Kiki’s Delivery Service, failing the reverse Bechdel test, and sheer awesome.

Kiki’s delivery service did not pass the reverse Bechdel test.

The reason that movies tend to struggle with the Bechdel test is that Hollywood really only allows two roles for women– Protagonist’s Mother, and Protagonist’s Love Interest.

Kiki’s delivery service, in a beautiful reversal of expectations, relegated the men to those roles, allowing this beautiful coming-of-age story to be a general reflection of women’s lives in all their complexities.

There are exactly two men with names in this film– the Protagonist’s Father, Okino, and the Protagonist’s Love Interest, Tombo. (There is a third man with no name, The Baker, who is the husband to Osono, the woman who takes Kiki in. Not having a name, or more than a few lines, The Baker doesn’t “count” as a male character for the purposes of analysis, just as a woman in a similar situation in a Hollywood film wouldn’t “count” for the Bechdel test.)

I’m completely thrilled! Not because I’m an evil man-hater, but because it’s so rare to find a movie that tells women’s stories. In an ideal world, most movies would be roughly 50-50 in gender make-up and tell universal human stories, and there would be a few movies that tell specific stories for each gender. In other words, for every blow-em-up, sex-em-up Man Movie, we’d have one woman’s movie (like Mama Mia or Sex and the City) and TWO universal human movies (like Wall-E, perhaps, or, uh…I’m drawing a blank.)

But this is not an ideal world; this is a world in which women’s stories don’t get told. So what’s beautiful about this movie is not that it mistreats men– which it doesn’t, really; it just holds them to be generally less important– what’s beautiful is that it shows us so many different women’s stories. Because as soon as you break free of the Mother Or Love Interest Only mindset, and allow there to be lots of women, you make it possible for there to be lots of people.

Just to illustrate the beautiful variety of named, talking people, we have:

Osono: proprietor of a small bakery in Koriko, Kiki’s new town. She is heavily pregnant throughout the film and can be seen feeding her baby in the end credits. She is the first person in Koriko to treat Kiki with kindness and respect, allowing Kiki to stay in her spare room in exchange for help in the bakery. She also acts like a mother to Kiki.

Ursula: an artist in her late teens, who lives during summer in a one-room cabin in a wooded area outside of Koriko. She takes an “older-sister” role to Kiki, explaining Kiki’s temporary inability to fly in terms of “artist’s block”, and telling her that gifts — including the ability to paint, to be a witch, or to bake bread — must be used, not rejected. She’s a loud, energetic person, and dresses somewhat like a boy.

Oku-sama: one of Kiki’s customers. She is elderly and aristocratic, but warmhearted and kindly, and crippled with arthritis. She bakes a cake for Kiki.

Bertha: Oku-sama’s housekeeper and friend. She’s much more spirited than Oku-sama, “trying out” Kiki’s broom and making “vroom” noises to amuse herself, and getting excited about the televised dirigible crash in gleeful schadenfreude.

Ketto: Oku-sama’s niece; she has nothing nice to say about the herring pie Oku-sama made for her birthday, even after Kiki, Oku-sama and Bertha spent all evening using the wood-burning oven to bake it; Kiki misses Tombo’s aviation club party to make and deliver this pie, and is disappointed that the girl rejects her aunt’s kindness. This girl is also one of Tombo’s friends, and recognizes Kiki as a delivery girl later, prompting Kiki to feel like an outsider.

Kokiri: Kiki’s mother, a witch and town herbalist. She worries that Kiki is not equipped to spend a year on her own. The success of Kokiri’s potions appears to be dependent on her concentration; interruptions inevitably cause them to instantly turn black and expel rings of smoke, much to her frustration.

And Kiki makes seven. Seven recurring, named female characters! Mamma Mia and Sex and the City each have that many, but can you name a fourth movie to do that? (If you can, I’ll watch it and review it!)

Plus, there are even more unnamed women who get snatches of screen time– a mother who has left her baby’s pacifier in the bakery, prompting Kiki’s first delivery job; Kiki’s group of friends back home who gather around her to see her off; an ancient female customer of Kiki’s mother who likes to gossip about the girl; and uncountable passerby. It’s a staggering range of ages, body types, and personalities, especially compared to the indistinguishable hot young things that Hollywood parades past us.

I also find the bratty niece interesting, because while the other characters show a range of goodness– from the brazen confidence of Ursula to the very quiet kindness of Oku-sama– the niece allows for the fact that not all women are perfect. There’s also a briefly-seen mother, who’s a little obnoxious in yelling at her son (“Turn off that TV! NOW!!!”), and it’s a portrayal that I would object to in almost any other movie (the nag, the “voice of reason,” etc) — because in almost any other movie, she’d be the only woman around. But here, with so many other women, this mother doesn’t have to bear the burden of representing half the population, so it’s just an example of how people can be sometimes (because everyone can be impatient and obnoxious on occasion).

Kiki’s Delivery Service is also a brilliant story even without considering its remarkable variety of female characters, so there’s no way I’m done writing about it yet, but I was just so thrilled to see a movie that so perfectly embodies the idea behind the Bechdel test, I couldn’t keep from going on and on about it. This movie has women, of all sorts of different backgrounds and personalities, and they talk to each other about all sorts of things relevant to their lives, and the story is not all about men, but rather, all about them. Beautiful.

Check out my other post on Kiki here!

Plus, you should see Dolly’s review, too! She goes into way more depth and has a lot of great insights.


