19 October 2007
I think the first Hayao Miyazaki movie that really blew my away was Princess Mononoke (1997). But, in many ways, that movie is something of an anomaly, as I found later, in the Studio Ghibli pantheon. It really doesn't seem like a kid's movie at all.
The second Miyazaki film I loved, and it made me a Miyazaki fan forever, was Spirited Away (2001). I saw Spirited Away in an East Village movie theater in, I guess 2001 or 2002, and I think I saw it 1-2 more times in that theater before it disappeared.
Miyazaki's movies make me feel more alive. It's really that simple. And Kiki's Delivery Service is no exception.
Whereas some of my favorite Miyazaki films (the two mentioned already and Howl's Moving Castle, a 2004 release) are fully peopled with fabulous spirits, demons, gods, and mythical beasts, Kiki's Delivery Service has only this one witch, Kiki, and she's forgetting how to do the one magic thing she knows how to do, fly.
I can't really write this entry without getting shamefully personal, so here goes, and forgive me if this seems more self-indulgent than usual. This movie hit home in a way that hundreds and hundreds of incredible, genius movies for grown-ups failed to do. It's simple, really, Kiki gets separated, somehow, from the thing that she loves most in life, the thing that makes her Kiki: her ability to fly.
For the first hour of the movie, flying is what sets Kiki apart from other people, and it's the thing that, apparently, endears her to others as well. People gradually realize how Kiki's magic can benefit them, and they take advantage, hiring her to deliver gifts and packages around the seaside town. Kiki's delighted, partly because she loves feeling useful and needed.
Suddenly, though, for no convincing, substantial reason (maybe she feels insecure when she compares herself to the pretty, outgoing, boisterous, and well-dressed town girls; maybe she feels lonely; maybe she's homesick; but none of these explanations really fits), she falls out of love with flying and, simultaneously, finds herself unable to do it. Not only that, but she also loses her ability to understand her black cat familiar, Jiji, her closest friend and helper.
It's not some kind of other-worldly, magical crisis, either. It's a very human one, expressed in very human ways. Kiki explains it: "I think something's wrong with me. I make friends, then suddenly I can't bear to be with any of them. Seems like that other me, the cheerful and honest one, went away somewhere." Kiki feels separated not only from her magic, her first love, but also from her friends and even from herself.
When Kiki's friend, a painter, whisks Kiki away for a much-needed retreat in the country, she and Kiki compare their experiences. Kiki tells her friend: "Without even thinking about it, I used to be able to fly. Now I can't even begin to remember how I ever managed to do it." The painter tells a similar story, not about flying, but about her talent, painting: "Then, one day, I became unable to paint. So I painted and painted some more, but none of it was any good. They were copies of paintings I'd seen somewhere before...."
The painter, though, is a little bit older--she's been pursuing painting for longer than Kiki's been on her own as a flying witch. She tells of coming through her crisis to a new understanding: "But after that...it's not much easier now. But I think I found what painting means, at least for me....I suppose it must be a power given by God. Sometimes you suffer for it." This is what I love about Miyazaki. It's not all black or white, happy or sad. The painter acknowledges that her efforts at painting are not any easier now, after she's gained understanding, but she's more confident in the meaningfulness of what she does, and she's able to attest to God's hand at work in her life.
The painter's advice to Kiki is to stop flying--do something else or do nothing--just don't push it and flight will return when it's time.
Kiki's resolution, when it comes, is similar to the painter's. Here comes a spoiler, so stop reading if you want to keep the end of the movie a surprise....
She does fly again. After her retreat with the painter, she's able to recover her ability just in time to save a boy's she's befriended. It's not pretty--her flight is wobbly and uncertain, she bangs into buildings and loses her way, and she almost lets her friend fall to his death, but she succeeds. Roll credits.
But there are two things that keep this from being the standard, pat, "happily ever after" ending. The first is subtle, and I don't know whether it's intentional, but when Kiki's cat greets her after Kiki rescues the boy, he still doesn't speak in a way that she can understand. Perhaps Kiki's powers have not returned 100% or without further mishap. The second is more explicit. For the viewer who waits through the closing credits, there's a little surprise. Kiki has written a letter home, and her family is reading it. In the letter, Kiki reports that everything is falling into place, and she's building her confidence. "There are still times when I feel sad, but all in all, I sure love this town," she concludes.
In the standard Disney movie, the hero or heroine's life is filled with turmoil until the plot is resolved, and then there's this sense that everything will be better than ok--it will be darn near perfect. But in Kiki's Delivery Service, there is every hint that trouble will continue as an everyday fact of life--even for the heroine whose movie challenge is successfully completed, things will not be much easier, and there will still be sadness, but she can still love what she is called (and gifted) to do.
I sometimes wonder if my life would be different if I had grown up with Kiki and her friends instead of all the Prince Charmings and Cinderellas of my childhood. Somehow, I ingested this lie that, once one's dues have been paid, life stretches out in a more or less unbroken road of joy and ease. Even as an adult, now, it seems unfair to me that life should be constantly marred by uncertainty, self-doubt, struggle, and failure. But that's life, right? Even after we discover God's call for our lives and the gifts that God has given us to answer that call, the call is no less difficult for that knowledge. And the love of one's calling is no more difficult and perilous than the love of a spouse or a child. There are times when any true love feels more like a chore, when some days must be walked with travail and effort, not with a love-lightened dancing step.
I love teaching. I love my students and my colleagues here. But sometimes, especially recently, I don't feel that love. If Disney's mythology reigns in my heart, then I despair to the depths of my soul when I lose that loving feeling (as the song says). But if I could only dethrone Disney and put Miyazaki (or Buddha, or Jesus) in its place, I'd know that faith exists to push us through when love seems to fade. Or, perhaps more precisely, love is sometimes that sweaty, dirty, hard-working beast of burden slogging through the muck of depression and anxiety and second-guesses. But for all that mud and toil, it's still love, and it's still that thing granted us by God, even if we sometimes suffer for it.
I've been sick for a few days now--almost a week. I've been just sick enough--or sick in just the right way--that I've had to cancel class, and it's hard for me to think clearly about much of anything. So I haven't really done any school work (I'll need to find a way to dive back into that tomorrow!). Instead, I've slept, and thought, and watched movies. Perhaps this has been my retreat, in a very small way. And watching Kiki's Delivery Service was a blessing to me because it's reminded me in a delightful way that "the course of true love never did run smooth," whether that true love is a woman or a career. I pray that that reminder will help me recover my joy or at least to brave the struggle without it.