers and she is unable to channel to magic power within that allowed her fly. Her identification as Other to the two conventional modes of human Being even separate her from her cat Jiji who could once speak to her (and in the Japanese language version of the film, probably will never be able to do so again).

Later, once she overcomes her difficulties, she saves the first love interest of her life, Tombo, and makes a name for herself as a hero in the town in one go. Thereby establishing herself as an independent woman with the ability to reliably make deliveries around town (the word of mouth has to be outrageous as her save was televised) and has made close friends to fill the void her parents left.

During her depression and witch’s block, she spends some time in the local forest at the cabin of Ursula, a young independent woman who paints for a living and serves as a strong role model for Kiki. She advises that all artist’s have difficulties and blocks from time to time, but the advice doesn’t seem to help. Ursula paints a large work exhibiting a Van Gogh night with her cabin in the background. There is a crow who soars across the frame, a bull who jumps over the moon, and a winged horse, a Pegasus, with two faces: The face of a horse and the face of a young woman. All living creatures in the painting can fly, unlike Kiki in her current predicament. Two of the creatures are enigmatic. the bull should not be able to fly and the Pegasus does not exist.

I remember once walking along Sunset Beach on the North Carolina coast. The sun was rising over the horizon and the waves gently splashed along the surf. Shells littered the sand and cut at the soles of my feet. I had just read Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet and was musing over the idea of loving the questions and living the questions and grappling when need be. I saw the splash of a large grey wave (I’m somewhat color-blind) crash down in the distance upon a sand bar. The viciousness of it all opened itself up to me and I saw it for one of the first times: the Abyss. I stared and it stared back and the moment echoed on in its power for days thereafter, slowly losing momentum like the tide upon the shore. But it has never left me.

This painting opened the same door for Kiki: Awe and Terror and Understanding and Mystery. And being alright with it all. and ultimately, it cured her.


Cody Ward

[Next up: Princess Mononoke!]

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