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John DoughertyJune 23, 2023
Kiki's Delivery Service (1989). Photo from IMDb.

“Flying used to be fun until I started doing it for a living.”

The heroine of “Kiki’s Delivery Service” (1989; I watched the 1998 English dub) is a 13-year-old witch leaving home for the first time, to spend a year training out in the world. Kiki (Kirsten Dunst) settles in a bustling seaside city and begins making deliveries via flying broom. Accompanied by her sardonic black cat Jiji (Phil Hartman), she attempts to establish herself, make friends, and discover what she really wants to do with her powers and her life.

At its heart, “Kiki’s Delivery Service” is a meditation on discovering—and pursuing—your vocation.

Written and directed by the modern master of animation Hayao Miyazaki (“My Neighbor Totoro,” “Spirited Away”), “Kiki’s Delivery Service” is probably my favorite of his movies. If you’re unfamiliar with Miyazaki it’s a good place to start, as a showcase both for the stunning animation of Studio Ghibli (those aerial views of the city and the blues of the sky and ocean take my breath away every time), and for his favorite themes: the dignity of work, the ingenuity of the young, the importance of community.

At its heart, “Kiki’s Delivery Service” is a meditation on discovering—and pursuing—your vocation. I’ve always liked theologian Frederick Buechner’s definition: “Vocation is the place where your deep gladness meets the world's deep need.” In the beginning, however, Kiki seems like she’s internalized that much less reliable adage: “Do what you love and you’ll never work a day in your life.” The truth is: of course you’ll work. If you’re fortunate enough to marry your passions with your day job, it’s likely you’ll work longer hours, worry more about your performance, and feel the highs and lows more keenly, because you care so much. When you do what you love, the professional is personal.

This is because vocation is tied to identity: It’s not just what God calls us to do, but who God calls us to be. When we struggle to realize our vocations, as Kiki does, we sometimes feel like we no longer know ourselves.

Kiki does find joy in flying again. Echoing Buechner, she finds it especially in using her talents to help others: deep joy meeting deep need. She also builds a support network, including the indefatigably friendly Tombo (Matthew Lawrence) and the reclusive artist Ursula (Janeane Garofalo). She finds, as we all do, that navigating life’s big questions is easier when we’re part of a community. We need friends and mentors who remind us of who we are and why we do what we do, even when we’re not sure ourselves.

“Kiki’s Delivery Service” is nominally a coming-of-age story, but it has something to say to anyone, at any stage of life, who seeks to authentically live out their vocation. Doing what you love doesn’t mean you’ll never be unhappy or frustrated. But like Kiki, it opens us up to finding grace in the everyday, and coming a little closer—with every triumph or setback—to being the people God calls us to be.

“Kiki’s Delivery Service” is streaming on Max, and available to rent or buy on Amazon Prime and Apple TV+.

More: Film / Asia

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