Kiki, from Kiki’s Delivery Service, is flying over the water on her broom, orbited by seagulls.

Growing Up

What Kiki’s Delivery Service can teach us about making it through our twenties.

Our minds play a cruel trick on us. When faced with the success of others, we are driven — more often than not — to draw comparisons with ourselves. As such, on an almost daily basis, we indulge in regret over what we perceive we have failed to achieve. Think about it, how often have you sat down to work and questioned why you’re bothering? Felt unworthy? Felt like someone else would do it better? How often have you felt bitter at seeing someone younger than you succeed on television? Or had your self-esteem damaged by reading pieces on entrepreneurs like Elon Musk and the attributing of success to long hours — while you stare at your computer, in your pyjamas, eating what you claim will be your last tub of ice cream? Human beings are good at a great many things, but there’s nothing we’re so adept at than beating ourselves up.

We have watched the cost of living triple while wages have frozen over the past thirty years — all while being told by those responsible that if we work hard, we can get what and where we want. It’s a lie. But it’s a lie we have no choice but to believe, otherwise what’s the point?

Our own unrealistic deadlines and our failure to meet them have us losing our way. It’s an impatient world. External and internal pressure — be it from money, our health, or seeing others succeed — often drive young people to give up on their dreams and happiness in order to fall in line with a life their elders dictate and that they have no control over. Activities that used to be fun now need to be commoditised to make do and keep up with an economy rapidly at odds with the needs and wellbeing of young people. Dreams disappear and fun is made into work just so twenty-somethings can pay the rent, bills, and for groceries. It can often feel like life leaves little room for the extraordinary.

Thanks to technology, we are one of the best-educated and most informed generations ever. Yet, we are also the unhappiest. With a growing elderly population and a dwindling job market, the predatorial economics of the western world are excluding young people. And while there’s little we can do to control that, we can at least gain some measure of control over the constant battles we are having with ourselves. Not because we need to let go of the mounting frustrations that drive us or stop being introspective, but because (of all people) we have to give ourselves a break. No matter how fast-paced and unforgiving the modern world becomes (and make no mistake, we are living in a bizarre fascist hellscape that is literally on fire) we have a right to our own identity.

Few films have illustrated the constant conflict at play in twenty-somethings as well as Hayao Miyazaki’s Kiki’s Delivery Service. Growing up is a constant theme in Miyazaki’s films, but Kiki’s Delivery Service paints the most relatable and moving picture of what our twenties look like — and delivers a lesson in the value of perspective and moving a little slower.

Kiki is a thirteen-year-old witch-in-training. Upon hearing that the weather will be clear, she declares to her father, “Tonight’s the night.” Despite having no specialism and being relatively weak at flying, Kiki is about to leave home to make it on her own. She’s full of enthusiasm, fantasies, and promise. Sound familiar?

Kiki lives in a society in which her nominal identity — that of being a witch — is something that needs to be commoditised by becoming a resident witch. She is clearly passionate, and her parents don’t try and knock her down despite knowing the reality of what she’ll find. Rather, in a move demonstrated by very few modern parents, they support her unbridled spirit. But when Kiki tells them, “I’m going to be the best witch I can be” it highlights the gulf between her ability and her expectations and, in turns, shows how unrealistic her outlook is.

Jiji, a black cat, is pointing to a mug with a black cat on it. In the scene he says “it’s me.”
Even Jiji can find representation in the new modern world he and Kiki find themselves in. Source: Music Box Theatre.

Once she arrives in Koriko, Kiki finds that her skillset is mostly irrelevant. She is dismissed by the townsfolk while simultaneously being dazzled by just how big the world away from home is. After living where her mother is a respected potion-maker, the insignificance she embodies in the city is jarring. Everyone seems more successful, surer of themselves. Even Jiji, her cat, can find confirmations of his identity. Her fantasies are shattered and she realises, no matter how hard she works, she’s unlikely to get anywhere. In a stroke of luck, a chance encounter with Osono, the baker, gives Kiki a small attic room to live in — a room with a striking resemblance to the over-priced studio flats and single-room environs many twenty-somethings find themselves in.