9 Responses to Kiki’s Delivery Service, failing the reverse Bechdel test, and sheer awesome.

  1. dollyann says:

    Woohoo for feminist reviews of Kiki’s Delivery Service! Oh you definitely found ground to cover that I didn’t… I hadn’t thought of looking at how many female characters show up in the film (just the ones Kiki had relationships with). But that’s so interesting… there really is a focus on women, even when they’re just on the sidelines (like the woman who forgot her baby’s pacifier).

    I will say though that while this film failed the reverse Bechdel test (which I didn’t know about until I visited your site–feminist thanks!), Tombo wasn’t exactly placed in an identical “damsel in distress–for men!” role. He wasn’t useless, fawning, or idiotic. While he admired Kiki, he had his own personality and we could have easily had a movie all about Tombo based on the snippets of personality we saw in the film. (Of course, that would defeat the purpose of having this awesome film about women and their stories!) So, while he definitely fulfills “protagonist’s love interest,” I would say he has a bit more identity than the cliched woman love interest.

    I’m so glad you mentioned the maid, Bertha, here. When she was riding the broomstick in the hallway, I cracked up And, like Tombo, I think you could do a film about Bertha. Miyazaki’s just cool like that. Minor characters have just as much potential for great stories as major ones. That’s an important lesson I think for anyone interested in character development.

    And the bratty niece… I just dismissed her, but you make a really good point. Women aren’t perfect, and we did only see a limited perspective of her character. She may have been a little selfish, but she could have been a lot more too. I liked Lady Eboshi from Mononoke for this same reason… we got some nasty impressions of her, but then we found out she took in prostitutes and lepers (a really good thing).

    Okay, rambling now. Awesome review, eloriane. 😉

  2. eloriane says:

    Thanks 🙂 I love hearing what you have to say about this stuff.

    As for Tombo, I think he is a really well-fleshed-out Love Interest, but he’s still limited by that role. We don’t get a good look at the people in his life other than Kiki– it’s just that car full of friends.

    It happens the same way for female Love Interests every now and then– they’re so awesome you don’t quite realize how they’ve been limited by their Love Interest role, so that they don’t have any proper relationships besides the Love. Like Marian in Raider of the Lost Ark (and Crystal Skull, I guess). We only ever see her when she’s important to Indy, but she’s so awesome in those moments that we mentally fill in th rest of her life. She feels a lot less limited than she is.

    You’re right that Tombo isn’t in a “damsel in distress-for men!” role (such a fantastic line, I had to repeat it!) but I think that has more to do with Miyazaki’s ability to have beautifully full secondary characters than any gender-based bonus. I think if the genders had been reversed, we would have come away with the exact same feeling that this love interest character could have had a movie by herself. But because this is meant to be a woman’s coming of age story, Tombo, while fantastic, is kept secondary to that story the same way that women are often kept secondary to men’s stories.

    On a totally unrelated note, I’ve been trying to think about the symbolism of the dirigible. It’s the non-magical way to have the same power Kiki does (flight) and it’s also male-dominated (unlike magic, which appears to be women-only.) And the dirigible crashes. I’m still not sure what to make of it, but I feel like there might be something there.

    Certainly, in the scene where Tombo shows Kiki his bike, I thought she was standing off a bit because she was thinking “What a weird way to fly,” as opposed to “Girls don’t do science.” I’m not sure. I’ll have to think on it.

  3. dollyann says:

    “On a totally unrelated note, I’ve been trying to think about the symbolism of the dirigible…I’m still not sure what to make of it, but I feel like there might be something there.”

    AUDIBLE GASP ZOMG — What a TOTALLY amazing idea. I don’t know if Miyazaki did that intentionally, but I’m so interpreting it your way now. I mean, I was only thinking of flying in terms of self-liberation, but when we add gender to the mix, it just expands even more! (Gah, I love feminist film reviewing now!) And while the dirigible is an example of male-dominated lib, we also see Tombo has a successful flying machine in the concluding montage. So possibly it’s an endorsement of guys like Tombo and a criticism of violent/shadowing masculinization. I also find it interesting that only women have the natural ability to fly in KDS. Thinking about Buddhist philosohpy (not necessarily Miyazaki’s, I’ll admit), women are often left out of the picture when it comes to talking about enlightenment. To see them having a “natural” ability at attaining liberation then is intriguing.

    I’d have to watch that scene again with Tombo’s bike and Kiki watching. I could be looking into it too far.

  4. spiffykt says:

    I always knew there was a reason I love Miyazaki movies! Awesome review, thanks!

  5. […] (See my previous post on Kiki’s Delivery Service here.) […]

  6. […] To those who are just joining the blog from Red String, welcome! If you want to read some more of what we’ve got here (and I know you do!), why don’t you check out the other “lesbian love in webcomics” article that I wrote, Penny and Aggie? Or you can check out some of my old favourites! I’ve always loved “More Xena; also, thoughts on pregnant heroes“, as well as my reviews of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and Kiki’s Delivery Service. […]

  7. […] thoughts on pregnant heroes“, as well as my reviews of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and Kiki’s Delivery Service. I hope to see you again– and please share your thoughts in the comments! Possibly related […]

  8. Chally says:

    Oh, thanks for that. One of my favourite films ever.

  9. […] Kiki’s Delivery Service, failing the reverse Bechdel test and sheer awesome.. A passionate post about the brilliance of Kiki’s Delivery Service from a feminist point of […]

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