I adore the opening scene in Kiki’s Delivery Service. The eponymous little witch lies in a meadow, listening to her father’s radio. She gazes at the sky as the broadcaster predicts a beautiful full moon for that night. For the moment, the day is bright, a gentle breeze is blowing, and clouds ease across the blue sky. A bee buzzes about in front of her, but after briefly investigating the girl, it continues about its day, curiosity satisfied. Kiki ignores the intrusion, and continues meditating upon the cerulean skies.
Kiki’s is a coming of age story about a little girl finding her way in the bigger world. At 13, witches have to do their training, which involves finding a city and using her skills to help the inhabitants. She plans to fly away that night, under the full moon and clear sky. The movie has a slice-of-life quality: the magical nature and mechanics of the world aren’t deeply explained, but showcased lightly during the movement of the film. The audience is dropped into this strange world and trusted to go along with the flow.
This type of scene is omnipresent in Hayao Miyazaki’s films. He likes to grant his characters respite through moments when they’re allowed to idle. These gaps have a deep humane quality. For me, they’re evidence of how much the filmmaker cares about his characters and the people who identify with them.
Before the action begins, Kiki gets to rest. She is given a chance to take a metaphorical deep breath and simply be. In an interview with Roger Ebert, Miyazaki called those scenes instances of “ma,” an old Japanese word loosely translating to emptiness:
”The time in between my clapping is ma. If you just have non-stop action with no breathing space at all, it’s just busyness, But if you take a moment, then the tension building in the film can grow into a wider dimension. If you just have constant tension at 80 degrees all the time you just get numb.”
Moments of “ma” expand the dimensions of the film while emphasizing Miyazaki’s tenderness towards his characters. That tenderness protects the character from being abused for the sake of entertainment or a more “moving” story, disavowing the notion that deep tragedy is necessary for growth and change. Misfortunes are natural in Miyazaki films, but they’re hardly ever the driving force behind the stories or the development of the characters. Most of the time, the force that propels them is internal. They’re pulled forward by their dreams or their search for identity.
Kiki experiences many failures over the course of her journey. She loses her power of flight, which leads to a loss of identity. She loses a package she had been tasked to deliver, which makes her feel incompetent. She feels lonely in an unfamiliar city. She’s mistreated, and she mistreats others. The film is an adaptation of Eiko Kadono’s Majo no Takkyubin, and Kiki’s struggles were admittedly made tougher than the events in the original story:
“In the original, Kiki solves difficult problems with her naturally good heart. At the same time her circle of allies increases. In filming this we have had to make a few changes. The process of her developing her talent is surely pleasant but the spirit of our young girls living in the capital today is not so simple ... We feel, therefore, in this movie that we must give serious treatment to the problem of independence. As movies always create a more realistic feeling, Kiki will suffer stronger setbacks and loneliness than in the original.”
Yet Kiki’s suffering is never excessive or explosive. The story doesn’t hide from the problems a young girl may face in a search for independence, but it also doesn’t indulge in those setbacks.
She is lost in the new city, but she’s taken in by a pregnant woman who owns a bakery and enlists her help to deliver food. She stands up a friendly boy who invites her to a party, but the boy continues to extend his friendship. She’s rejected by a group of potential friends, but makes connections elsewhere. When she suffers from a lack of self-belief, she meets an artist in the forest who helps her work through that problem. Her growth isn’t linear, but neither is it overly dramatic. The film is deeply moving and enjoyable while remaining light and gentle with Kiki herself.
Miyazaki said of his hopes for film:
“I feel that this film will fulfill its goal of reaching out with a feeling of solidarity to our young viewers: the young girls living in today’s world who do not deny the joy of youth, nor are carried away by it, torn between freedom and dependence (because we were all young men and women once, and the young members of our staff have these very problems now).”
The tenderness with which he treats Kiki enforces that solidarity. The film empowers and celebrates. It doesn’t simply reflect or dramatize her pains. Kiki, in keeping with Miyzaki’s affection for his characters, is treated as humanly as possible. During her adventure, she’s given moments of relief, gaps of peace where she doesn’t need to anything but exist. These gaps are wonderful signals that life is much more than plot and constant action. They demonstrate that within the grand adventure between birth and death, one should also sometimes sit in the grass on a lovely sunny day and revel in the joy of being.