At the end of any story, when the final credits roll or the back cover closes, the audience walks away with certain feelings or ideas spawned by the work that they just finished. Sometimes, these ideas refuse to leave our heads, leaving a lasting impression long after the experience. These lingering thoughts and feelings are often the result of carefully connected threads woven throughout by the creator: the themes of the work.
Themes give creative works their personality. You can’t play a video game, read a comic, or watch a show without running into some sort of theme. When romance blossoms in a particular shoujo anime, or a character proves that staying true to yourself works better than faking your personality, you’ve got theme.
For a deeper understanding of this literary device, let’s take a look at the 1989 film Kiki’s Delivery Service (魔女の宅急便 Majyou no Takkyuubin, or, The Witch’s Delivery Service) from celebrated director and artist Hayao Miyazaki.
Spoilers: You will find a few mild spoilers ahead. If you haven’t watched this lighthearted anime and want to experience it with no preconceived ideas of what’s coming, I recommend reading this post after rather than before.
What is Theme?
Literary theme works a bit differently than when childhood-you threw a Pokémon birthday party complete with pikachu piñata and pokéball plates. Theme in creative works is defined as the major idea(s) or underlying meaning(s) of the work. They can appear as major ideas throughout the work, or more minor ones that only surface in a scene or two.
Some people summarize it as the moral of the work, but this creates a limited understanding of this literary element. Yes, a theme can lay out moral lessons, but thinking of it only as a moral lesson prevents us from seeing themes that don’t reflect moral lessons such as home, evolving team dynamics, growing up, or the beauty of simplicity.
Additionally, as a general rule of thumb, I try to keep in mind that while many themes are purposefully implemented by the creative mind behind the work, others exist without the creator’s conscious intent. These often come from the creator’s life or the surrounding culture. We don’t always think about the themes influencing our work until long after the fact.
Discovering Theme in a Work
Sometimes, we can find themes in the situations that a character ends up in. As an example, imagine that a character frequently finds themselves needing to rely on their friends, or working hard to make new friends. A major theme in the work would then be friendship. Similarly, a scene in which a character faces a great storm that overcomes their boat could show the theme that humans are at the mercy of the unstoppable forces of nature. At the same time, this scene could then include the character finding the determination to prevail against all odds, showing that human determination can get us through almost anything.
Scenery can show theme as well. A creator focusing on simplicity might have reoccurring backgrounds with minimal decoration. Someone wanting to emphasize human relationships with nature will likely include many scenes set in nature. Likewise, if a creator wants to communicate how resourceful and all-enduring humans are, they might include scenery depicting the human drive to survive against the odds.
Feelings and conversations work as a mode of conveying these complex threads too. A character might encounter a dying bird and work hard to save it only to have it die in the end. The character might grow sorrowful at first, but later come to terms with the bird’s death as being out of their control. It would have died if they had picked it up or left it be. The theme here could be that nothing can stop the inevitability of death.
Theme Vs. Subject
One literary element easily confused with theme is subject. The subject is what the story focuses on such as dinosaurs, space travel, the Titanic, or a little witch with a delivery service. For example, the Gundam series often focuses on the subject of war. These anime all contain war in various states, which is the subject rather than the theme.
The theme involves the thoughts, feelings, and messages that the creator wishes to convey about the subject. In other words, it portrays the creator’s opinions about the subject. One Gundam series might discuss the negative impact of war. Another might specifically focus on the theme of friendship, showing the way that the subject of war impacts these bonds by following the story of friends tangled up in war.
Let’s Crack This Movie Open!
Creative works are often complicated and contain multiple themes in order to get many messages across. These often complement one another and, just like any literary element, are open to viewer interpretation. Let’s take a look at a few of the themes that make up Kiki’s Delivery Service: growing up and self-discovery, living your passions, drawing inspiration from others, freedom from flight, and feminism. Although these do not constitute the entirety of the movie’s themes, they are important ones.
Discovering Yourself and Independence (AKA, Growing Up)
Remember that scenes in the movie or situations that the characters end up in often show us theme. In the first scene, we meet Kiki laying in the grass listening to a radio. Following an announcement that leads her to believe that tonight is the perfect night, she dashes around preparing for a grand adventure. The time has finally come for her to leave home and start life on her own without the help of family or friends.
She’s more than ready for this adventure and discourages her mother from helping her prepare. Before she departs, she does accept her mother’s trusty broom to guide her in this daunting endeavor (this item becomes a symbol later for her own success in relation to her mother’s). The scene sets up a major theme in the film: self-discovery and growing up. It is the moment when Kiki starts the journey that will eventually produce an independent adult witch, and she’s determined to accomplish this without any help from home. She knows that she won’t have to return home as a failure, establishing the idea that if she fails, it’s curtains for her independent and successful self.
