At first glance, Hayao Miyazaki’s Kiki’s Delivery Service and Noah Baumbach’s Frances Ha are two films that have little in common. One is a Japanese fantasy animation about a teenage witch and the other is a black-and-white account of a millennial dancer trying to make it in New York City. However, upon closer inspection these two films aren’t as dissimilar as they appear on the surface. In an interview with The Guardian about Frances Ha, co-writer and star Greta Gerwig said: “So much of modern dance is about learning how to fall, and I thought that was kind of a good metaphor for Frances”. Frances’s (Greta Gerwig) “learning to fall” is inspired by the real life rejection and hardship that Gerwig experienced before finding major success, this comes through in the realism and authenticity of Frances Ha; it feels like a true and familiar story.
On the contrary, Kiki’s Delivery Service is a colourful, fantasy adventure full of magic. However, the film serves as a more metaphorical depiction of a struggling artist and manages to accurately portray the key difficulties one faces when working in a creative field. The inspiration for Kiki’s Delivery Service came when director Hayao Miyazaki was inspired by seeing young, bewildered animators moving to Tokyo to join his animation studio (Studio Ghibli) and pursue their career. Both films depict how lonely it can be to be a struggling artist, they show the fluctuating highs and lows, the crushing disappointment and the burnout that can ensue. Neither of the films give a simple fairytale ending, they both feel very faithful to the real life struggle of the working creative, whilst still being ultimately hopeful and inspiring films.
Both Frances Ha and Kiki’s Delivery Service explore the difficulty of monetising your passion, the labour of working at your craft and being able to stay afloat financially and how hard that can be. Kiki is met with shock when she goes out to buy her groceries and can only just afford it with all the money that she has. She works tirelessly to stay afloat running a flying delivery service for a bakery, she is working so hard to monetise her passion that she experiences a burnout. Kiki completely loses her ability to fly or to communicate with her usually talking pet cat, Jiji. The effect this has on Kiki is devastating as her passion has become her identity. She proclaims: “If I lose my magic that means I’ve lost absolutely everything,” in a tearful exclamation. This feeling is all too familiar to any creative trying to make a career out of their passion. Kiki is suffering from a burnout, or a writer’s block of sorts, and the only way she is able to recover from it is to take a break from it all entirely.
She stays in a cabin in the woods with her new painter friend Ursula, who gives her the most valuable advice for an artist suffering a creative block. “Take long walks, look at the view, doze off at Noon, don’t do anything” and only then, will she regain her powers. Kiki’s Delivery Service shows an honest portrayal of what can happen when you run out of steam for becoming too engulfed by your creative passion. Hayao Miyazaki is trying to show us that as a hard working creative trying to make one’s dreams a reality, it is important to look outside ourselves, reconnect with nature and take breaks from the intensity.
Similarly in Frances Ha, Frances is staying afloat as an apprentice dancer with hopes of making it into the main company. Frances’s best friend and flatmate Sophie (Mickey Sumner) suddenly tells Frances that she is going to move out of their flat to live in Tribeca, a much more affluent area of New York that Frances cannot afford. Frances is heartbroken as she is left behind, this sparks a chain of events that leads to their friendship fracturing. Frances is banking on being used in the christmas dance show to steady her financially but she is told that they won’t be using her in the show. It is a truly heartbreaking moment, watching Frances fight back tears as you see her world fall apart.
There is a real sadness to Frances Ha as it feels that Frances is slipping further away from her ambitions, having to take up jobs that she doesn’t want and being left behind by peers that have economic privilege that Frances lacks. She goes back to her old University to work as a waitress and resident assistant just to stay afloat. There is a sting of embarrassment in Frances as she tells Sophie “I’m just making some extra money doing this kind of gig”, in order to protect her pride. The film is so refreshing in its exploration the hardship and relentless exhaustion of pursuing a creative passion. There is a shot of Frances on the bed of the student accommodation she is staying in, looking exhausted. This shot perfectly encapsulates the exhaustion and difficulty of working in a job so far away from what she wants. This moment feels brutally honest and heartbreaking for our sympathetic protagonist.
A core theme at the heart of both films is loneliness, they both explore how dedicating yourself to your passion can become an alienating experience leaving you feeling on the outside. Frances Ha is a portrait of loneliness as the narrative explores her fracturing friendship with Sophie. As Sophie moves on and up in her life with her dislikable boyfriend and high flying publishing job, Frances is left behind. She spends the film drifting, the narrative is split up by title cards of her addresses as she moves from one roommate to the next, feeling lost. Frances hops between addresses, lodging with different friends who have more financial privilege or have more obvious success in their fields, leaving her feeling on the edge. She is unable to keep up with the costs of the flats and has to move on, continually in a state of flux. There can be such loneliness in not having a place to call home.
