The Thrilling Mundanity of Kiki’s Delivery Service
or, when I do chores, I feel like I’m in a Miyazaki movie
As I was handwashing some t-shirts in a wash basin the other day, scrubbing, wringing, and then hanging them up to dry, I caught myself thinking, wow, I feel like I’m in a Miyazaki movie right now.
Maybe I shouldn’t spin idealism out of something so mundane as a chore, but at the same time, it’s rare for many of us to do chores manually these days. We choose to outsource them to technology, letting our machines hum cheerfully in the background as we attend to supposedly more important tasks. You’d think that having to invest time and energy into a chore usually automated for us would only cause frustration, but it’s more relaxing than you’d think. There’s a degree of mindfulness, of knowing your own physical presence, as you use your whole body to excise dirt from your clothes, your dishes, your floors. Even when you let your mind wander off for a while, you’re called back to attention every so often to attend to the work at hand. And maybe that’s why it feels so Miyazaki-esque — the slow but comfortable passage of time starts to push itself into the foreground of our lives.
Miyazaki, of course, is known for hard-coding slowness into the fabric of his films. In a 2002 interview with Roger Ebert, he talks about the Japanese concept of ma, or emptiness, which can be demonstrated as the silence between a series of claps. Ebert, in turn, calls it “gratuitous motion,” small moments that are “not to advance the story but only to give the sense of time and place and who [the characters] are.” It’s Miyazaki’s use of ma that sets his work apart from other animation directors, letting his stories breathe and marvel in their own existence before moving forward.
While his films are certainly relaxing in this manner, Miyazaki also doesn’t shy away from portraying the ugliness and hardships of life. His characters often find themselves in the middle of conflicts that are out of their control, and they have to make difficult choices tinged with sacrifice. This doesn’t take away the joy of his movies, though; if anything, it sweetens them. Nothing in life is perfectly happy, but Miyazaki reminds us that the pain, too, is a way of honoring life. You could say that manual chores serves this useful reminder in our day-to-day lives, and there’s probably no better Miyazaki movie that better encapsulates this than Kiki’s Delivery Service.
I’ve noticed, from a very informal and unscientific sampling of my friends, that while women and queer folks unabashedly love Kiki’s Delivery Service, my straight male friends tend to hate it. In fact, one of my best friends from high school, a straight white guy, so reviled Kiki’s that he told me it was the one Miyazaki movie that was skippable — meaning that when I finally watched it years later and ended up loving it, I felt utterly betrayed. It feels too simple to just split opinions down the gender line, as I’m aware there are plenty of men who connected with Kiki’s journey into adulthood, but it is a phenomenon I think about every time I rewatch the movie. Does Kiki really appeal more to women and queers than to cishet men? I suggest you perform an equally unscientific survey amongst your friends and see what answers you receive; I’d love to hear the results.
My theory to explain the gender and sexuality divide is that much of the movie involves Kiki running errands and assisting with housework, which is (as we all know) typically women’s work. Which is why cishet men might find the movie boring — there has never been any societal expectation for them to perform upkeep of the home, so watching a thirteen-year-old girl zip around town helping old ladies bake pies might feel absolutely foreign. But to anyone who identifies as being somewhat left of masculine, Kiki’s might contain a warm familiarity. Even for someone who hates doing chores, you might recognize the benign soreness of your muscles as you stand back, arms akimbo, and look upon the clean, fresh spoils of your work: I did that, with my own two hands.
With too much anxiety to fill too much free time, my interests during quarantine have gotten increasingly niche. Recently, I’ve become obsessed with Japanese and Korean lifestyle vlogs. They’re usually female YouTubers, ranging from single freelancers to stay-at-home mothers, and never reveal their faces as they meticulously depict their various routines — what meals they make, what housecleaning methods they use, how they decorate or rearrange their rooms, how they pass their time. Like Miyazaki’s work, these vlogs are focused on the slow interior life of women, and are also notably quiet. Unlike Western vloggers, they don’t narrate or capture much dialogue. The only diegetic sounds are those of puttering around the house, or appliances that create their own type of mechanical music. Usually, a calming indie folk song is added in the background for ambience. Frequently, I’ll take a break during a stressful day to watch one of these vlogs, settling my nerves with the audiovisual equivalent of a warm bath.
My favorite channels to watch at the moment are sueddu, a Korean freelancer who’s accompanied by her adorable poodle, Choki, a Japanese vlogger who lives in what looks like a magical toadstool, and haegreendal, a Korean woman who has a son she affectionately calls “Little Captain.” What I love about these vloggers in particular is how open they are with the ups and downs of their lives, what they learned didn’t serve them and how they’ve changed over time. Subtitles illustrate their interior thoughts, which read like a thoughtful diary entry. Many times they’ll even include mistakes they’ve made, or bloopers from the filming process.
Let’s be honest — lifestyle vlogs and influencers of any kind are portraying a fantasy. I’ve caught myself more than once feeling envious of these women’s seemingly simple lives, and wanting to live in their perfectly cozy homes. But I’m sure that when you strip away the indie folk background music in all of these videos, their lives might seem a little bit less aspirational. What I appreciate about these YouTubers, though, is that they are promoting the pursuit of joy and happiness in your own home, with what you have. Their videos feel incredibly anti-consumerist and anti-hustle, in a world that seems to desire the fast and often destructive accumulation of wealth, and instead want their viewers to be happy with who they are. “Even though you didn’t wake up early, today is good,” say the title of a haegreendal video with over 2 million views. She and sueddu have posted vlogs of their cleaning routines to inspire others in their chores, and Choki’s recent video on rearranging her furniture for fall had inspired me to do the same. Like Kiki’s Delivery Service and many of Miyazaki’s other movies, they encapsulate a kind of mindfulness, or gratefulness for the everyday. Even the smallest things in your life could be considered a miracle.
Watching the water squeezed from my t-shirts turn from brown to clear — suddenly I’m aware of the fresh, cold water that came through my tap, that made the journey to get here to me, to provide me with the blessing of clean clothes. Suddenly I’m in awe of the running water that I had, for so many other days, taken for granted.
Is it coincidence that much of women’s work revolves around creating and mending? I’ve recently begun to hang out with more queer women and non-binary folks who practice witchcraft and divination, also both commonly associated with women. Witchcraft might seem like meaningless child’s play to the outside observer, but what I’ve come to learn is that much of it is actually about intention-setting and mindfulness. It doesn’t feel accidental at all, then, that Kiki’s Delivery Service combines women’s work and witchcraft, pulling at the common thread between them. And perhaps this is what women and queer folks find the most engaging about the movie — building a life, painstakingly and gradually, from only what you own, but one that is yours and yours alone. The magic of making something from nothing.
Even if you don’t identify as a witch, you might be an accidental one. Which one of us hasn’t created magic in our daily lives, just by virtue of being present? So this one’s for you, my witches — eat your heart out. Just don’t let Howl eat yours.
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man your essays are always so juicy. you say a lot pretty briefly, it's pretty cool. i would conduct your unscientific experiment but I only have like 2 cis male friends. #downwithcis I feel like another piece of the kiki's thing is it's also about burnout - and while we all experience it, non-cishet white men are definitely hit by it a lot harder so it probably resonates more. especially as you have your own moments in life when you lose your connection to your 'magic'