Wolf Hollow (2016) is a middle grade novel by Lauren Wolk. This mid-20th century story is chock-full of symbolism which makes it great for a novel study. Here I focus instead on the writing techniques, for writers of middle grade.
In many folktales, visitors to fairyland see magnificent palaces and comely people until they accidentally rub the fairy ointment on their eyes. Then fairyland is revealed as a charnel-house, grey and grim, with the fairies as the grinning dead.
Diane Purkiss, Troublesome Things
The Utopian World is prevalent in contemporary children’s literature. Move into young adult literature, and the top end of middle grade, and settings which looked benign now look not so great. Something is wrong underneath. TV Tropes calls the snail under a leaf setting a False Utopia.
The ‘snail under the leaf’ describes a setting which:
emphasises the evil of the universe
and the basic cruelty of life, as a part of the general make-up of humanity.
‘The snail underneath the leaf’ setting is also about people’s delusion — we may think everything is hunky dory, but only because we’re not looking under the rotten surface layer.
Snails are widely connected with unpleasantness. Katherine Mansfield scholars have called this kind of setting ‘the snail underneath the leaf’. Generally the themes of these narratives focus on corruption of the world, or betrayal of others, whether directly or indirectly. (Katherine Mansfield’s short stories often feature actual snails.) In Mansfield’s later stories the handling of theme grows darker and more despairing.
In “The Little Governess” the waiter at the hotel destroys the character’s chances of getting the job.
In “Bliss” Miss Fulton betrays Bertha’s love and the boy and the girl in the park ridicule Miss Brill’s illusion.
What other kinds of stories feature a snail under the leaf setting?
As depicted so clearly in the opening scene to the Netflix series Riverdale, the snail under the leaf setting looks beautiful to the tourist or to the casual observer but awful things are happening just beneath the surface. The voice over which accompanies the opening scene of Riverdale is a perfect description of the utopia which is no such thing.
Blue Velvet (1986) is famous for the utopian opening punctured by death, foreshadowed initially by the gun on the TV screen. Note the white picket fences, the rows of colourful flowers, the manicured lawns. Also the symbolic dream houses. Interestingly, after the man’s death, the camera gives us a macro shot of that perfectly manicured lawn to reveal the wriggling insect life underneath. Insects, snails… it seems life in the undergrowth is symbolically connected to snail under the leaf settings.
Below is a description of Pines, which came through in a BookBub email. The copy describes your classic snail under the leaf setting:
Pines By Blake Crouch
The Wall Street Journal bestselling mystery that became a hit TV show! Ethan is sent to a small town to locate two missing federal agents — but something terrible is lurking behind its picturesque veneer… “A thrill and surprise on every page” (Hugh Howey)
A SHORT HISTORY OF SNAIL UNDER THE LEAF SETTINGS
The snail under the leaf setting is a descendent of The Fall plot, which is as old as language itself:
There was once a time when there was no disease. Life spans were longer than those we enjoy today, there was no suffering, and people possessed magical powers. They could fly, go to heaven at will, and understood the language of animals.
This is the myth of the golden age, found in cultures the world over.The oldest stories predate Eden: Sumerian cuneiform tablets speak of Dilmun, ‘a place where sickness, violence and ageing are unknown.’ When the sun-god Utu and Enki, lord of soil and earth, brought water, Dilmun flowered and became a beautiful garden. Another pre-Edenic tale is the ancient Persian story of Yima, the first human. During his time, ‘there was neither heat nor cold, neither old age nor death, nor disease.’ Yima built a beautiful garden, the most widespread image for paradise. This is no coincidence, as Richard Heinberg noted: ‘The word paradise itself comes from the Avestan (Old Iranian) word Pairidaeza, meaning a walled or enclosed garden.’
