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Kiki's Delivery Service & The Gift Economy

“Flying used to be fun, until I started doing it for a living,” muses 13-year-old Kiki in Kiki’s Delivery Service, my personal favorite Studio Ghibli movie.

Kiki’s Delivery Service has often been viewed as a metaphor for creative burnout; the protagonist is a young witch in training who must move to a new town on her own and start using her magic to somehow serve the community. Since flying on her broomstick is the thing she enjoys doing most, Kiki starts a flying delivery service to deliver things for people in town.

It’s a story fraught with metaphor for the life of an artist in general, as many have noted since the film released in 1989. Kiki’s ability to fly is sometimes called her “gift,” and as her gift becomes her way of making a living, complicated feelings arise similar to that of a creative who turns their art into their job. At one point in the film after an intense series of unforgiving delivery days, Kiki loses her magic and must rest and contemplate before she’s able to use it again—not unlike an author with writer’s block or a painter who has lost their inspiration. There’s a particular shot of Kiki collapsing on her bed that has radiated through my soul with its relatability for years now.

That element of the story, though, has been talked about quite eagerly by many; the thing that dawned on me recently was a little more specific and surprising. Kiki’s Delivery Service works as a parable about the creative life, yes, but it also functions in tandem as a story highlighting the beauty and complexity of the “gift economy” even in a world driven by the market.

The “gift economy” is an elusive idea, and my obsession with it recently culminated in an episode of my podcast covering the topic in depth. Just as many other words can be affixed before “economy” to evoke a world of trade or connections rooted in that particular source of value—gig economy or velvet rope economy among them—the gift economy imagines a world where gifts are central to human relationship. Wikipedia defines the concept as “a system of exchange where valuables are not sold, but rather given without an explicit agreement for immediate or future rewards.” I fear, however, that this definition limits the “gift” to material things; the broader idea of the gift economy can also include offerings of hospitality, time, relational ties, and physical presence. In the life of someone aware of the gift economy—whether or not they call it by that name—these offerings of generosity (both given and received) are central to relationship, community, and connection.

There are scant few movies that meaningfully engage with the idea of the gift economy in the first place, and even fewer made in America. For what it is, I don’t think Kiki’s Delivery Service is even being entirely intentional about its depiction of the concept, but perhaps the notions of reciprocal gifts and hospitality are marginally more baked into the culture of Japan than much of the west. Kiki is a character who survives and thrives on gifts—gifts which draw her further into relationship with others.

The opening 10 minutes of the film feature two major gifts: Kiki’s iconic flying broomstick, which belonged to her mother and is said to “never lose its way, even in a storm,” and Kiki’s bright red portable radio, which is gifted by her father. As Kiki sets off into the brave world, broomstick coasting on the breeze and radio blasting ‘Rouge no Dengon’ by Yumi Matsutoya, she is already resting on the bed of generosity from her parents.

Many other gifts follow. When it begins to thunderstorm in the middle of the night, Kiki drops down into an empty boxcar and sleeps in the hay, serendipitously carried by the train to her next destination. When she arrives in the seaside town of Koriko, after wandering around aimlessly for an afternoon and being refused housing at various hotels because she’s not an adult, Kiki happens to meet the pregnant baker Osono. Osono is running out of her bakery holding a pacifier belonging to a woman and her baby who left moments ago—and in Kiki’s first act of generosity with her magic, she offers to fly the pacifier down to them at the bottom of the hill, leaving Osono gaping with wonder at her abilities.

Kiki’s singular gift—using her flying broomstick to deliver a small object to a woman who needs it—prompts Osono to invite her inside and offer her the hospitality of a cup of coffee…along with a bowl of milk for Kiki’s black cat Jiji. After hearing Kiki’s situation, she also generously extends the first major gift Kiki receives in Koriko: she offers to let her have the spare bedroom next to her bakery to stay for free, even if it’s caked in baking flour. Kiki, in turn, offers on numerous occasions to help out around the bakery.

Kiki’s ability to use her gift to give is what prompts her to consider a delivery service in the first place, reasoning that “I have one skill—flying—so I thought a delivery service was a good idea.” Kiki suggests using the money she’s saved up to pay for a phone for the delivery service, but Osono subsequently (and generously) says she’ll allow Kiki to use her phone and her bakery as the headquarters instead…and even spreads the word to her friends about what Kiki is doing.

As Kiki’s delivery service gains popularity, the concept of gifts becomes central to her life. The first thing Kiki delivers is a birthday gift, and when she returns from the delivery, Osono’s husband has kindly crafted her own “delivery service” signage for her from wood.

If you haven’t clued into it already, many of the characters in Kiki’s Delivery Service are just all-around lovely. I remember the first time I watched the movie, I was anxiously waiting for the moment when the “twist villain” would show up, more in line with western animation, and introduce the necessity of contrived conflict into the story. But the delightful thing about Kiki’s Delivery Service is that there are no real villains; just people being kind and generous to each other, and sometimes misunderstanding or getting burned out and nervous. It’s one of the reasons the movie is a comfort watch, and one of the reasons it’s a touching example of gift economy.