Brimming with excitement at starting this new chapter in her life, Kiki sets out with no more special powers than the average person, with the exception of her magic-gifted abilities to speak to her cat Jiji and fly. She hits a few bumps along the way, but eventually makes it to a bakery where she helps make an emergency delivery to a woman who forgot her baby’s binky on the checkout counter. This auspicious event gives Kiki the start she needs when the bakery owner offers her a place to stay and set up a delivery service.
She encounters successes and failures throughout her endeavors, as many do during the turbulent transition between childhood and adulthood. We leave home to a landmine of possible failures. These failures can come as a result of circumstance or lack of experience. Kiki experiences both in equal measure. For the most part, Kiki always finds a way to pick herself back up after these failures and point her feet back in the right direction.
Eventually, Kiki runs into an unexpected downturn that knocks her down pretty hard. After an especially difficult delivery on a stormy night that ends more or less in failure, Kiki comes down with a terrible cold. Once she recovers, Kiki makes her first friend her age (a boy named Tombo) and gets a confidence boost from it. Her new confidence does not last long, however. When Tombo’s friends roll in, Kiki begins to compare herself to them and gives into doubt. She runs away without explanation, and later criticizes herself for her behavior around the other kids.
The disastrous delivery and rocky social relationships leave Kiki feeling pretty low, and she finds that she can no longer work magic. Unable to communicate with her cat Jiji or fly, Kiki sinks into a depression. What could a witch possibly do without her magic? At first, she seems to think that she isn’t trying hard enough and tries hard to regain her flying abilities. These efforts result in her breaking her mother’s broom. When crafting a new broom does not work, Kiki begins to feel even more like a failure. What is a new witch in training supposed to do without her powers? The Thought of returning home a failure as mentioned in the beginning of the film creeps in.
Not only has she lost her own powers, but she has also lost the item that symbolized her mother’s success, and thus her own potential. Without either of these items, Kiki feels lost. She finds herself feeling like an outsider where she once felt right at home.
Kiki’s crisis is not unlike the real life experience of growing up. Everyone experiences failure, but it can feel more disastrous when we are in the process of crafting our adult selves. Every mistake can feel like a drastic setback, especially when we live far from any family who might pick us back up and put us on track again. These situations leave us feeling incapable and cause us to lose confidence in ourselves.
In many cases, these failures show us weaknesses where we thought we had strengths. It can make us feel like we’ve lost an important part of ourselves, just like Kiki feels the distinct loss of her magic. She blames herself, thinking that she can never turn into a successful witch like her mother.
Fortunately for our heroin, this proves only a minor setback. She quickly rediscovers her magic by realizing what it means to her now. Previously, magic was a means to success and new beginnings for Kiki. In a forward for the film, Miyazaki states:
Quite a few TV cartoons about little witches have been made before this, but the witchcraft has always merely been the means to fulfill the dreams of young girls. They have always become idols with no difficulties. The witch of Majo no Takkyubin (Kiki’s Delivery Service) does not possess that convenient kind of power.
Similar to narratives containing other young witches, magic starts out as a means for fulfilling Kiki’s dreams. To her, being a witch allows her to run the delivery business. As long as she feels successful, she can use her magic without a problem. Her success is due to much more than just her magic, a fact which Kiki might not realize. Once she loses confidence in her own success, however, she also loses her magic and doesn’t get it back until she recognizes that her success comes not from her magic, but from within herself.
Kiki soon discovers new inspiration to drive her magic and reclaims it as her own. The opportunity comes when she witnesses a life-threatening disaster unfolding on the news. A dirigible crashes into a building, stranding its passengers and throwing her friend Tombo into mortal danger. Despite losing her magic, the young witch dashes off to save the day. The incident not only gives Kiki a new vision for her magic, but also leaves her with a renewed sense of success that doesn’t hinge on establishing herself through the delivery service or magic. She regains her confidence and rediscovers her magic as a tool for success rather than the cause of it.
Bonus: This film released a year after another well-known Miyazaki film: My Neighbor Totoro (となりのトトロTonari no Totoro). If you haven’t seen Totoro, it explores the magic of childhood through the adventures of two sisters. While Totoro embraces childhood, Kiki’s Delivery Service celebrates growing out of it. You could even say that Kiki’s loss of magic represents a loss of childhood’s magic, while regaining it represents discovering yourself in your new, “adultier” form.
That’s all for now, but there’s more to discuss when it comes to theme! Be sure to keep an eye out for follow-up posts exploring other themes in Kiki’s Delivery Service, as well as a theme-related challenge!
In the Meantime…
And as always, if you have a literary device you want to know more about, or a game, comic, show, or movie that you want to see make an appearance on the blog, leave a shout-out in the comments!