But then disaster struck. Myths of the fall are as widespread as those of the golden age. In Eden, the Serpent tempted Eve to eat the fruit from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. In Persia — one of the few stories not to attribute the loss of paradise to the actions of a woman — the Fall was brought about when Yima refused to do the bidding of Ahura Mazda, the Zoroastrian god. Divine displeasure resulted in shorter life spans, pain, toil, conflict, and disease. We have been living in this world ever since.
A Short History of Disease: Plagues, poxes and civilisations by Sean Martin
The difference between Fall mythologies and the modern snail under the leaf setting is that it is often revealed that the setting was never utopian in the first place — it simply seemed so. In certain genres (like horror) we’ve been primed to expect a happy scene to at some point turn into a terrifying scene. This is why singing in cars while driving along highways scares me.
THE SUBURBS AS APPARENT UTOPIA
Aside from small towns next to lakes and forests, suburbia is a common choice for the snail under the leaf setting.
“They taught us at Barnard about that word, ‘utopia’. The Greeks had two meaning for it: ‘eu-topos’, meaning the good place, and ‘u-topos’ meaning the place that cannot be.”
Rachel Menken, Mad Men, season one, episode 6, “Babylon.”
Mad Men, of course, is a snail under the leaf setting itself, making Rachel’s lines somewhat meta. Mad Men is set partly in Manhattan, partly in the suburbs where Don Draper has bought a big family home, hoping to keep his family safe. Matthew Weiner was influenced by John Cheever when he wrote Mad Men; many of Cheever’s short stories are a story under the leaf stories, set in mid-century American suburbs.
FURTHER EXAMPLES OF APPARENT UTOPIAS
American Beauty, the movie, and also Six Feet Under, in a way. A family unit lives upstairs from a literal morgue. The snail under the leaf setting symbolism is exploited most when the house has plumbing issues, spewing forth all sorts of vile liquid back into the family home.
Broadchurch, the British TV series, and pretty much any crime drama set in a picturesque small town, especially if it’s a holiday destination.
Tales From Outer Suburbia, the picture/coffee table book by Shaun Tan is an example often presented to children. (I think Shaun Tan’s picture books have a dual audience.)
Courage The Cowardly Dog, a horror/comedy TV cartoon series, which has fun with a ridiculously isolated prairie setting.
Are You There, God? It’s Me, Margaret by Judy Blume is another example for young readers. In children’s stories, the snail under the leaf setting is often pretty utopian, except for interpersonal issues, extending to bullying.
The Ice House, film from the 1990s based on the Rick Moody novel. Suburban snail under the leaf settings often feature houses made mainly of glass.
So if a story opens with a happy suburban setting, know there’s an ugly, slimy little snail hiding right under the surface.
Like Margaret Simon, I was an only child suspicious of suburban idyll. I consumed the book, as I would go on, in my 20s, to consume anything by Richard Yates or John Cheever, seeking assurances that a lawn was a poor means of generating certain existential satisfactions. The novel [Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret] begins with its heroine forced to leave Manhattan, with all of its enrichments, when her parents decide to move to the suburbs (for all of the reasons parents have always decided to move to the suburbs). “Please help me God,” Margaret implores. “Don’t let New Jersey be too horrible.”
The small town which seems picturesque but is actually terrible is so common in story that it’s pretty much expected by the audience. For this very reason, storytellers can subvert that expectation by giving the newcomer a pleasant experience in a new place, even though that character expected the worst.
Suburgatory is a sitcom in which a teenage NYC girl with a superiority complex is forced to move to a nearby suburbs with her dad. She expects the worst — and so do we — because this is a brightly-coloured, well-manicured suburb. The main character does encounter conflict, but not because there is death and destruction lurking under the surface — because the very utopia these people created has magnified their small problems until now they seem very large.
This same gag is used in much of the Gilmore girls humour, which revolves around parish pump politics. Refer to Taylor and his town meetings. The inevitable message: Humans can never be happy. Where there is no Minotaur opposition to unify a community, the community will invent conflict, turning against each other. (Of course, there’s no story without conflict.)