That’s not to say the movie doesn’t depict the struggles and hardship of generosity, though.

On a busy day when Kiki has already been invited to a party and hopes to make it back in time, she arrives at the house of an old woman who is hoping to deliver a pie for her granddaughter’s birthday. The old woman can’t get her electric oven started, and so she tells Kiki she’ll pay her in full even though she has nothing to deliver. Kiki, with the generous heart that she has, offers to help the old woman get her wood-burning oven started—and then makes use of herself by helping her install lightbulbs and clean her kitchen while they wait. By the time she’s finished, Kiki sets off on her broom with the pie later than expected, going straight into a soaking wet thunderstorm.

I’ve always resonated deeply with what happens next. A dripping-wet Kiki finally arrives at the door of the granddaughter holding the hot, freshly-baked pie under her shirt to protect it from the rain. A prissy-looking teenage girl opens the door.

“Yes?” she says.

“I have a delivery!” Kiki responds eagerly.

“But it’s completely wet,” the teenage girl says flatly.

“I’m sorry. It began to rain on our way. But the food came through all right!” The girl takes the pie.

“I told grandma I didn’t want that.”

Kiki feels awkward. There’s a beat of silence, and then she asks the girl to sign a receipt for the delivery.

“I hate grandma’s stupid pies,” the girl groans, promptly shutting the door in Kiki’s face.

Kiki stands in the wet, dejectedly staring into space for a moment as a single raindrop rolls down her brow.

“She can’t possibly have been her granddaughter!” jokes Kiki’s cat Jiji.

The two of them fly home in the rain. Kiki has missed the party she was supposed to attend. She doesn’t even make an effort to stay dry anymore. When she wakes the next morning, she’s sick—and the next time she tries to ride her broom, her magic has strangely faded.

There are a lot of things about this sequence that have always resonated with me strongly. As an artist, sharing something you’ve made is a sensitive and delicate thing, almost like a gift at the audience’s front door. Having someone reject that artistic generosity, especially when you’ve poured out your magic and flown all the way through the thunderstorm, is its own form of defeat.

The action of giving a gift inherently carries a level of vulnerability and risk—and especially with a gift of personal art, it can feel like a gift of your soul, too. Kiki’s greatest fear upon arriving in the town of Koriko is rejection, and indeed, she meets some people who are in awe of her magical abilities and others who find them altogether strange or uncivil. When the door is shut in Kiki’s face, it’s a door shut in the face of her work, her heart, and her magic.

It’s interesting how this happens even in the midst of a world of commerce. One of the things that makes Kiki’s Delivery Service complex is the fact that Kiki’s magic (subtextually, her artistic gift) is a passion but it is also a job she takes to make money and survive, like many artists in the real world. The gift economy (the art, the magic, the generous hospitality) is inherently intertwined with the market economy—and even though technically Kiki’s pie delivery should have been “just a job,” the rejection still feels personal. Even though it exists in a market economy, the act of the delivery during a thunderstorm is still, in some sense, a gift.

Lewis Hyde’s seminal work, The Gift: How The Creative Spirit Transforms The World, explores the multifaceted relationship between market economy and gift economy in fascinating and scholarly detail. “Just as treating nature's [resources] as a gift ensures the fertility of nature,” says Hyde, “so to treat the products of the imagination as gifts ensures the fertility of the imagination.”

In early chapters, Hyde says, “it is the assumption of this book that a work of art is a gift, not a commodity… a work of art can survive without the market, but where there is no gift, there is no art.” Art can exist outside of a traditional commerce equation. But it cannot hold its status as art without remaining, in some sense, a gift.

The first time I was recommended The Gift, I was living and studying at my oft-mentioned place of refuge called L’Abri Fellowship in England, a Christian “monastery hostel” community where hospitality and generosity are core values. The organization exists on a foundation of prayer and donations, but L’Abri never advertises, recruits students, or comes anywhere close to “fundraising,” under the belief that God will supply the financial and material provision if the place is meant to continue existing. It’s an intentional vulnerability that makes the enduring survival of L’Abri itself into a testament to God’s continued faithfulness…and makes it an even more precious gift.

There is a cost to attend L’Abri; at the English branch, it’s about £22 per night. This includes a bed, bathrooms and showers, a library, 3 meals per day, a personal tutor who meets with you once a week to talk about your life, and participation in the community during the term. Needless to say, in comparison to the cost of ordinary living, a term as a student at L’Abri is cheap. I’ve heard from various workers that the price students pay is roughly one half of what it actually costs to have them. The rest comes from unprompted donations and gifts.

One of the funniest things I’ve ever read about L’Abri was a review on TripAdvisor that said something like “nice people. okay food. drafty house. left early.” I haven’t been able to find that review since, but I distinctly remember seeing it back when I was considering going.

