Recently, I’ve gotten into physical media, and it brought me to finally watching the Studio Ghibli classics. Let’s analyse what Kiki’s Delivery Service says about work culture and burnout. Obviously, spoilers ahead.
First, I have to say that the cute aesthetic and magical world may make this look far-fetched. However, I feel that the setting is what makes the message even more poignant because even in a world where magic exists, so does burnout.
Kiki rapidly learns the importance of money in the movie and so, she has to work. While wandering in town, Osono starts screaming to tell a lady to come back for her baby’s pacifier. Kiki offers her help to give it back. After doing so, Osono, a middle-aged baker, offers Kiki housing and basic amenities. Without Osono’s crucial help early on, Kiki’s Delivery Service may have never been. At the very least, it shows the importance of having a minimum to pursue living.
Now, she may have a place to live, but she knows she can’t just stay doing nothing so she takes offers as quickly as possible. This makes her take offers without knowing her worth at the start when doing Maki’s delivery (though it’s understood that Maki is generous). Rather quickly afterwards, Kiki starts a pricing scheme to be compensated fairly.
Trying to help an old lady, Rofujin, she does more than just delivering it. Seeing that the pie is not cooked due to the electric oven malfunctioning, she decides to help Rofujin cook it using a wood-powered oven and do miscellaneous tasks in the house while waiting for the pie to be cooked.
She then heads to do the delivery, though the weather quickly turns ugly and pouring rain quickly soaks Kiki who’s trying to keep the pie dry. She finishes her delivery nonetheless, even though it prevents her from having fun at the party. The girl receiving the pie from her grandmother doesn’t appreciate and is severely ungrateful for - regardless of how much work Kiki and Rofujin put into it. Seeing this ungratefulness, Kiki is depressed and finds it hard to feel good about her work. She goes home and sleeps. She becomes quite sick, however this depressing feeling lingers well past the fever.
After resting, Osono sets her up to talk with Tombo knowing full well that Kiki wouldn’t otherwise make friends. They have fun with Tombo’s flying bicycle and they crash next to a beach. After finding back the propeller of the bicycle, they start talking:
Kiki: “Flying used to be fun until I started doing it for a living.”
Tombo: “Hey, wait. You can’t not enjoy flying. You’re a witch.”
Kiki: “I know. I still feel that way though.”
Clearly, Kiki no longer enjoys it because it’s all she does and further feels unmotivated to work due to the work conditions. Kiki has little break to think about flying in another way than monotonous work.
Consecutively, it could be said that the fact that her work is part of her identity, something which is not that uncommon, makes her overwork herself despite the sign that she doesn’t enjoy it. Kiki doesn’t realize this problem.
Tombo’s friends come and invite them to go see the dirigible that came to town. One of those friends is the girl who received Rofujin’s pie, she remembers that experience which brings down her mood. Then, instead of accepting the dirigible ride offered by him, she goes back to work.
After doing so, Kiki further loses motivation and forgets why she flies. She loses her magic power. After this realisation, she tries tirelessly to fly - to no avail. She even tries to imitate how Tombo uses his bike to fly and just keeps failing.
Osone tells her to take a break, but instead, Kiki tries more to get her powers - desperation. She distances herself from Tombo, losing all motivation to this desperation.
Kiki meets again with Ursula, the artist, who pushes her to have a break. This time, she listens and goes to her cabin in the woods. They have a talk while Ursula paints Kiki:
Ursula: “Sometimes I can’t paint a thing.”
Kiki: “You mean it? Then what happens?”
Kiki: “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.”
Ursula: “At times like that, you know what I do? Paint. That gets rid of my frustrations.”
Kiki: “But still, if I can’t fly…”
Ursula: “Then I just stop. Take long walks, look at the scenery, doze off at noon. Don’t do a single thing. Then suddenly, I’m able to paint again.”
Kiki: “Maybe that’ll help.”
Ursula: “Trust me. It’ll happen.”
Burnout - They just need to have a break. Think about something else, do something else, just do something new to remove the monotony and enjoy time outside of work. They proceed to have fun.
One night, Ursula and Kiki talk before heading to sleep. Ursula recounts how she was once unable to paint but she kept trying until she realized she was just imitating other painters. I think this mimics a lot what Kiki was doing after losing her powers. Blindly frustrated, trying again and again.
Ursula: “I swore I’d make my own pictures.”
Ursula: “I think I found what painting means, at least for me.”
An important part of work is to find motivation to work - why am I doing this anyway?
She gets called back by Osono to do a delivery for Rofujin and she accepts now that she feels more at rest. To her surprise, Rofujin simply wanted to give her a cake to thank her for the help she gave. I believe that this solidified Kiki’s reason for working - she truly wants to help people.
While Bertha watches TV, they see the dirigible becoming out of control and Tombo hanging by a rope as it flies away. Now, armed with the motivation to save him and a much needed break, she saves him. Credits roll.
What does this all mean? I think Kiki’s Delivery Service is a commentary piece on the work culture we have (whether in animation, game development or even delivery service - that last one seems even more relevant today if we look into Amazon’s policies.
Why? It acknowledges that workers need a backbone to fall on to avoid burnout through the backbone that Osone offers to Kiki. It quite clearly explains the effects of trying to work while feeling burned out - the magic is gone, we simply try to imitate others and are less likely to go the extra mile for our work. It acknowledges that people need good breaks and to do what they love outside of work through Ursula and Kiki’s stories of feeling burned out and seeing their talents as just tools for their work rather than being grateful for it.
What a brilliant movie. I love it. The music, the atmosphere and the message make for a story that’s hard to forget.