Schitt’s Creek is a different example of a subverted snail under the leaf setting because the town is not presented as a utopia at all — the set designers went to a lot of trouble to make the town where it’s filmed look a lot worse than it is. Although this small town looks dilapidated on screen, it is revealed to the audience that the people of Schitt’s Creek are warm and friendly. This town looks like it will be full of illiberal bigots, but they embrace sexual diversity. The creators were sure of one thing from the start — they didn’t want any bigotry in this feel good show.
In defence of snails, not everyone finds them unpleasant. The artist below incorporates their beautiful structure into a highly detailed ornamental design.
Anne Of Green Gables has a lot in common with modern YA stories aimed at young women.
THE INFLUENCE OF CINDERELLA
In real life, the character of Anne Shirley would be a lifelong social workers’ project. Her parents died of ‘the fever’ when she was an infant and since then she’s been pushed around from place to place. She has literally no one in her life who really cares for her. Children simply do not thrive when there is no one to care for them. This gives the beginning of the Green Gables saga more in common with a fairytale than realistic fiction.
THE INFLUENCE OF JANE AUSTEN
Pride and Prejudice was published in 1813. Anne of Green Gables was published in 1908, just shy of 100 years later. I’m in no doubt that L.M. Montgomery grew up reading and re-reading Pride and Prejudice. Anne of Green Gables is the 1908 Canadian equivalent for slightly younger readers. However, Anne seems to be based on her child self.
Anne Shirley is basically an Elizabeth Bennett character.
In no particular order:
Diana Barry is Jane — each the sweet and beautiful confidante but ultimately too boring to ever exist as a main character in a novel. Both Jane and Diana are victims — in some ways — of their narrowly prescribed circumstances, being completely devoid of freedom. They do pretty much as they are told and they will have uneventful, reasonably happy but low-drama lives.
Lizzie is closer to her father just as Anne is closer to father figure Matthew Cuthbert at first.
Marilla is much kinder and less comical than Lady Catherine de Bourgh but fulfills some of the same story functions. For example, when Marilla cautions Gilbert Blythe that Anne is still very young this must plant the idea of courting her seriously in his mind, because that’s when he offers to escort her to her reading of The Highway Man. Likewise, it’s when Lady Catherine visits Lizzie at her home telling her that Darcy is already engaged to her sickly daughter that Elizabeth stubbornly refuses to say she is not engaged to Mr Darcy, despite rumours. Ironically, this outwardly event brings to consciousness her suppressed feeling that in fact she does like Darcy very much.
Suppressed affections for the most eligible boy in the village. Both Lizzie and Anne have romantic notions — Anne’s are a little more immature — and their ideas of romance actively stand in the way of them finding love until they overcome their fears.
These fears are thought to be borne of ‘pride‘. I find pridefulness quite an old-fashioned notion. I believe Lizzie and Anne suffered from anxiety, which I can well understand, living as fertile women in an age where sex and love was not discussed openly, but where women died during childbirth in every village, and if you didn’t pick your man wisely? Too bad, you were stuck with him. How could you pick wisely, though, when decorum wouldn’t let you spend any real time alone with him? To the early 1900s reader, however, ‘pridefulness’ as a female shortcoming was well understood, and made for a good psychological shortcoming. Bookish girls were often told not to bury their noses in study — Diana Barry is an example of a girl whose parents thought that way — and girls were expected to marry whether they wanted to or not. If they chose not to, they were called stubborn — and Marilla is an example of that, growing old and lonely in her twilight years as she gradually loses her eyesight. “If you don’t get married and have children you’ll live a lonely life,” readers are told. Pride as a psychological shortcoming is readily understood across cultures, and in Japan we see another quite different culture which nevertheless understands that pridefulness is something to be overcome. See for example Kiki of Kiki’s Delivery Service, a Japanese story through and through but echoing strong shades of Jane Austen and Anne of Green Gables nonetheless. Kiki is Anne, Tombo is Gilbert. (By the way, Anne of Green Gables is very popular in Japan. Japanese tourists make up a disproportionate number of tourists to Prince Edward Island each year.)