During my term there, I mused to a friend that it felt strange and almost wrong to leave a “review” for L’Abri on a website like TripAdvisor in the first place. At the time, I couldn’t figure out why exactly it felt that way. Now, I can pinpoint that it was because the action itself of writing a review took an experience of generosity and hospitality and pulled it into the world of commerce and transaction. Make no mistake, we live in a market economy and I don’t begrudge anyone of reading reviews for L’Abri to figure out what they’re getting themselves into; you’ll find that the reviews are often glowing. But if you’ve ever been to L’Abri, you know that it feels almost like reading reviews for the experience of being invited over to your friend’s house. Nobody lucky enough to have a friend to invite them over in the first place would be interested in listing pros and cons on a review website. It would be like Kiki trying to evaluate the spare room she was gifted by Osono and rate it out of ten.

Andrew Fellows, the former director of English L’Abri, has a solid lecture about the concept of the gift economy. One of his key points, a point shared by Lewis Hyde in his book, is that the participation in the gift economy (and the intentional vulnerability required to do so) generates relationship and trust in ways that the market economy doesn’t. In commerce, the relationship is cut off as soon as the transaction is complete. In gift economies, the relationship continues far beyond, particularly when there’s no way (or requirement) to repay the debt of a gift. That's certainly been true of the people I met and received care from at L'Abri. It's meaningful just to continue being in each other's lives, and pass on (or gift) something of the same hospitality and care to others if I can.

At the behest of some L’Abri friends, I recently tried out CouchSurfing while visiting Pennsylvania for a funeral. CouchSurfing is an app and website that connects people who are interested in offering their space (usually a pull-out couch, or a guest room) to strangers who need somewhere to stay short term, completely free of charge. It’s very popular across Europe, but it’s got lots of participants in America, too. Most CouchSurfing users list their expectations of guests on their profile; some will note that they’d appreciate help with some kind of small task or chore while the person stays, but the vast majority just say that they’d like to share a meal or a good conversation with their guest while they’re staying in their home. That’s the only payment they expect.

My CouchSurfing host in Pennsylvania, Sam, had a pullout couch in the middle of his living room—which, after I arrived, surprised me with a gigantic and beautiful mural of The Polar Express that Sam said his friend painted while he was “in the Christmas spirit.”

Because of the funeral, I didn’t get to see Sam much while I was in town, but I did wake up early the first morning I was staying at his place and had a 2 hour chat with him about community, God, and traveling. He was a really thoughtful guy.

The night beforehand, Sam had texted me the keycode to his apartment so that I could let myself in while he was out for a late night movie with friends. Ironically, at the time, I was feeling nervous about arriving in a stranger’s apartment alone, going to bed and not knowing when he’d be back late at night. Sam told me the next day that around the same time I was getting settled in, his friends had all been asking him how he could possibly feel safe knowing that a total stranger was in his apartment while he was away. Sam said he told them, “I’ve done this so many times, and nobody has ever let me down. When you give someone the gift of trust, they usually give the same gift back.”

Before leaving early on the final morning, I walked to a donut shop nearby and brought back a box to leave on Sam’s counter. A few hours later, he texted me and said “thanks for the donuts! I hope you had a nice visit to the city despite the circumstances. You and your wife are both welcome anytime you find yourselves around here in the future!”

My experience staying in Sam’s apartment opened my eyes to all the intertwined intricacies of life in a gift economy. I put myself into a vulnerable place by staying in a stranger’s house. Sam put himself into an arguably even more vulnerable place by inviting a stranger in. In a world of market and commerce where it would have been safer and less intimidating to just pay for a hotel, the action of trying CouchSurfing was a risk. But Sam’s gift of trust was reciprocated with my trust, and now we have a relationship that may even last beyond that brief 3-night stay. I’m sure if I ever go back to Pennsylvania, we’ll hang out again.

This piece was originally supposed to be about Kiki’s Delivery Service, wasn’t it?

As Kiki’s eventually soars toward its ending, the external climax involves Kiki receiving a gift of a stranger’s broom (after her own broom was broken) and igniting her magical ability again to go and save her friend Tombo, who is about to fall from a great height. The true internal climax for Kiki’s character, though, happens in the scene prior to all of this commotion.

The old woman who baked the pie that Kiki delivered in the rain has invited her over to her house again, supposedly to make another delivery. Kiki tries to explain that she hasn’t been flying so much recently, but the old woman says that should be okay, because this gift doesn’t have to go far. She tells Kiki to open a box on the table on front of her, revealing a lovingly-baked chocolate cake with her name (and a picture of Kiki riding her broom) in icing on top.

“Would you please deliver it to a girl named Kiki?” says the old woman softly. “She was kind, and a tremendous help. It is my ‘thank you.’ And would you find out when her next birthday might be? Then I’ll be able to bake her another one.”

Kiki’s eyes glisten with affection and appreciation, and watching the scene again, my eyes do as well. Finally, she wipes the tears away and says, "I will. And I’m sure Kiki will want to know the lady’s birthday so that she’ll be able to give her a gift too!”

“You’ve got a deal!” the old woman chuckles.

Art. Vulnerability. Relationship. Trust.

To me, that’s a picture of what life in a gift economy can look like. And it’s beautiful.


Houston Coley and his wife Debbie are missional documentary filmmakers from Atlanta and Czech Republic. Houston is a YouTube video essayist, self-described 'theme park theologian', and the artistic director of a nonprofit called Art Within.

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