Kiki’s Delivery Service: An empowering coming-of-age tale of self-discovery

By: Beatrix Kondo May 5, 20230 Comments
Image from Kiki's Delivery Service of a triumphant Kiki being interviewed by reporters

Spoilers for Kiki’s Delivery Service

It can be dreadful to revisit some of our beloved classics—old or modern ones—since they can easily fail the tests of time. But every time I rewatch it, Kiki’s Delivery Service exposes more and more layers of meaning and beauty in a skillfully crafted tale about a journey toward independence and self-discovery that continues to resonate today. 

By looking back at this movie, it is easy to see how it became such a beloved classic and a timeless feminist masterpiece. More than three decades after its release, this sweet coming-of-age tale has not lost any of its charms, using its magical elements and the symbolism of the witch to weave a gentle but powerful story of female community and independence.  

With Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind, released in 1984, Studio Ghibli set a high bar for female protagonists in its movies. Since then, director Hayao Miyazaki’s works have become renowned for challenging harmful gender stereotypes by portraying strong, multifaceted women, from the fierce warriors of Princess Mononoke to the brave kids of Spirited Away. Compared to many of Miyazaki’s other more fantastical flicks, Kiki’s journey is more grounded in reality: not epic in scope or action-packed, just a story about a young witch working her first job. But Kiki is no less of a notable heroine, and Kiki’s Delivery Service is no less of an exceptional film when viewed through a feminist lens.

Kiki riding on her broom with her cat, against a midnight blue backdrop

The witch and her symbolism

While Kiki fits into the “cute witch” anime archetype in many ways, her status as a witch should not be overlooked as one of the film’s feminist-relevant elements. The witch has historically been a stigmatized figure, hunted and scapegoated by the patriarchal power structures that seek to control her. But the imagery of the witch has also been reclaimed in many ways, including in Kiki, where witchcraft serves as a metaphor for brave, independent girls and women who embrace their inherent power and individuality beyond patriarchal conventions and limits. 

Kiki’s coming-of-age story is about her growing into her magical powers and establishing herself as a witch in her own right. She follows in the footsteps of her mother, who is shown to be a successful witch herself in the film’s opening scene, with her making potions and with a beautiful plaque at the front of their house—one that Kiki gets herself by the end of the first part of her journey as a witch and a girl turning into a woman. So, Kiki already has a magical, female role model before she leaves her parents’ house to pursue her year-long witch training, which is already a hint of the pattern of subtly strong female characters that will come and mentor her throughout the film.

Kiki and her mother looking out the window together, seen in side profile

The witch and her community

A witch can also symbolize the wisdom, intuition, and creative and transformative power associated with women. At two different moments in Kiki’s tale, she meets and reunites with Ursula, a young artist, who compares being a witch to her own craft. Even if Ursula does not have literal magic, she shares a sense of solidarity with Kiki and acts as another of her independent female mentor figures—showing that there are many different ways to be successful as a woman, and showing through her art that there are many different ways to express yourself. 

Being a witch also entails changing the current status quo and empowering other women to fight against prejudice and oppression. Even though in the movie the oppression comes more in terms of problems we humans face in real life, it looms nonetheless. Kiki is flawed. She is human, after all. Her road is bumpy, and her journey is not easy. But she finds, at first in Osono, the pregnant baker, a sense of sorority. Although Kiki is the only actual witch there, magic serves as the catalyst for these connections, and together they create a community that is comparable to a coven.

Kiki and Ursula talking in Ursula's woodsy cabin

The most devastating low in Kiki’s journey is when she loses her ability to fly. As many have observed over the years, the loss of her powers can be connected with burnout: even if Kiki is earnestly trying her best, she has faced many difficulties already. She lost her confidence, and her journey into adulthood was not as smooth as her life with her parents used to be. Learning not to overwork herself and to value herself is an important part of Kiki’s journey from childhood into adulthood, and she ultimately gets there with the help of the community she has built. 

Kiki’s female friends support her during this trying period. Osono’s kindness and support are essential in helping Kiki navigate her loss of magic. Ursula encourages her to find new ways to express herself and draws parallels between her art and magic. Recharged, Kiki continues on her adventure and succeeds in saving the day. She is then honored as a hero by the city she decided to call her new home, making her welcome to everyone in the community, not just women.

Being a witch ultimately entails embracing the whole spectrum of feminine power while also being courageous and unapologetic. And even if Kiki’s journey, at the end of the movie, is far from over—after all, life is a journey, not a destination—she has learned that resilience involves taking care of yourself and of each other. 

Kiki packing her things with Jiji sitting next to her

The witch and her cat

Another element of the film’s witchy imagery is Jiji, Kiki’s male cat and typical witch’s companion. While it’s not uncommon for female protagonists to have male animal sidekicks, Jiji’s position as one of the few main boy characters in the movie raises some interesting observations.

From the very beginning, Jiji is always second-guessing every move Kiki makes, everything she decides, and insists more than once that they should look for another city to stay. He can be seen as her own voice of doubt, yes, but he can also be regarded as that male voice that society imposes on women who seek to be independent and fully grown adults. It is also interesting that Miyazaki chose to make Jiji fall in love with a neighboring cat, Lily—and, in the credits, it is shown that Jiji and Lily had kittens together—and leave Kiki alone when she was in the middle of a crisis after so often positioning himself as her voice of reason. 