Unlike L.M. Montgomery, Jane Austen was not under contract to write any more stories if Pride and Prejudice were to take off. Not true of Lucy Maud, who was forced to write an entire series about Anne under contract even though she didn’t seem to want to. I feel her instincts were right — there’s a good reason why Jane Austen never wrote a sequel to Pride and Prejudice, and there’s a reason why the sequels to Kiki’s Delivery Service didn’t sell as well. Both Anne of Green Gables and Pride and Prejudice are complete stories in their own right. There are of course readers who love the entire Anne series, but others feel quite keenly that the rest of the series pales in comparison. I hesitate to use the word ‘formula’ because Anne of Green Gables, much less Pride and Prejudice, is far from ‘formulaic’, but there is a good reason why Anne of Green Gables works. (See Story Structure, below.)
For more on the similarities between P&P and Anne, see here.
THE INFLUENCE OF L.M. MONTGOMERY ON MODERN STORIES
For the younger set, throw in a bit of Anne of Green Gables and there’s an unlimited number of popular and enduring stories that can be made from the pieces:
Go a bit younger and the granddaughters of Anne Shirley are Ramona Quimby, Junie B. Jones and Clementine. Mischievous, well-meaning, average looking, each of these heroines find themselves in regular scrapes when all they want to do is have fun.
Let these heroines enter adolescence and they will probably have something about their physical appearance they can’t stand. That Anne Shirley so hates her hair makes me think that maybe adolescent self-criticism predates the Mad Men era after all. That said, Anne Shirley had very good reason to hate her red hair. In the 1800s it was genuinely thought that girls with red hair (and green eyes) were — if not exactly witches — at least ‘wicked’. The word ‘wicked’ comes up several times in the book. This was thought to be an innate characteristic that went with red hair, and in fact the idea hasn’t died completely. One day it will seem as archaic as phrenology. Anne Shirley was deemed to have a temper on her because of her red hair, so every time she lost her temper, it was put down to her having red hair. If that isn’t a justifiable reason to be angry in the first place, I don’t know what is.
Young adult novels for girls will almost always have a romantic subplot if not romance as a main plot, and increasingly, middle grade fiction has a hint of romance too. (The boy and girl will probably start as enemies, end as sort-of-friends.) Romantic stories with drama as the wrapper tend to endure across generations and area also more respected by critics.
I also see the influence of Anne of Green Gables in a popular TV show such as Gilmore girls. Stars Hollow is a modern day American Avonlea. Both are genuine utopias. Apart from death — which happens in a romantic way — falling over in the middle of a field and passing swiftly — nothing really truly bad happens in Avonlea. Rory is smart and bookish like Anne, but overall more of the Diana character. The mother of Gilmore girls is feisty enough in her own right to provide some interest and conflict. Also like Gilmore girls, Rory has a bit of a rags to riches arc — she was never truly destitute, but because her grandparents are wealthy she is able to pursue her academic dreams.
SETTING OF ANNE OF GREEN GABLES
Often a measure of a novel’s success, in its depiction of a particular place, occurs when readers feel they know it, they recognize it, or, better yet, they want to visit. Such has been the case with the perennial favourite, Anne of Green Gables. Since its publication in 1908, fans of Anne Shirley have sought out the small island in eastern Canada, keen to meet the character and tour the landscapes she made memorable—The Lake of Shining Waters, the Haunted Wood, Lover’s Lane, the Birch Path. Like the free-spirited Anne, who loves and names almost every tree and flower she encounters, they, too, want to know the place that had such an influence on her. For lovers of the Anne novels (Maud Montgomery wrote an additional seven for the series), much of the magic seems rooted in the very land Anne roamed.
