Kiki's Delivery Service (1989)
Fantasy and Historical Commentary in 'Kiki's Delivery Service'
By: Domonique Cox-Salberg
Hayao Miyazaki’s films may be fantasy, but at the same time bursting with history and frequented by the nature of modernism. Therefore, in this article, we will look at Miyazaki’s affinity for mixing elements of both the fantastic and the historical in his classic, Kiki’s Delivery Service.
As a refresher, Kiki’s Delivery Service follows a young witch preparing to leave home for the first time on her mandatory year of independent life while running an air courier service to support herself. The whimsy comes much from her flying on a broomstick, watching her mother mix up magic potions while accompanied by a talking black cat named Jiji. As we can see, it has all the typical fantasy fare, that when we see it, we are put into a trancelike setting and are ready to accept a world of imagination.
However, the design of Koriko, the city by the sea where most of the film takes place, Miyazaki took influence from many real European cities. Including Lisbon, Stockholm, Naples, and Paris. Koriko resembles all of these cities yet simultaneously evades concrete identification, which works to bring a general air of realism and familiarity for a spellbinding viewing. Subsequently, glimpses of history are admirably dispersed through the action of the film.
When Kiki goes flying at night looking for a new city to live in, what is revealed below her are a bunch of visual indicators which clue when the movie takes place. There are industrial pipes, cars, and even an old biplane called the Handley Page H.P. 42 flying by. This kind of plane is a British warplane that battled in the Second World War—an ominous reference passing through in the middle of the night over the countryside.
Kiki’s Delivery Service takes place in an alternate history in Europe where World War II never happened. By setting the film at a highly pivotal point in modern history, Miyazaki shows a concern with the 20th century and the global order production we now experience. As the film progresses, there are trains, phones, televisions, and other planes. Nevertheless, the most important symbol may be the plane—the airship that went crashing through the city at the end of the film and called the spirit of freedom.
This imagery of the airship crashing is eerily similar to the historical catastrophe of the Hindenburg. Catching fire and crashing over New Jersey in May of 1937 created some of the most haunting images ever caught on film. Initially hailed as a triumph of engineering and an emblem of Germany’s revival as a leader in the modern world, the disaster changed the Hindenburg instead into a symbol of the destructive potential of modernism. The disaster happened only two years before World War II and stood as a dark omen of things to come. For Miyazaki to include these images of a Zeppelin disaster terrorizing the public, he manages to express some poignant wounds.
A Miyazaki Theme
The threat posed by modern technology is an issue explored by Miyazaki and visited by him often throughout his career—most explicitly in films, Princess Mononoke, Nausicaa, and The Wind Rises. Nonetheless, what makes Kiki’s Delivery Service stand out is its enigmatic approach to this commentary on technology by what appears to be a simple, fun fantasy film for kids.
Miyazaki seems to be still grappling with old historical problems as he incorporates them into his modern created worlds to show us how the past is not confined to the past; that we can find fragments of it almost anywhere, even in the whimsical world of Kiki’s Delivery Service.