Kiki flying on her broom and visiting a ledge where Jiji, the fluffy white cat, and their kittens are sitting

After Kiki manages to save the day by the end of the film, she cannot communicate with Jiji anymore by using human language. The reason behind Jiji’s inability to communicate with Kiki even after she regained her powers was to depict Kiki’s maturity and self-reliance. It was intended to show that she no longer needed her “other self” to function. It is worth mentioning that in the Disney adaptation, Jiji was given a voice again in the end, while in the original version, he remained silent, as confirmed by Studio Ghibli and Miyazaki himself. 

Although many people view the witch and cat going their separate ways as bittersweet, I read this as showing how she overcame her doubts, and how she matured via the sorority she found after meeting and becoming part of a community of other powerful, independent women of all ages, women who offer a crucial network of trust and support that help Kiki overcome her obstacles, which seems to be Miyazaki’s original intent. 

Kiki flopped on her bed facedown, looking dejected

Furthermore, Jiji eventually proves to be much more than merely Kiki’s traveling companion or cute sidekick. He—purposely chosen as a male—stands for how societal pressures and self-doubt may be transformed into acceptance and self-love, “losing” his “human” voice and embracing his being a full-time cat and Kiki’s true companion then. Kiki discovers how to let go of her anxieties and accept her own unique talents and abilities through the challenges and hardships that cross her path. 

After Kiki regains her confidence and strength, Jiji truly transforms into her actual companion, thus eradicating both her critical inner voice—externalized into “his” human voice and the “male” judgmental voice that is an allegory to patriarchy—that had previously held her back. Kiki now can overcome challenges and regain her strength and footing. 

Kiki’s Delivery Service as a whole is a lovely reminder that our identities are not determined by those of others and that real friendship is based on acceptance of one another and unwavering love. As the final credits roll, we cannot help but feel a sense of wonder and joy at their newfound freedom, and a renewed hope for our own journeys ahead.

Kiki riding on a bike behind Tombo, who smiles back at her

The witch and her… romance?

First love is frequently portrayed as a “rite of passage” to becoming a woman in coming-of-age stories portraying teenage girls (yes, even those on the younger end of the spectrum, like 13-year-old Kiki), and romance is often a key component of the plot. The lack of a love plot or even a subplot in this sense in Kiki’s Delivery Service stands out in light of this. In Kiki’s own words, romance is off the table for a while—she wants to become a full-trained witch first. It is not that she is dismissive of romantic relationships: she even comments, in the beginning, before leaving her parents’ home, that she should leave soon, or else she might find a nice boyfriend and end up never leaving.

This statement can be seen as a criticism of the stories typically playing in movie theaters at the time—and, unfortunately, some even now—depicting getting married to the love of one’s life as the only path possible for a woman to achieve completeness. Not friends, not work, only love. Kiki does not discard love, but her relationship with Tombo, the boy she saves, is framed by the film as primarily one of friendship. And she has female friends. And romance? Well, the future will tell. She still has plenty to learn and earn.  

Kiki and Osono standing together overlooking the town

It’s also not as if romance is denied to the other women in the story, either: they are simply not defined by that! This little witch comes from a happy place. While many stories about a girl growing up show them with absent mothers, Kiki’s mother is alive and happy with her father. Osono is happy with her husband and their baby. But romance, marriage, and a family are clearly not the only ways for women to be happy and fulfilled. Osono runs a successful business and she is a loving wife, and, when the credits roll, we get to see her as a happy mother as well. Ursula is an accomplished artist following her dreams on her own, and, as mentioned above, Kiki’s mother is portrayed as a competent witch as well as a happy wife. 

While some coming-of-age stories frame getting a boyfriend as the ultimate reward for their heroine’s character development, Kiki’s narrative offers her something else. In place of a love interest, she gets a story about ambition, independence, community, and magic that is nevertheless her own. 

Image from Kiki's Delivery Service of a triumphant Kiki being interviewed by reporters

The witch and her legacy

Kiki is an endearing lead character that exudes a feeling of will and independence. She is tenacious, imaginative, and capable of tackling any challenge that is thrown her way. Kiki is not invulnerable despite her magical abilities, though. Her more mundane jobs, such as running her delivery service and working at Osono’s bakery, must be balanced with her ability to fly and her training as a witch. She faces insecurities, homesickness, and challenges in discovering her place in the world. Kiki’s perseverance and strength, however, come through most clearly when she falters and experiences self-doubt, which makes her a very relatable protagonist.  

As I reflect on Kiki’s Delivery Service three decades after its debut, I cannot help but be grateful that it was made. Its characters and their interactions instantly capture our hearts and minds, and the movie’s impact and influence on past and future generations cannot be understated. Strong female mentor figures are prevalent, while witch iconography promotes female strength, and Kiki’s lack of a romantic plotline contradicts both conventional gender expectations and clichés seen in coming-of-age films featuring female characters from the past and present. Just as it was 30 years ago, the film remains a source of inspiration and an homage to the spirit of feminism. Kiki, this strong and independent young witch, has undoubtedly charmed us and will continue to do so for many years to come.

About the Author : Beatrix Kondo

Meet Beatrix Kondo, your friendly neighborhood storyteller who, much like a Digimon, evolved from a chibi writer in 2022 into a seasoned wordsmith. Her portfolio is now bursting with cool narratives that rival monsters in a dungeon, all within the intersection of geeky realms and the vibrant threads of feminist, queer, and inclusive perspectives. Let's celebrate the growth, one cool story at a time!

Read more articles from Beatrix Kondo

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