Visitors to Prince Edward Island will find much to love in its natural beauty—a narrow strip of rolling hills in the Gulf of St. Lawrence, with lush fields, quiet coves, and miles of white sand beaches. But its pastoral, timeless feel can’t quite explain its powerful draw. While the summers are mild, its winters are long, and two of the primary industries—fishing and agriculture—can be tough to pursue at any time of year. Yet tourism, the second most important, remains strong, with hundreds of thousands of visitors arriving every year to experience the same sites that were such a part of Anne Shirley’s adventures.
It is, in many ways, an odd phenomenon, a balancing act between the real and the fictional that Canada’s National Park Service, among others, helps sustain. In the town of Cavendish (“Avonlea” in the novels), in the house known as Green Gables, visitors can see the rooms where Anne and Matthew and Marilla slept; they can walk the same paths, cross the same streams and inhale the same fir-scented air. Along the way, they can relive some of Anne’s more memorable moments—scaring herself with Diana in the Haunted Woods, welcoming spring with her schoolmates on a mayflower picnic, accepting Gilbert’s offer of friendship on an evening stroll as the novel concludes. And yet these are all imagined events, superimposed on the PEI canvas—until one reads more about Montgomery’s life. There, in the pages of her journals, which were first made available to the public in 1985 (edited by Mary Rubio and Elizabeth Waterston), is where the real and the fictional intersect.
Anne of Green Gables is episodic in nature, but the character development of Anne (and Marilla and Matthew) is linear. I discuss the episodic/linear nature of Anne of Green Gables in Types Of Plots In Children’s Literature.
As each of these main underdog attributes is overcome, the next becomes an issue. The fact that Anne is a girl places the story firmly in its era — big budget stories are still being made where female characters have to prove themselves first (which usually involves being ‘feisty’, and making it among the boys on an adventure outside the home), but this generation of children is finally starting to see stories about girls whose femaleness is not something that makes them an underdog.
Anne needs to find someone to love her in order to find fulfilment. First she must find parental figures. Later, because old people die, she must find a romantic partner. Anne of Green Gables is a love story as well as a romance.
Anne of Green Gables is in some ways a very modern story. Whereas many 20th century films and books were about women waiting for men to save them, Anne Shirley works hard and we know she’d be just fine even without her Gilbert. Our culture has even reached the point where we get popular films such as Bridesmaids, about seriously flawed women (not even attractively flawed) who must get themselves ready for equal partnership before they can find love.
Like the perfect job interview (and the perfect kidlit heroine), each of Anne’s shortcomings has a flipside strength:
She is imaginative but prone to distraction. (I argue that Anne Shirley is an ADHD girl through and through.)
She is smart at school but also smart mouthed (audiences love, love, love a character who has the nerve to say what she thinks — it explains the cosiness of Doc Martin, too, popular with an older audience).
She appreciates all that is beautiful but remains toxically dissatisfied with her own lack thereof.
She is tenacious but stubborn. Her tenaciousness gets her far in academia but until she overcomes her stubbornness she won’t get far in love.
She is infectiously full of the joys of spring but immature.
Anne has neither the age nor wisdom to see what her real desires are. Though we as audience can see that her red hair should really be the least of her worries given her dire predicament at the start of the story, Anne gives her hair an undue amount of attention. When Marilla teaches her how to pray, Anne ‘asks humbly’ to:
Stay at Green Gables
Grow darker hair
Both requests indicate Anne’s deeper seated and far more serious need to be accepted and admired.
The lesson here is that main characters don’t necessarily know (or voice) what they want. But the audience must know.
On her journey Anne meets the full complement of both developed and flat allies, enemies, fake-enemies and fake-allies. The allies are famously described by Anne as kindred spirits.
Although at the beginning of the story Anne has no one and the whole world seems against her, as soon as she hits Avonlea strangers show various kindnesses. For example, there’s the station attendant who is charmed by her. I suspect Anne has always found comfort in the small kindnesses of strangers she meets along the way.
