Kiki’s Delivery Service, flying, and gendered power.

August 29, 2008

I’ve been trying to process the symbolism behind the dirigible and Tombo’s flying machine in Kiki’s Delivery Service, and how we’re meant to see them when compared to Kiki’s natural flying.

Starting with the conclusions that are easy to come to, flying in this universe is a symbol of strength and power. It is also a uniquely female power, since only women can be witches.

In most media women’s power is either a nebulous “ability to control men with her sexiness” or a “success in a male-dominated traditional career.” The first is really only “empowerful”, feminine but not powerful, and the second is powerful but not feminine, since it carries with it the idea that masculine things (science, business, combat) are the powerful things, and that women only get close sometimes by learning how to do those masculine things. And yet here we see that flying is really, truly feminine AND powerful.

Every time Kiki takes off on her broomstick in front of a woman who hasn’t seen her do it before, that woman gazes after her with the most glorious look of delighted awe, and it seems to me that in these moments, they are recognizing that feminine power in themselves.

So what does it mean when men learn to fly as well?

We have two different examples of this: the dirigible, made and staffed entirely (as far as I can tell) by men, and Tombo’s bicycle-powered flying machine. The dirigible crashes pretty horrifically. Tombo is seen flying quite happily in the end credits. What’s the difference between the two?

My hypothesis is that the dirigible is supposed to be an example of men trying to brute-force a solution, applying “masculine” thinking to conquer and claim a feminine power. I mean, they basically strap their little carriage to a gigantic synthetic balloon full of stuff that floats and try to make it work. It seems somehow very removed from individual efforts– there’s no way a single person could manufacture something that massive. And something about the strict scientific approach seems to me to be ignoring the real reason flying works, in Kiki’s universe.

Flying is an intensely personal endeavor, in Kiki’s world, like painting. It’s a creative endeavor, requiring inspiration; it’s an individual endeavor, requiring self-confidence. It’s almost a spiritual endeavor. To fly by science instead of by creative inspiration is to miss the point– and thus the dirigible crashes.

Tombo understands flying, though. It’s a personal dream for him, self-liberation; it holds a sense of wonder. He builds his machine with his own two hands, in his garage, by trial and error, and it requires a huge physical effort to make it work. He has to train to have any hope of succeeding.

It seems to me that by taking the personal approach to flying, Tombo is embracing the feminine parts of the power, as opposed to trying to shortcut right to the power itself, and this is why he is so successful.

Now, I’m not really cool with gender essentialism, so I don’t really think there are strict “feminine” and “masculine” ways of approaching things. But in a culture that devotes obscene amounts of energy to making sure everyone believes and obeys the gender dichotomy, I really appreciate a movie that affirms feminine power over masculine power. Especially since it shows that feminine power is only as gender-segregated as our enforced societal roles– if you’re willing to accept the “feminine” parts of yourself, you can also discover in yourself this feminine power.

And that’s pretty cool.

(See my previous post on Kiki’s Delivery Service here.)


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

August 27, 2008

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.

Love, peace, and rethinking Howl’s Moving Castle

August 24, 2008

After the last time I wrote about Howl’s Moving Castle, Dolly over at Dolly Speaks wrote her own post about the movie, and we ended up talking a lot in the comments. She had some good insight and now I’m rethinking my criticism of the movie.

Basically, I objected to the fact that the supposed hero of the movie got less kickass as the movie progressed, instead of more, and I felt the soft, loving Sophie at the end of the movie was a disappointment compared to how strong she was in the beginning. However, I think I am coming at this movie from the wrong point of view. If this were an American movie, especially a Hollywood film, it would be right to expect an increase in awesomeness, but Miyazaki has never been big on following traditional narrative structures (that’s why I like him!)

When I think about his movies as a whole– especially Princess Mononoke– Miyazaki never advocates violence. I know he’s an environmentalist, but I now think he is also a pacifist. So, I’m going to operate under the assumption that Sophie was supposed to get softer, and that was part of the point of the movie (as opposed to an accident caused by Miyazaki forgetting that she was supposed to be awesome.)

As I said over at Dolly Speaks:

The way [Sophie] goes from really passionately hating the Witch to caring for her and actually kissing her is a really unusual story…it would require seeing Sophie’s passion and snarkiness at the beginning as a sort of character flaw, but given how scary she looked when she promised to kill the Witch if they ever met again, and knowing that Miyazaki is often against violence, I could see how “learning to love and forgive” could have been intentional.

