Desert Island Dispatch: ‘I used to be able to fly’

Victoria O’Brien

The first time I ever saw a Studio Ghibli movie, I was on vacation. My parents had separated and we went on a rare holiday to visit family in Northern California. At some point that week, my uncle turned on “Kiki’s Delivery Service” for his three daughters and, when asked, I said I’d never seen a Ghibli film before — my younger cousins were shocked, but promised I would love it. Turns out, I did. And I still do.
“Kiki’s Delivery Service” tells the story of a young witch who leaves home and sets out to make a life for herself and her talking cat Jiji by starting a flying delivery service in the city. At 8, I loved all things fantasy and adored it, seeing myself in Kiki, but also wanting to be her: I wanted to go out and see the world, to have adventures of my own.
Years passed and I watched more Ghibli projects, but by my 20s, I’d mostly forgotten about them. Purely by chance, a friend and I were reading the Earthsea books a few years ago and watched the animated adaptation Ghibli put out in the early 2000s, which sparked a little trip down memory lane for me. I began rewatching the movies I’d seen as a kid, curious to see them with 20 years of time gone. Would they hold up or did nostalgia cloud my view? Would I end up gently picking them apart the way I’d done to other things I loved when I was small?
Weirdly, but delightfully, that didn’t happen with any of the Ghibli movies I rewatched, not even once.
When I finally returned to Kiki and Jiji, I still saw myself in her and wanted to be her, but it was different. I didn’t want to be her because she was having adventures, I wanted to be her because she was still so young that the world felt brand new — everything is possible in her eyes. But the movie is about growing up, which is what I realized in the third act as Kiki loses her magic to her despair, feeling too small and insecure when faced with the painful uncertainties of adulthood. I didn’t know what that felt like as a little girl, but as a 28 year old woman, I did.
Studio Ghibli was co-founded by the director of “Kiki’s Delivery Service,” the Japanese animator Hayao Miyazaki, who was raised in postwar Japan. In 2021, I visited a museum hosting a retrospective on his career (and, full disclosure, I cried). Ghibli and Miyazaki released over 400 items that had never been publicly displayed in the United States before, from his desk to his private notes to his stuffed garden goats, modelled after the ones he drew while working on Heidi, Girl of the Alps. There were storyboards and original sketches done by Miyazaki’s own hand as well as the army of animators and art directors the studio has employed since 1985.
As a girl, I grew up in the countryside and the pastoral, romantic nature of Miyazaki’s movies always takes me back to that. They feel like home. They feel like coming back here after weeks or months away on a project in a noisy, frankly stinky city where you can’t think. The question of where, in this increasingly techno-industrial world, man fits into nature is at the heart of many Miyazaki movies. Are we losing ourselves? Can we exist without nature? Would nature be better off without us? These aren’t easy questions for an adult to answer, never mind a child, but these movies somehow manage to do so with a deftness and grace that make me love them deeply. The answer Miyazaki presents is the world doesn’t simply exist for humans: we are and remain part of the whole.
I believe this is true. I also believe something Miyazaki wrote in the project proposal for one of his most famous movies, Princess Mononoke, in which a young man is drawn into a conflict between the gods of an ancient forest and the humans abusing its resources. The last room of the exhibit was largely dedicated to this movie and the story of its creation. In his proposal, Miyazaki wrote the following, which I’ll leave you with: “But, even amidst hatred and carnage, life is still worth living. It is possible for wonderful encounters and beautiful things to exist.”