Hayao Miyazaki’s “Spirited Away” and “Kiki’s Delivery Service” As Lessons About Growth and Significance of Hard Work

By Zosia Wijazka

The feature below may contain spoilers. 

With the beginning of February, Netflix in the Asia Pacific, Europe, Middle East, Africa, and Latin America began to offer Ghibli Studio films in its repertoire. This announcement generated great joy and inspired fans to refresh those classics. Hayao Miyazaki tends to, more often than not, select a female protagonist as a lead and a hero of his films. Coming-of-age stories about young women in a world of fantasy and magic are a great manifesto to learn from, perfect for the young female audience. Two films that are personally very dear to me are “Kiki’s Delivery Service” and “Spirited Away.”

In the interview for Animage in May 2001, the director admitted that he created the latter film purposefully for his five young female friends: I felt this country only offered such things as crushes and romance to 10-year-old girls, though, and looking at my young friends, I felt this was not what they held dear in their hearts, not what they wanted. And so I wondered if I could make a movie in which they could be heroines.

“Kiki’s Delivery Service” (1989) tells a story of a young witch (Kristen Dunst) who leaves her nest to become an independent young adult. She has to find a friendly community of people. After settling in one of the towns, the girl opens an air delivery service. While working hard, she fights for the town’s acceptance. “Spirited Away” (2001) depicts Chihiro (Daveigh Chase) – a 10-year-old girl who accidentally finds herself in a spirit world full of lost souls and witches when her parents eat something they shouldn’t have and turn into pigs. To help her parents, the girl has to work in a bathhouse that’s owned by the evil witch – Yubaba (Suzanne Pleshette).

Although both films have a different age target, both represent female protagonists who maintain a goal and stick to it wholeheartedly. Kiki represents coming-of-age trope, growth, and development. While this is the sole theme of this film, the subject of work is another. The latter connects the picture with “Spirited Away” and Chihiro.

© 1989 - Studio Ghibli 1
© 1989 – Studio Ghibli

Although both films have a different age target, both represent female protagonists who maintain a goal and stick to it wholeheartedly.

Both girls are of different ages. Chihiro is still dependant on her parents. Kiki, the young witch, travels on her own to complete the magic training. She’s leaving to become a woman, the best witch she can be, and an adult. When it comes to life experience, Kiki surpasses the other heroine. The girl needs to live alone for the whole year and do her training. Working in a bakery and running her broom delivery service absorbs her time significantly. Kiki’s only entertainment and a distraction from reality is Ursula (Janeane Garofalo), a young artist whom Kiki meets by accident, and Tombo (Matthew Lawrence), a boy living in the same ocean town. From the moment the character steps foot into the port city, people look at her differently; she’s a thirteen-year-old witch, travelling on a broom without her parents. But Kiki is brilliant, inventive, and skilled – when she sees the chance to work with Osono, a young witch takes it without hesitation. As time passes by, Kiki realizes the struggle of making a living and managing to buy food and clothing.

© 1989 - Studio Ghibli
© 1989 – Studio Ghibli

However, the girl does very well. She possesses not only unusual ideas but also a passion for what she does. This, in turn, gives her the joy of hard work that must be done. Osono (Tress MacNeille) is an excellent support of Kiki and her delivery business. The female character takes the role of a friend/motherly type; mentor. An older woman helps Kiki in daily life. From an outsider, the main character becomes a full-fledged resident of the city.

As time passes by, Kiki realizes the struggle of making a living and managing to buy food and clothing. 

“Kiki’s Delivery Service” is a coming-of-age story, first and foremost, yet many adults will be able to relate to lead character and the struggle of life and work. Throughout the film, Kiki loses touch with her powers. Moreover, her familiar – cat Jiji, can’t talk to her anymore. The girl is desperate to fly, but she’s physically unable to do so. Her magic has abandoned her, so Kiki falls into depression. When it comes to this element of the girl’s character development, Kiki proves that the break from work is vital for one’s mental health. The flying is the essence of her being and the source of her passion. The broom is Kiki’s attribute; she uses it daily. Thus, the most crucial scene in Miyazaki’s film is when she gets control over her broom anew and can ultimately fly again to save Tombo. Kiki saves the boy and becomes an unsung hero of the ocean town.

Chihiro also symbolizes growth and hard work – only in a different way and methods. In contrast to the first examined animation, the significance of hard work in “Spirited Away” is in the centre of the plot. For Chihiro, working for Yubaba, the evil witch means freedom for her and her parents. The lead character is polite and accepts the rules from the very beginning – she doesn’t eat a meal that she didn’t pay for. The significance of the food scrolls through the entire film and symbolizes the infinite greed of people.

The symbolism of it begins with Chihiro’s parents, goes with the “No-Face” ghost gorging the food, or the workers of the bathhouse. It may be a poison or a blessing. To survive there, the girl needs to eat the food that she received from Haku (Jason Marsden), a kindred spirit. The bond between Haku and Chihiro creates quickly; we could say he is her guardian angel. Chihiro, as well as Kiki, is very helpful and wants to do her job the best she can. Working for Yubaba isn’t easy, especially when the witch wants her to fail.

© 2001 - Studio Ghibli
© 2001 – Studio Ghibli

The significance of the food scrolls through the entire film and symbolizes the infinite greed of people. The symbolism of it begins with Chihiro’s parents, goes with the “No-Face” ghost gorging the food, or the workers of the bathhouse.

Similar to Kiki, Chihiro is homesick. However, as time passes by, the work absorbs her entirely. Before joining the bathhouse, the girl has to make a deal with Yubaba. The witch renames her Sen and orders Chihiro to forget her old name and with that, her past. It may symbolize overworking, giving everything one has to the career that, in the end, is less important than the loved ones. The scene further illustrates the significance of one’s name. Everything can be taken away from you, but your name will always stay in your consciousness.

© 2001 - Studio Ghibli
© 2001 – Studio Ghibli

In “Spirited Away,” Chihiro is a constant hero, even if Yubaba doesn’t want to admit it. First, she does a great job of taking care of the very demanding customer and succeeds. Then, she manages to fix her mistake of letting the “No-Face” ghost come in and takes him away from Yubaba’s workplace. She is a young, hard-working woman who fights for her parents and Haku’s freedom. And she wins.

Kiki and Chihiro are very different. After all, they have their standalone films where the main themes differ. Nonetheless, in both cases, they are strong, ambitious young women who don’t give up quickly. Thanks to “Spirited Away” and “Kiki’s Delivery Service,” the meaning, as well as the satisfaction of the work, is strongly presented throughout both films. Additionally, both are coming-of-age stories – to some degree. Although the target audience is mainly kids, movies mentioned above, as well as more Ghibli Studio classics, will charm the older viewers as well. The lessons and morals they contain are universal, no matter how old you are.

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