I think learning to love is a theme throughout many of his movies, actually. And certainly the movie was about Howl learning to love.

But intentional or not, I can’t help seeing it as a devolution of her character. In my mind, learning to love someone involves respecting them. Love should be a source of strength. It would have been a real sign of love from Howl if he had listened to her and disconnected the castle from the house. Obviously the movie would then end very differently but I think an ending could be made where Howl learns to be a little humbler and listen to Sophie, and Sophie’s determination and self-reliance save the day. It could be a tale about learning to love that didn’t end with a series of magic kisses.

So, while I think a “learning to be softer” story (as opposed to a “learning to be more kickass”) could make for a good story this particular example is still problematic. Most notable is the way that “learning to love” takes such different forms for Sophie and Howl. When Sophie “learns to love” she becomes softer and more feminine (she is at her youngest and prettiest when she’s being lovey-dovey) but she also learns to stop expressing her will. And when Howl “learns to love” he becomes a little less self-absorbed and childish, but he also learns to stop respecting Sophie and treating her as a person.

Howl is all about doing things for Sophie, and this tendency only increases the more “in love” he is. It starts with him taking the saucepan from her the first time they meet– even though Sophie demonstrably can cook with Calcifer the fire demon– and it ends with him flying off to fight for her. (In the middle, he gives her a pretty house and huge field of flowers, so she can set up a flower shop and live comfortably her whole life.) And while cooking breakfast instead of letting her do it is a pretty minor thing to do for her, they get larger and larger, and she objects more and more. She certainly liked the house and meadows, but she would have preferred living with Howl, I think, and might have preferred being a little more self-sufficient, rather than living off a gift. Certainly she didn’t want him to fly off and fight for her– she said so several times– and that’s what really frustrates me about their “love.” Can you really say you’re doing something for someone when they’re asking you not to do it?

Howl used the generic idea of love for Sophie to justify a number of things that Sophie didn’t really want him to do (flying off to fight on a couple different occassions), and to justify not doing the things she asked him to do (disconnecting the castle from the townhouse). Which is, to my mind, not really loving her at all.

I think the movie would have worked better if the focus had been on forgiving or understanding, rather than loving. Sophie’s relationship with the Witch was really powerful, I think– it takes great strength of character to go from hating someone so powerfully, to sympathizing with, and eventually forgiving her. If Howl and Sophie’s relationship had been more like Sophie and the Witch’s, they could have started with the disregard for each other’s wishes that they ended with, and ended with the friendly respect that they began with. It would have suited Howl’s childish personality to whine along with Markl about cleaning his room– to a certain extent, the memorable hair scene did exactly this– and to grow to respect her as her strength and determination repeatedly proved helpful.

Sophie did begin with them as something of a mother figure– if she had gone from mother to friend, instead of mother to obedient wife (which is basically a mother that you can kiss without it being gross), I think Miyazaki could have told his story about embracing peace without diluting his wonderful main character.

If only.

Howl’s Moving Castle and character devolution.

August 19, 2008

In a good movie, characters learn and grow stronger as the plot keeps throwing bigger and bigger challenges at them, so that someone who looks interesting in the beginning it totally awesome by the end. This is called character development. It’s what turned Elizabeth Swann from “at least there’s a woman in this story” to “OMG Pirate King!!1”

In Howl’s Moving Castle, however, we see the opposite, which I am hereby naming character devolution.

Howl’s Moving Castle, one of Hayao Miyazaki’s many fantastic Studio Ghibli films, passes the Bechdel Test with its first two lines of dialogue, and takes nearly half an hour to get around to the reverse Bechdel Test. Sophie, our protagonist, is plain-looking but doesn’t care (a rarity in films). She gets along well with her boss, coworkers, and lovely sister. She works hard but seems to enjoy what she does. She’s a strong woman, but not exceptionally strong, not isolated in her strength. (I’m sure the Hathor Legacy wrote about this concept, in reference to Juno, but for the life of me I can’t find the article. EDIT: I was wrong. It was Shakesville, here. The Juno bit is here.)

