Flying with Your Spirit: Independence, self-definition, and Kiki’s Delivery Service

By: Morgan Byrne May 29, 20190 Comments
Kiki grinning as she prepares for takeoff

Growing up in rural West Virginia did not provide me with specific lenses through which I might begin to believe that I could fly, that I could somehow strike out beyond that horizon-blurred border and seek myself away from what can only be described as expectation and crippling statistics. To dream was to toss plush Pokemon toys into the tall grass and wander around to find them, not to break out of a realist shell.

In any case, that didn’t stop my parents from trying, reassuring my brother and I that the world was much, much larger than those around us might have us believe.

Kiki running up to a moss-covered house surrounded by a garden

Each Friday night, my parents would take us to the Blockbuster in Cross Lanes, and the two of us would rush through the aisles in search of something we hadn’t yet seen. I was particularly enamored with the left frontmost corner of the store, wherein the sun streaked in through the windows and bleached the covers of various animated feature films.

Two that I noticed immediately were Kiki’s Delivery Service (1989) and Spirited Away (2001), the latter of which would initially scare me with its ghostly images and possibility of becoming lost in a land so incredibly intangible. Kiki’s Delivery Service, on the other hand, would become a staple, a definitive touchstone as I continued to grow and adapt with my surroundings and sense of self.  

I was eight years old, sniffling and captivated.

Kiki flying above a small town

I watched the film with wide eyes, wider still as Kiki (only five years older than me, at the time) left her home in search of her own town for her witch training, flew high above the ocean on her broomstick, and subsequently tumbled out of the sky with relative frequency. I gripped the edge of the couch between my fingers, skin raw from my nails picking at the tips as Kiki struggled with her confidence and her powers, briefly losing the ability to fly or understand the speech of her black cat, Gigi.

Independence was so thoroughly appealing, back then. I would often wake up early on weekends, pack a snack, and spend the day outside, planning how I would live off of the land and be totally independent by the time I was Kiki’s age.

The very idea of being able to live on my own, make my own decisions, and grow based on my experiences outside of the stipulations placed upon me by my small town seemed like the ultimate dream. After seeing Kiki leave her parents and fly across the water at midnight with her little red radio, I thought that I could do the same.

Kiki sitting on a hill looking across a lake

In the days after watching the film for the first time, I would eye the broomstick in the pantry with an avid curiosity, carry around my Discman like my own little red radio, and pretend my cat, Tori, could understand me when I told her that yes, we will fly away and live above a bakery one day.

And when my father made pancakes one evening for dinner, I began wondering just how many meals I could withstand on Bisquick, eggs, and milk alone; a shared journey between myself, my future, and a witch’s chosen breakfast food.

When Paul and I dated, he was eighteen, and I had just turned fourteen.

It was around this time, too, that anime had been reintroduced to my life, becoming more than childhood films and plush toys that cluttered the top shelf of my bookcase.     

It didn’t take me long to spot Kiki’s Delivery Service among the other Ghibli films at the Town Center Mall, and while I was intrigued by the myriad of titles that were then unknown to me, I was focused on a specific goal. I bought the film about two weeks later.

Kiki flying above busy traffic

The few times that Paul came over, I asked if he wanted to watch it. He denied any interest, saying he would rather the two of us just “talk,” when I knew he wanted far more than that. My friends would text me after he left, asking if anything happened, and I couldn’t help feeling that they were just as eager as he was, wondering when I was going to say, “Fine, already.”

Just before spring break, my mother joined me in the basement as I watched Kiki for the umpteenth time. She sat in the swiveling chair that we had just had reupholstered in deep blue, the one that she had bought for her first apartment years ago.

“You used to watch this a lot when you were a kid,” she said.

“Yeah, I did.”

“What made you want to watch it now?”

Jiji the cat looking suspiciously at Osono, who's set out a bowl of milk for him

On the television screen, Kiki and her counterpart, Tombo, tumbled down a steep hill on his bicycle, propeller stuck to the handle bars and spinning like mad. I watched as they collected themselves, laughing in such a way that denotes a sense of growing fondness and relief. It was little wonder, though, that when Tombo’s circle of friends—who had earlier teased Kiki for her powers—arrived, Kiki stiffened.

“C’mon, I’ll introduce you!” he said, making his way toward their vehicle.

Kiki shook her head. Tombo continued to urge her toward the vehicle, not sensing her distress and discomfort, until she finally said, “No,” and removed herself from the situation.

I thought about his dismayed and confused expression quite frequently, and when I went to bed that night, I know my mother watched me as I shut my door, wondering why my eyes had been relatively downcast the rest of the film.

I wish that I could follow this up by saying I then removed myself from a toxic (and, truly, completely inappropriate) relationship, but I didn’t, not for a very, very long time. I would spend most nights of my first year of high school wrapped beneath the black, knit sheets of my bed, curled around my cat, wondering how much harder I needed to wish in order to make the broomstick in the kitchen pantry fly.

“I start feeling like such an outsider. You should have seen the way Tombo’s friends looked at me.”

It was almost inevitable, the rumors that began to circulate about me and my “boyfriend.” I could hear the sneering from the teenagers in the film just as easily as I could hear the calls of “slut” and “whore” in the hallway at school. Kiki was ridiculed for being a witch, and I was the focus of ire and amusement because I was unsure of who I was, unsure of who I wanted to be, and unsure of how I could possibly get myself out of a bad situation, even if none of it was my fault.

