Millennials — maligned murderers of motorcycles and other industries — are will-o’-wisps of productivity, burning with dazzling flames and then abruptly fizzling out. Burnout is not unique to millennials, but overwork and burnout are disproportionately afflicting the younger generations in an economy that has become increasingly defined by hustle. Stereotypes already paint millennials as lazy, so we have an increasing drive to push back against that narrative, and in doing so we sometimes overcompensate. Concerned with the optics of taking time away from work, millennials, more so than boomers or gen xers, are foregoing the respite of vacations. This results from a need to signal our diligence and indispensability to employers.
Yet there is little evidence of the good that this incessant hustle brings. It doesn’t correspond to higher wages or a better quality of life. We aren’t even breaking even in comparison to older generations. In fact, we’re significantly poorer than them. We take on more debt, suffer from lower incomes, must spend more on housing, and aren’t able to squirrel as much away in our savings accounts.
We are so, so tired. That’s what makes Kiki’s Delivery Service so relevant and so vital today, even as we crest its 30th anniversary.
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Do What You Love
Kiki is a 13-year-old novice witch. When the film begins, she is just getting ready to venture out beyond the comfort and familiarity of her rural town into the wider world on her own for a year as a part of her training. She faces the challenge ahead with the utmost confidence and takes off on her broom towards the open horizon. Her only companion is Jiji, the talking black cat that serves as her familiar. Along with Jiji, she brings just her black dress, a red ribbon in her hair, a small amount of money, and an old-fashioned affect. She serves as a clear stand-in for young adults leaving the nest and journeying out into an unfamiliar world for the first time.
She sputters through the air, but there is joy and anticipation painted in thick strokes all over her expression. As she scans the horizon for a city to settle down in, she meets another witch who is just finishing up her own training. This other witch flies straight, and talks down to Kiki about how inhospitable cities are. Of course, that isn’t a problem for her because she is a skilled fortune teller, and can take advantage of that skill to overcome any obstacle. When she asks Kiki what her specialty is, Kiki can’t immediately summon any witching ability she has mastered. For the first time, doubt creeps into her mind, and then, in full pathetic fallacy, a storm blows in.
After taking shelter from the storm overnight in the compartment of a freight train, she arrives at Koriko, a port city influenced by a hodgepodge of European cities, from Lisbon to Stockholm. The people in the city aren’t friendly, and don’t marvel at her flight. She is even chastised by a cop after losing control of her broom.
Serendipity strikes when she uses her broom to help the owner of a bakery return a pacifier to a forgetful customer. Grateful, the owners of the bakery decide to take her in and let her run her own delivery service out of their shop. Kiki parlays her passion and her greatest skill into an unexpected living.
Her business thrives, but she is hard-working to a fault. A dutiful work ethic becomes an obsession that threatens to consume. She doesn’t take time away from work for leisure or to hang out with friends. Even her health comes before her hustle when an order comes in and she makes a delivery during a downpour that leaves her sick the next morning. As burnout approaches, her expressions in flight — once bright enough to light up the sky — become world-weary.
You’ll Never Relax a Day in Your Life
In discussing Kiki’s Delivery Service, it’s worth noting the historical and cultural context of karoshi. Loosely translated as “death from overwork,” the term was coined sometime in the 1970s, and was seen as a major occupational hazard in Japan throughout the 1980s, just before Japan’s economic bubble burst, causing the country to tailspin into recession. Karoshi-related deaths were not uncommon, and were attributed to complications resulting from extraordinary stress. The Japanese government attempted to curb these fatalities, but even today they are still a well-defined hazard of working life in Japan.
For example, Business Insider reported just two years ago about a 31-year-old journalist who logged 159 hours of overtime in just a single month and eventually died of karoshi-related heart failure. The animation industry is among many notorious for promoting overworking. This context makes it even easier to read Kiki’s Delivery Service as a response to a culture that produced karoshi and as a treatise on burnout.
One of the only times we get to see Kiki taking a break from work to just enjoy herself stems from a delivery she has to make to a local boy, Tombo, who has spent most of the film thus far attempting to befriend her. They bond over the joy of flying — Kiki’s latent ability to fly on a broom, and Tombo’s attempts to build a pedal-powered aircraft. Then comes the most telling line of the film, as Kiki confesses, “Flying used to be fun until I started doing it for a living.”
When Tombo’s friends show up, Kiki suddenly feels like a stranger in a strange land and trudges back to her austere accommodations with an anhedonic look on her face. She falls over onto her bed like a piece of driftwood. During dinner, she attempts to hold a conversation with Jiji only to be met with meows. She then tries to hop on her broom only for the riptide of gravity to dump her back to the floor.
She made her hustle what she loved, and due to poor work/life balance, she lost both. She could no longer fly for enjoyment or work. It’s a stark reality that many find themselves living as they make their passions their vocations. A common adage goes, “If you do what you love, you’ll never work a day in your life,” but Kiki illustrates why that isn’t always true.
This is an existentially terrifying prospect, especially for those working in creative fields. As a freelance writer, for example, my livelihood is entirely dependent upon my ability to generate and sell ideas to outlets on a constant basis. That grind can sap the creative fuel necessary to power it if not managed. My generation is increasingly mired in that fear and the self-perpetuating cycle that makes that anxiety manifest.
Kiki isn’t able to return to health until Ursula, a painter who lives in a cabin in the woods outside of town, teaches her a hard lesson about self-compassion and self-care. The problem is that Kiki’s identity has almost fused with her work, and she doesn’t quite get how to step away from it without beating herself up.
After spending time divorced from her powers, and thus from her work, an emergency occurs that puts Tombo’s life in danger. The resolution to the film comes when Kiki must again ply her craft for something other than work and summon the ability to fly in order to save him from falling to his death. She is rusty, and doesn’t have access to her broom, but taking time off for herself does the trick and she is able to fly a janitor’s mop to rescue Tombo. The ending presents self-care and self-compassion as the antidote to burning out.
It’s never that easy in real life, of course. Balancing passion and vocation, work and non-work life, hard work and working too hard, is tricky. It’s easy to overshoot and burn out. We understandably beat ourselves up all the time for not working hard enough, but Kiki’s Delivery Service demonstrates why that’s harmful. The film shows the dangers of overwork and it works because of the simplicity of its message and the clarity of its themes. In doing so, it portrays self-compassion as not just a luxury, but a necessary — if not sufficient — response to the alienation of labor under capitalism.