Anyway, Sophie: made of awesome. And then, when Sophie kicks the Wicked Witch of the Waste out of her shop, the witch curses her with old age. Sophie does the requisite freak-out, and then she decides, “Well, I was never pretty anyway, so it’s no loss,” and sets off on her quest to get the curse reversed (presumably out of desire not to die of “old age” before she hits 25.) And off she goes! She’s delightfully self-reliant, installing herself as a cleaning lady for the wizard Howl (Despite the fact that he supposedly eats pretty girls’ hearts– “I was never at risk for that,” she says).

So there she is, in a magical castle, bullying a fire demon into cooking her breakfast and wrangling wizards into cleaning the house, making jokes about her “old age.” And then…she stops doing anything.

Seriously, after she’s cleaned out his house, all she does is give Howl something to protect. She tries going to the castle for him so he won’t be conscripted into a pointless war, but then he shows up anyway; she was only useful because she “gave him the courage to go.” And after that, all she does is “give him something to live for,” by which he means, something to nearly get himself killed for, since he starts literally catching bombs to prevent them from blowing up Sophie’s house (which is magically connected to the moving castle) despite the fact that the castle can, y’know, move, and he can change where it connects. It would have made far more sense to disconnect the castle from the townhouse, let the townhouse get bombed, and find another house later, and Sophie even says so. But instead Howl flies off suicidally, leaving Sophie to worry about him.

Oh, she makes a valiant effort, actually figuring out how to disconnect the castle from the townhouse by herself, despite not having any magic powers of her own– but she has to essentially destroy the castle to do so, and it would have been far better if Howl had simply listened to her advice to begin with.

Some semi-confusing dream sequences follow, plus a big fight scene, and then there they all are, dying all around her, and Sophie saves everyone by kissing them. No, really, that’s it. She gets Howl’s heart from the Wicked Witch (who had stolen it from Calcifer) by pleading with her and then, after kissing her, the Wicked Witch is thoroughly devoid of Wickedness. She returns the heart, but Howl doesn’t revive until she kisses him, too. I’m pretty sure either Calcifer or Marco needed a kiss for something or other as well– or maybe it was the dog– and then the turnip-headed scarecrow that had been following her around hops up, and she kisses him too, and it breaks his curse too, and I was ready to vomit.

I’m sure it was meant to be her loving heart that was saving everybody (especially since nobody ever talked about how her own curse was broken– she just looked younger the more lovey-dovey she was acting.) And it’s not that I’m opposed to love, but a girl who just stands around loving everybody is not my idea of a kickass hero (which is what she looked like she was going to be.) After she falls in love with Howl, they have this exchange:

Sophie, looking young: So you are going away. Please, Howl. I know I can be of help to you, even though I’m not pretty and all I’m good at is cleaning.

Howl: Sophie! Sophie! You’re beautiful!

Sophie, turning old again: Well, the nice thing about being old is you’ve got nothing much to lose.

What a stunning lack of self-confidence from a woman who started out so completely secure in herself! Here, here’s what she was like before:

Sophie: All right Calcifer, lets get cooking.

Calcifer: I don’t cook! I’m a scary and powerful fire demon!

[Sophie ignores him and squashes him with her frying pan.]

Bullying a fire demon into making bacon: pretty assertive and confident!

Sophie: I wonder what Howl disguised himself as? Surely not a crow. Can’t be a pigeon, he’s too flamboyant for that.

[a glider plane with a giggling young woman and her lover flies overhead]

Sophie: That could be him.

Totally aware of how childish Howl usually is, and completely unimpressed by it: pretty self-assured!

Sophie: Do you know what Madame Suliman said? She said that Howl’s heart was stolen by a demon. Tell me now, what do you know?

Calcifer: I’m so sorry but that would be confidential information.

Interrogating fire demons! That’s just straight-up brave!

I mean, come on! In the beginning, she gets cursed because she stands up for herself, even when she’s stupidly overmatched. She’s self-confident, self-assured, self-reliant, and most of all driven (which is the nice way to say “kinda pushy”) and even though it was obvious she’d be breaking everyone’s curses– she’s the protagonist, after all– I really expected it to be because of her pushiness, somehow. Perhaps everyone else had given up too soon, and missed something, and by simply standing her ground and marching forward, Sophie would be able to recover the MacGuffin and save the world.

Instead, we got…magical kisses. And I think a hint of magical tears as well. It was just…disappointing.