Kiki’s Delivery Service explores loneliness in a different way, though she settles herself in the city thanks to the kind baker Osono who gives her a home, Kiki often feels lonesome in other ways. She struggles to relate to other people her age and feels unable to have friendships due to her dedication to her work. In Kiki there is a longing to be accepted by others, she wants to be able to experience adolescence; she watches from the bakery window and gazes at a young couple that ride off together on a motorbike. Though she does eventually find friendship in flight enthusiast Tombo, she closes herself off to his intimidating group of friends that don’t quite understand Kiki. As a Witch, Kiki is experiencing life in such a different way to her peers; this concept will not seem unusual to any artist that has had to dedicate most of their lives to pursuing their passion. She cannot have the same leisure time that they do and she does not get the opportunity to be part of a big friend group as she is working hard constantly.
The backdrop of a big city is a crucial tool used in both films used to illustrate the loneliness of our protagonists, there are shots of Frances and Kiki swamped by the cities, either in its busyness or its size. In Kiki’s Delivery Service, Kiki flies on her broom as she sets off to discover a new city to live in, to pursue her passion. Though there is certainly an exhilarating sense of adventure as Kiki steps into the unknown, there is something isolating about how high up she is, so far away from any sense of humanity. The dark sky looms behind her as she looks down on the body of lights in these new intimidating cities. Director Hayao Miyazaki has spoken about this particular scene and encapsulates the alienating experience of flying into a brand new city. In the foreword to The Art of Kiki’s Delivery Service, he writes: “Many lights shine, but there is not a single light to warmly beckon her. She is isolated as she flies in the sky. It is usually felt that the power of flight would liberate one from the earth, but freedom is accompanied by anxiety and loneliness”.
What makes these films the perfect depiction of a struggling artist is their commitment to telling a truthful story, not sugar coating the often difficult journey of following one’s dreams. The excitement and hopefulness is captured but so are the low moments, the loneliness and the struggle. Both films refuse to settle on a solve-all happy ending, however, they both provide endings in which our protagonists find some kind of solution and a sense of peace. Frances may not have made it to the main company but she starts choreographing her own work.
At the end of the film she puts on the show that she has been working hard to choreograph and all the people that she thinks have drifted away from her are in the audience. Past housemates, friends, mentors and most importantly, Sophie. The final scene shows Frances moving into her final address of the film. There is a shot of Frances looking around at her apartment with contentment; she is finally settled and she has found her peace.
In Kiki’s Delivery Service the ending similarly feels very reassuring though not without it being grounded in a sense of reality. When Kiki returns back to civilization after taking time out to rest after a burnout, Kiki sees on the television that a dirigible has burst and is about to crash land onto the city and her friend Tombo is hanging in the air from it. In this moment of need, Kiki just about manages to find the ability to shakily fly again, to save Tombo in the last moment. Though she managed to fly, at the very end of the film Jiji the cat still cannot talk to Kiki, there is that part of her powers she will never be able to truly regain. Neither of these films say that life is always perfect and easy, or that the ending is necessarily what you expect, but they do show that you as you grow and change, you overcome adversity and find your sense of contentment.
Frances Ha and Kiki’s Delivery Service are the perfect films that depict the struggling artist; they are honest about the hardship but still ultimately hopeful and reassuring. They are needed now more than ever as the COVID-19 pandemic has left so many artists feeling hopeless without the funding or revenue they need. These films tell you it’s okay to struggle, fall behind and to take your time. Your path doesn’t have to be obvious and easy from one point to the next in order to find your happiness and own success, and that is a crucial life lesson taught to us by both Kiki and Frances.
by Chloe Slater
Chloe (she/her) is a film fanatic and proud northerner hailing from West Yorkshire. She recently graduated from The University of Manchester where she wrote her dissertation on the fearless princesses and witches of Studio Ghibli. She has an affinity for Japanese animation, fantasy films and anything that Greta Gerwig touches. When she’s not binge watching Lord of the Rings she can be found playing football or rocking out on the bass guitar. Chloe is hoping to start her Masters degree in Film Studies this coming September. Favourite films include: Spirited Away, Ladybird, Lost in Translation, Frances Ha and Portrait of a Lady on Fire. Find her on Twitter, IG, and Letterboxd.
Categories: Anything and Everything, Films
Thank you so much for writing about these two stellar gems. You have infused our lives(of writers in particular) with hope and yes, we will never give up and triumph with our dilligence.
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Thank you so much for your kind words! Absolutely, never give up the fight!
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Sums up the plight of artists superbly and how hard it can be to break in and find a niche and enough work to support a life. There is no easy well trodden path so I think heading into the unknown can be really hard. I really hope young artists of all kinds coming up now find a way to keep the faith and do what makes their heart sing.
Thank you so much! I completely agree with you there.