In trying to find a way to utilise her skills in a meaningful way, Kiki has to deviate from her original path. Now she must focus on flying to bring in the relevant income to stay afloat in her new home.

In the modern world that Kiki now finds herself in, flying is the only novel thing she is capable of. It’s suggested it is a skill that every witch knows, so she doesn’t initially realise this. She doesn’t regard it as worthwhile and neither do most of the townsfolk. Only Tombo — one of Kiki’s peers — seems genuinely amazed that this thirteen-year-old girl can fly.

Miyazaki is misleading the audience with the focus on everything aerial (her broom, the airship, Tombo’s weird bike-propeller-thing; even the climax) because it is hammered home constantly that flying doesn’t make Kiki unique. Her real magical power — her specialism — is her sense of charity and fairness. The conflicts in the film are born out of Kiki’s difficulty in staying true to this cornerstone of her personality in an increasingly depressing environment. As she witnesses more unkindness and blithe privilege from the spoiled townsfolk, she falls into a gloom that robs her of her magic.

Kiki has always been a witch but has never quite fit into the mould. But she’s also not a part of the general populace. She is in flux, without identity and with no idea how to resurrect a stumbling career. Her skills aren’t good enough for people, but she struggles to improve in an environment that doesn’t appreciate her. This is only exacerbated when her flying skills desert her and she falls ill. Her sense of self-worth plummets, and she isolates herself completely.

Central to Kiki’s recovery is Ursula, an unbridled creative who, as many of us wish we could, is just living her best life in the woods with a murder of crows. She tells Kiki: “We each need to find our own inspiration, Kiki. Sometimes it’s not easy.”

With this, and other interventions, Kiki finally realises her worth isn’t dictated by what she does and how well she does it, but by the quality of her character. It doesn’t matter if she can fly or not. She might not be doing anything cool, like other witches, and might not be living the life she hoped, but she begins to comprehend that her road might be longer than other witches’ and that her journey is predicated not on immediate success, but on remaining true to what makes her Kiki.

Okay, that was basically a short rundown of the film. But it’s important to think on how much of it sounded so familiar when framed in that way. That’s one of Kiki’s Delivery Service’s principal strengths: how familiar it feels. It’s not because it tells an old story or because it includes popular concepts like witches and the mystical — it’s because it tells a story of losing, finding, and redefining ambition. In a world that is becoming rapidly calloused to the suffering of others, Kiki’s Delivery Service allegorises the struggle of young people.

Kiki manages to emerge from her struggles a better, more self-aware, more adaptable person. To some, this might seem like a tacit example of giving up. But in fact, it echoes much of what we, as our skills and knowledge become less unique, have to do: adjust.

While older generations might look at young people and tell them to work harder and work more, it is often more valuable — as Kiki’s Delivery Service shows — to accept our pace and our journey as our own.

As the economic boundaries set before young people grow more numerous and unforgiving, it is easy, in that liminal space after graduating from university, to feel isolated and useless. We are presented with images of what we should be on a daily basis, but in a society that actively works against us, it is easy to shut down in the face of those constant impediments. When Kiki misses Tombo’s party, she walks home in the rain — defeated. There is still time for her to attend, but she is so jaded and deflated by her day to motivate herself. It is a bitterly familiar image for twenty-somethings. Stuck within a prolonged panic-mode of modern work, desperately searching for security and progression, we burn out on a daily basis.

With so much set against young people, the last thing we need to add to that list is ourselves. Even while we attempt to dismantle the barriers and economic catastrophe induced by older generations, it can be easy to get caught up in their claims that we’re the problem; that we don’t work hard enough or do enough. But Kiki’s Delivery Service provides a timely reminder that there is no value in comparing yourself with someone else, that your own journey is just that — your own. And maybe it’s time to give yourself a break.

This is a previously posted piece. I took it back in and gave it a quick edit to make it a little easier to read and to get the point across. In its old form, it was originally published on the now-defunct Chronically Magazine.

Cover image source: Dorkly

Designer, writer, and historian. Founder of Geoffrey Bunting Graphic Design (geoffreybunting.co.uk).

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