I was Kiki when she began feeling lost, when she struggled to fly as her own sense of self wavered in the wake of harsh perceptions from others and unexpected stressors. The broom in the kitchen pantry wasn’t ever going to fly, and my body felt heavier than any package that needed to be delivered. I began to doubt that even magic could pry me from the earth. My sense of gravity had become nothing more than a suffocating thickness that clung to my limbs.

Kiki wrapped in a blanket, talking to Ursula

In November of 2018, I moved out of my parents’ home.

My mother and I worked to get the hutch of my desk through the front door, my right foot holding the storm door open. It was a warmer evening for November, about fifty degrees, and I had thrown on a tank top to ward off some of the heat. My mother looked at the back of my left shoulder and laughed.

“You know, I always thought you would get Kiki’s cat as your first tattoo,” she said, eyeing Attack on Titan’s Survey Corps emblem.

I had considered it. In fact, it’s still on my list of possibilities.

We worked the hutch into the second bedroom that would serve as an office, navigating the stairs and plush carpet that has a tendency to catch people’s feet. She strolled through each room, hands crossed over her chest. Hesitant but still appreciative of the space, nonetheless.

“You’re on your own now.”

“Yeah, I am.”

To be completely independent and a witch? Impressive.”

Kiki laying on the grass with her radio beside her

A few weeks after we moved in, the winter break arrived, bringing with it a reprieve from grading argumentative essays and responding to emails about homework assignments. Still, a certain pressure lingered, as my graduate portfolio loomed over my head each time I opened my laptop.

Throughout the process of crafting the portfolio, I was tasked with exercises of genre performance and crafting the various iterations of “self” on the page. And while there’s nothing quite like dissecting Elizabeth Ellen’s “I” in Person/a, the glaring possibility of my own “I” becoming fraudulent plagued each paragraph of the first draft of my reflective introduction.

How am I supposed to write about the self if I am just attempting to do and be the same as each and every author whose work I have read over the past year? Or, rather, who even am I? Uprooted from my childhood home and swimming in a seemingly endless deluge of objective correlatives and simple but-not simple sentences, breathing would grow difficult.

Kiki above the city at night

About halfway through the winter break, slouched into the couch in the same sweatpants from the day before, I pressed play on a DVD that had been gathering dust on the bottom shelf of the entertainment system. The sound of Joe Hisaishi’s “A Town with an Ocean View” filled the room, and while I felt the initial ease that I had come to expect from the piece, the twinge of discomfort did not leave, my muscles remaining rigid.

I watched as Kiki did the same things she had done during my childhood: flying away at age thirteen, finding her town by the sea, moving into the spare room above a bakery, and starting her own flying delivery service. I watched as she rushed to find the black stuffed kitten she had lost in the woods or aid two older women in baking a pie shaped like a fish.

Toward the end of the movie, there’s a moment where Kiki is forced to confront the fact that she is, indeed, alone. She must come to terms with her existence outside of those that surround her and learn that her power is derived from her own being—not Tombo, her parents, or Osono, the owner of the bakery above which Kiki lives for the majority of the film. Kiki cannot rely on others to bolster her confidence or her own development; she must actively seek that for herself.

In the midst of her slump, she is visited by Ursula, a young woman that lives on her own in the woods. When Kiki had dropped the stuffed kitten into the forest earlier in the film, Ursula had repaired it; and when Kiki fails to visit her later, Ursula takes it upon herself to meet Kiki while in town. Kiki follows Ursula around, the two eventually returning to Ursula’s cabin in the woods.

Once inside, Kiki comes across a painting:

Ursula's painting of a girl flying with a pegasus and a buffalo through the night sky

When Kiki asks about the origin of the painting, Ursula tells her that Kiki herself inspired her to paint the piece, but that she couldn’t “get her face just right.” Kiki then models for Ursula and, more importantly, begins to become aware of her own power.

I’d be lying if I said that it immediately became easier for me to write, that I stood up from the couch, took a damn shower, and sat down to produce my best work yet. The creative process rarely works like that. But this was a moment that, in my viewings as a younger watcher, had a larger impact and called for more introspection than before.

The revelation of personal potential and, cliche as it sounds, belief took hold that evening in a way that it could not have when I was eight or fourteen. Finally and truly on my own, the image of Kiki’s independence and strength through experience grew to be my touchstone for the remainder of my graduate school experience. And, as of writing this article, I have just defended that portfolio (and, of course, paid all of my big girl bills).

It clocked in at seventy-six pages. I passed with distinction.

A window display at the bakery advertising Kiki's delivery service in bread form

My copy of Kiki’s Delivery Service sits on my desk; its wear and tear is becoming a bit more obvious, and I’m actively trying to keep it from bending or scraping against any stray pencils or metallic cases. Periodically, when I’m in the midst of grading or writing, I look at the cover, at Kiki’s smiling face as she flies, and think that maybe I didn’t even need that kitchen pantry broom at all.

About the Author : Morgan Byrne

Morgan Byrne (@byrne_morgan) holds a B.A. in Creative Writing and an M.A. in English, each from Marshall University. She is a three-time Maier Award winner, and her work has been featured in Et Cetera—before working as the fiction editor and social media representative—and Water Soup. Currently, she works as a beginning composition instructor and actively pursues avenues through which anime can be taught in both beginning and advanced English classrooms. She hopes to continue updating her blog more frequently, too.

Read more articles from Morgan Byrne

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