Portrait of the Artist as a Young Witch: Witchcraft, Craftiness, and Creativity in 'Kiki's Delivery Service'
Kiki's story of self-discovery evocatively expresses the process of a young artist confronting tradition and fears of rejection to make a bold statement of her own.
Kiki's Delivery Service (Majo no Takkyūbin), Hayao Miyazaki’s soaring 1989 story of a teenage witch, is rightfully hailed as a coming-of-age classic. The fantastical tale, adapted from Eiko Kadono’s 1985 novel, perfectly captures the confusion of growing up. It also serves as a masterful Künstlerroman about a young artist coming into her own and developing her style. Kiki may not be an “artist” in the typical sense, but her arc is devoted to perfecting her craft: witchcraft. Her journey is one of self-discovery and self-creation, finding her creative spirit and uncovering the magic of her own voice along the way.
The film begins with the start of her education as Kiki is about to embark on her self-administered apprenticeship. Witchcraft is a practice tied deeply to tradition, and when a witch turns 13, she must leave home for a year of training in an unfamiliar city. Kiki’s mother, also a witch, teaches her the customs of her heritage — reminding her, for instance, that she must wear black clothes (which she hates) because witches have worn that color for ages. Kiki tries to assert her individual style, but her first forays into making her own crafts within this tradition are met with disappointment. For instance, on her midnight flight Kiki wants to take her own broom that she put an immense amount of work into making, but she is urged instead to take her mother’s broom — it is age-old and time-tested, and thus deemed more secure. Kiki shows promise as a creator but struggles to figure out where her creative niche is.
Kiki’s early path is defined by doubt of her abilities and uncertainty over what distinct contribution she can make. Flying off with her jaded black cat Jiji, she encounters a fortune-telling witch with a snobby demeanor, who sneers with disdain when Kiki reveals she does not yet know what her primary “skill” is. When she finds the perfect city to make her home, the port of Koriko, the townspeople are uncertain of how to receive her. She has no clue where to go and no patrons to support her endeavors. “I really only have one skill and that’s flying,” Kiki says — so encouraged by Osono, a sweet bakery owner, she puts that skill to use and opens a delivery business.
Kiki’s pursuit of the art of magic becomes slightly derailed by her financial concerns — she has to survive on her own somehow, and must be able to monetize her skills before she can consider pursuing her passions. Witch or not, she still desires to fit in and have material comfort. This is evident in the way that she stares longingly at a pair of red shoes in the shop window, but sadly sighs that they are too expensive. Later, she bemoans her lack of customers and worries, “If nobody comes in, I’m going to have to eat pancakes forever.”
But a mishap on her first job leads her to the home of Ursula, a painter who is sketching crows on the roof, and Kiki is suddenly presented with a model of successful artistic practice. Kiki is in awe of her painterly gift and her self-assuredness: Ursula is able to make her own way as an artist, living independently with financial security. Meanwhile, Kiki must always resort to making crafty “deals” to survive, bartering for room and board or scrubbing floors in order to obtain what she needs.
Kiki continues her training in witchcraft, but what was once a calling or something she was born to do, she soon starts seeing as an exhausting profession. She needs to find a way to fit in within the town and encounters difficulty striking a balance between work and passion within the capitalist society. She eventually starts getting more regular business for her delivery service, transporting packages and gifts all over town. However, this is not a fulfilling application of her skill: “Flying used to be fun until I started doing it for a living,” she remarks as the drive for money drains the energy and spontaneity of soaring through the skies.
Kiki struggles to understand why she feels so weary when she finally gets the steady work she had long been chasing — and that is because she has been forcing herself to be an employee, and has not yet learned to think of herself as an autonomous artist or entrepreneur. Her flight isn’t just a professional qualification she can deploy at will to maximize profit; it is a gift that requires inspiration. Dispirited and lacking self-confidence, Kiki cannot keep her inventive spark alive, and she begins suffering a profound case of creative burnout. Suddenly, she finds her witch’s powers suddenly lost – and she is unable to understand Jiji and unable to fly.
