Hayao Miyazaki’s 1989 animated feature Kiki’s Delivery Service masterfully handles a lot of traditional topics around growing up and finding a path in the world. But it also touches on a facet of growing up that society tends to overlook: It’s a lonely process. Finding your way is lonely. Separating from a close family unit and making your way in a new place is lonely.
Studio Ghibli’s fourth feature-length film follows a young witch named Kiki who, per witch tradition, leaves home at age 13 to complete her training. Armed with her mother’s broom and her familiar, Jiji, Kiki lands in a new city full of new people and establishes herself as the resident witch.
Studio Ghibli films often interrogate the notion of loneliness and emotional connection, centering on heroes that reluctantly strike out on their own, such as Sophie in Howl’s Moving Castle and Ashitaka in Princess Mononoke. But in Kiki’s Delivery Service, loneliness isn’t explicitly in the forefront; it slowly folds itself into Kiki’s life as the story stretches out. Even when she’s surrounded by friendly people, she’s ultimately alone.
She has the kindness of Osono the bakery owner, the advice of plucky artist Ursula, and tentative friendship from Tombo. But none of those are as close to her as the friends and family who gathered to wish her off at the beginning of the movie. Her sadness takes a tangible toll on her, and robs her of her magical powers. By the end of the movie, Kiki still hasn’t entirely recovered from these feelings — while she’s able to fly on her broomstick once more, she loses the bond she has with her familiar Jiji. She’s never able to recover that relationship in the same way, but the new gap between them speaks to the idea of accepting loneliness as part of growing up.
Studio Ghibli films are no strangers to loneliness
Loneliness is threaded through many Ghibli films, many of which feature protagonists who set off on a journey not because they particularly want to, but because they’re forced to. Kiki leaves home because of witch tradition, but unlike other Ghibli heroes, she jumps at the idea — even skipping a planned camping trip with her father because she’s so excited. But in Spirited Away, Chihiro is forcibly separated from her parents, and winds up in a strange spirit world. In Howl’s Moving Castle, Sophie is cursed by a witch and leaves her hat shop to trek to the Wastes. In Princess Mononoke, Ashitaka ventures out from his village to seek a solution for the terrible curse consuming him. And on a less fantastical note, in Whisper of the Heart, Shizuku navigates the doldrums of adolescence.
They all do it alone.
Sending characters off on solo journeys isn’t a particularly innovative storytelling choice, especially for coming-of-age films, which are often about learning self-reliance and independence. But Ghibli films linger on the lonely portions of these journeys. The heroes start out isolated from others, and their separation from the world persists throughout their films, lingering even when they do find company.
In Howl’s Moving Castle, for instance, Sophie’s loneliness starts even before the Witch of the Waste turns her into an elderly woman. She quietly makes hats in a secluded alcove. Her coworkers are offscreen, and it’s clear she doesn’t fit in with them. After her transformation, the loneliness she’s built around her fits more snugly on her now 90-year-old physique. She treks from Market Chipping, a speck against the pastoral landscapes. She eats an idyllic meal of bread and cheese. She heads deeper and deeper into the Wastes by herself. Even after she makes new friends, many moments of the film focus on Sophie by herself, quietly, wondering if she’s even earned the closeness of these relationships she’s found.
By the end of their movies, the characters have found connections with others, but because we know the depth of their original loneliness, these relationships take on more meaning. They aren’t superficial; they’re deep, necessary emotional connections fostered throughout the whole movie, and an answer to solitude.
This is especially true in works like Spirited Away and Princess Mononoke, where two characters bond through shared experiences and a deep emotional connection, but must part ways at the end. The feeling of being alone returns — Spirited Away protagonist Chihiro leaves the spirit realm without her beloved Haku, Princess Mononoke’s San retreats to the woods while Ashitaka rebuilds the town — but the characters are no longer lonely. They’ve reached a level of deep emotional intimacy with one another that will never go away. As the old witch Zeniba says in Spirited Away, “Once you’ve met someone, you never really forget them.”
Kiki’s Delivery Service approaches loneliness a little differently
But unlike in these other films, Kiki sets off on her journey because she’s eager to grow up and take charge. And she’s not alone. She has Jiji, her beloved black cat and confidant. She heads out on her adventure a weekend earlier than she expected to, bidding her family and community a heartfelt farewell.
She doesn’t come from loneliness — she comes from a place of love and connection. She’s excited for the journey ahead, for a chance to grow up. It’s a classic coming-of-age fantasy setup. And unlike the above films, where a journey starts with loss, Kiki’s Delivery Service starts while Kiki still has something left to lose.
When she takes off into the night sky, she isn’t alone, physically or emotionally — she flies with Jiji, she crosses paths with another witch, she uses her mother’s broom. The music playing on her radio is cheery. Like Sophie, she’s a small figure against a vast landscape, but while Sophie seems dwarfed by the ominous Wastes, Kiki soars triumphantly, ready for her adventure.
When Kiki arrives in her new city, the citizens don’t take too kindly to her — a hint that this journey won’t be as smooth and victorious as she might have thought. She’s a stranger in the large crowds, unaccustomed to bustling traffic and staring people. Jiji voices his concern: maybe they should find another town that’s friendlier? But Kiki is determined to make this work.
And again, she isn’t alone. She meets friendly faces and forms connections. Osono the bakery owner quickly takes her under her wing. Aviation fan Tombo thinks she’s the coolest thing since sliced bread. Quirky artist Ursula takes a liking to her. Kiki talks to the customers who hire her for delivery services. But as the idealism of new experiences wears off, Kiki begins to realize she isn’t exactly happy. When Tombo tries to introduce her to his friends, she turns away from them, intimidated by the closeness they already share.
“I make friends, then suddenly I can’t bear to be with any of them,” Kiki tells Jiji. It’s a continued realization of her own loneliness, which hits harder when her alienation means she and Jiji can no longer communicate in human words.
Kiki’s sadness affects her magic so she can no longer fly, but the separation with Jiji comes from something else entirely. Kiki is eventually able to regain her magical powers, after taking a break from work, hanging out with Ursula, and swooping in to save Tombo at the movie’s end. But she never repairs the bond she once had with Jiji. While the 1997 English dub has a throwaway line at the end implying that they’re able to talk again (Jiji jumping on her shoulder and asking, “Kiki, can you hear me?”), the original Japanese script does not. Miyazaki himself has said in the art book for the film that Jiji represents an immature side of Kiki, and by the end of the film, she no longer needs him.
But in the context of exploring loneliness, Jiji represents more than just Kiki’s childish side. He represents her childhood, the bonds she had with her family in her youth, a comfort she can always return to when things get particularly difficult. Time and time again through the movie, she turns to Jiji when she’s otherwise alone. But when that bond is severed — when she’s thrust out of the comforts she once knew — she faces a loneliness she’s never experienced before. It’s part of growing up, but it’s still painful and scary.
Kiki’s Delivery Service has a happy ending: Kiki can fly again, she’s respected in the town, and she realizes she has made friends. But like all Ghibli movies, it has a bittersweet thread. Jiji does not leave Kiki; they’re together at the end of the movie. But they can’t communicate in the same way. Relationships evolve, especially ones from childhood. In time, they might learn to understand each other again — just not in the same way as before. Loneliness will never leave Kiki entirely. It will never leave any of us. But it is knitted into life, as something we all accept sooner or later. And it helps us appreciate the deep bonds we do have.
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