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.)