There are no other witches in town for Kiki to turn to for insight in this crisis, but there is another artist — Ursula. The despondent Kiki retreats to the painter’s cabin where Ursula helps her uncover her “artist’s block.” She starts by telling Kiki that she is working too hard at what should be an effortless impulse. Art and magic cannot be forced. “Painting and magical powers are very much the same,” Ursula says, finally recognizing Kiki for the independent soul she is, with enchanting abilities that must be nurtured. Ursula recounts a similar experience during her own artistic coming-of-age when she felt she lost her ability. She was stuck in a passionless rut making paintings that were mere copies of other artists’ work, not having yet discovered the power of her own style. Her words encourage Kiki to find her own inspiration and artistic drive: to let go of trying to copy other witches through all the traditions and training, and instead figure out what she wants to say and what motivates her.
What Kiki begins to discover is that what initially made her work “worth it” was not the money, but the sense of purpose from seeing the joy she could bring on her deliveries. On one job earlier in the film, she visits an old woman who is baking her special herring and pumpkin pot pie for her granddaughter. Her oven is broken and so the pie is not cooked, but she insists on still paying Kiki in full. Yet Kiki cannot simply accept the money without helping. So she helps the woman ignite an old wood oven to bake the pie — lighting the fire and also symbolically sparking old traditions and Kiki’s new imaginative energy. The two of them work together to produce a beautiful pie, and even after it is complete and ready to be delivered, Kiki is still reluctant to accept the money — helping her new friend did not feel like work, but rather like assisting a skilled craftswoman in realizing her masterpiece.
Eventually, we start to see just how much creation Kiki has helped bring to life. Tombo is in awe of Kiki’s flying skills, and shows her his own handicraft; he has built a flying bike contraption so that he too can soar through the skies. Tombo wants to bring Kiki to the beach and train himself while he watches her — as if she is the artist and he is the apprentice. Kiki is shocked that Ursula wants her to model and has made a gorgeous painting of her in flight, and she slowly starts to see how powerful can be — finding inspiration in inspiring others.
Instead of centering her training on developing her witchcraft skills for her own benefit, she prioritizes learning to use those skills to spread magic wherever she goes. Though Kiki may not have any fortune-telling abilities, she still becomes a medium: she is a messenger transmitting goods and gifts between people, a medium between old traditions and new ways of being, as she brings witchcraft into her modern community.
What finally gets Kiki her magic back is not the promise of money or career success — it is the call of a friend in need. At the film’s climax, Tombo is left dangerously dangling in the sky after an accident with the “Spirit of Freedom” airship, and it is up to Kiki to imagine a way to save him. Left without her usual broom, she is forced to come up with a crafty solution: so she takes the broom of a street sweeper, which symbolizes abandoning the traditions embodied by her mother’s broom for ideas of her own. After a shaky start, Kiki flies, shedding her self-doubt and becoming a sight that is a wonder to behold in the sky. She saves Tombo as the townspeople are unable to tear their eyes away and begin rallying around her in raucous support. Finally, she has found acceptance for her identity and garnered recognition for her abilities. Kiki is their witch, and her flight is a wonder to behold.
Her true art, and greatest magical gift, is the connection she creates with people. Her delivery service is not about business success, but rather open communication, not climbing up the ladder but creating relationships within her community and prompting further artistic creation. While her initial reception by the town is lukewarm, Kiki is now celebrated for her flight as she devotes herself to pursuing it with newfound passion. She has learned to deal with failures and has overcome her fears of rejection. Along her endeavor to chart her own path through the skies, she inspires the old woman’s baking, Tombo’s flying, Ursula’s painting, and the witch display in Osono’s bakery window. During the credits montage, she inspires smiles in the townspeople via her deliveries and spectacular flying, and she notices a little girl dressed just like her: black dress, red bow, and broom. Her stylistic influence is spreading, and her magic is an art that will continue to grow around her and grow up with her.