It was through watching animated movies that I first learned about the liberating promises of imagination. At 10 years old, my favorite hobby was scouring the shelves of my local DVD store for hours searching for my next adventure. My clearest memories from when family friends babysat me are the movies I watched with them: “The Lion King,” “Oliver & Company,” “The Secret of NIMH” and “The Emperor’s New Groove.” Each animated film, in its own magnificent way, made a deep impression on me at a young age.
An animated studio synonymous with the sweet memories of childhood wonder for me is the renowned Studio Ghibli. “Kiki’s Delivery Service,” the story of a cheeky young witch who travels the world to train with her sassy black cat, holds an especially fond place in my heart. It’s the idea of an unknown journey that captivates me: When I first watched it at the age of 7, it made me want to travel to all the dreamlike places that don’t exist within this world. The film made such an indelible mark on me that I still have lingering feelings of warmth attached to it today. So when I learned that it would be screening in Emeryville as part of GKIDS’ annual Studio Ghibli Fest, I knew I needed to reawaken that youthful glee — to fly.
Compared to Academy Award-winning director Hayao Miyazaki’s other films, this one is surprisingly grounded in the relatable circumstances of real life rather than in the supernaturalism of it. Miyazaki’s films usually exude an ominously curious tone, opening viewers’ eyes to the mysteries between the known and unknown (as in “Castle in the Sky” and “Spirited Away”). “Kiki’s Delivery Service,” however, ventures through the whimsical mazes of Kiki’s daily life with its myriad leaps of joy, silly cries of despair, moments of self-reflection, lulls of peace, rising tensions and even the occasional patronizing boredom.
My favorite part of Miyazaki’s style is his uncanny ability to carefully capture the spirit of different snippets in life. Seeing a Miyazaki film is like watching a graceful butterfly pass by: It leaves the viewer in awe of its beauty. In “Kiki’s Delivery Service,” Miyazaki masterfully paints miniscule moments into a story that viewers can engage with in the context of our own experiences. Watching the film as an 18-year-old reminded me of the unfettered adventures I imagined for myself as a child, inspired by the films and novels I consumed. It was a time when I sprinted straight forward without hesitation, holding only onto the fiery energy to go. The film revealed to me that my adventures should never come to a stop.
“Kiki’s Delivery Service” galvanized my love for storytelling early on, and this enthusiasm translated into my decision to study English in college. During this watching experience, I noticed parallels between ideas entrenched in the film and the literary novels I’ve studied. When Kiki’s friend Ursula, who is an artist, tells Kiki that before she learned how to paint she was simply “imitating other painters,” to my mind came a quote from William Blake: “What is now proved was once only imagined.” This adage has emboldened me not to surrender to the limitations set by myself and those around me. Kiki’s character arc connects with this notion, as she chooses to extend her life beyond what she already knows or believes is the only thing possible to know. It’s a lesson in daring to see past what does exist and realize what could exist.
Within the framework of my literary studies, “Kiki’s Delivery Service” also enlightens me with an exhortation that it is possible to lose imagination and find it again. Though Kiki becomes estranged from her sorcery, she rediscovers it again — a character development that reminded me of a quote from Jane Austen’s “Persuasion”: “She had been forced into prudence in her youth, she learned romance as she grew older: the natural sequel of an unnatural beginning.” Austen implies that the inclination for imagination during the youthful years is a natural beginning, but the transformation into a judicious reality is an unnatural sequel. It’s a common phenomenon in our world today: the loss of the creativity we once understood and practiced so well in our youths.
So what is the end to this dilemma?
Studio Ghibli answers with its continued commitment to redefining its own creativity and helping others to do the same. For me, it’s fantastically surreal to see how, even as CGI and special effects continue to reach for the sky, the animated films I grew up with have remained a worldwide sensation; I have high hopes that these studios never lose this foresight. “I’m too old for this now” is a recurrent thought people may have about watching animation. But this is a misconception.
Age and imagination do not antithesize each other but function as complements enriching life. “Kiki’s Delivery Service” doesn’t transport me back to childhood. It keeps me ever in the present, ignited with newfound fascination.