The flattest enemies are the women who abuse Anne by requiring her to look after their many children, all the while psychologically abusing her. First we have Mrs Hammond; next we have the prospect of the local Mrs Bluitt, whose very name suggests Anne would not be happy. As a side note, revisiting the story again as an adult, especially as we face the prospect of re-entering a world in which men control the fertility of women, I have more sympathy for Mrs Hammond as a victim. The 1980s miniseries starring Megan Follows almost encourages the viewer to read Mrs Hammond as lesbian, about to move in with her possessive, shoulder-rubbing female friend as she accuses Anne of basically killing the husband herself, with her failure to deliver lunch on time. What if Mrs Hammond was gay? What if she never wanted any children at all, but was stuck with all those twins? In a pre-contraceptive age, Mrs Hammond is arguably as much as a victim as Anne Shirley.
Marilla is an opponent who turns into Anne’s firmest ally by the end of the book.
Miss Shirley is a Miss Honey archetype (used by Roald Dahl in Matilda), an ally in every way.
Soon a pattern emerges — Anne is universally liked by good people, even if those people are crotchety on the surface. Diana’s auntie is the best example of that. Anne is a bit of a travelling angel trope, though rather than leaving town for good, she is pulled away to complete different parts of her life’s journey, returning every now and then.
In any love story, the desire and opponent are the same person. This is specific to love stories. So, Gilbert Blythe is both desired and an opponent. Same for Marilla, actually, because this is a story about a girl falling in love with her (substitute) parents.
There is a romantic triangle in Anne of Green Gables, since it is clear from the start that Diana Barry admires Gilbert Blythe. But because readers are like ducklings and fall in love with the first character they see, we are all rooting for Anne and Gilbert, even though Diana probably ‘deserves’ him more, if you think about it. We can see Diana isn’t quite smart (or educated) enough for Gilbert though, who is obviously more interested in fiery women like Anne. How does Montgomery manage readers to the point where we don’t end up mad and frustrated at Anne for her stubborn resistance to Gilbert? Diana realizes Gilbert isn’t her destiny. After a conversation with Anne near the end of the book, we are left with the impression that while Diana will pursue Gilbert if Anne doesn’t want him, she’ll happily give him over to Anne.
Josie Pye is a different matter — Josie is that snobby, girly character found in most popular books for girls — a girl who thinks she’s better than other people (the worst thing a girl can possibly be). Josie is rich but not academically inclined. She is well-dressed and confident and sees Anne as her rival, setting up a rivalry even before Anne has noticed she exists. This ensures the audience dislikes Josie Pye. Josie is not all that interested in Gilbert — she is mostly keen to deprive Anne of him.
Anne’s childlike, episodic adventures at Avonlea culminate in a ‘near drowning’ (which is no such thing), but the suggestion of death is there. A common storytelling technique in middle grade is to have another character come to the rescue of your protagonist. In this case it’s not a true rescue, more of a farce, as if acted upon a stage (where Anne often imagines herself, in fact). The rule here is that your main character still has to help themselves when it comes the character arc. They can be helped out in some sticky plot situation, but ultimately, change is up to them.
By the way, is there a deeper meaning to Anne’s obsession with The Lady of Shalott? Since it occurs at a climactic moment, I suggest there is. Doomed to view life through reflections, the Lady’s life is a mere shadow with no experiences of her own. Like The Lady of Shalott, Anne is inclined to live vicariously via women whose lives she has invented inside her head. This is the very thing preventing her pursuing anything in real life with Gilbert, right there in front of her.
Anne’s obsession with Tennyson’s poem isn’t really helping her get over her red hair issues, because it encourages us to focus on form over substance. The leak in the boat symbolises her psychological shortcoming — it will be her undoing — she needs the love of Gilbert to teach her she is in fact worthy in her own right. Signfiicantly, Gilbert has said he prefers brains over beauty anyway.
Anne learns that she truly belongs to Avonlea, even if she started out as an unwanted orphan. She has won numerous people over and spurred their own character arc (especially that of Marilla and Matthew, but also that of Rachel Lynde, Diana Barry’s mother and the crotchety old maid aunt*).
*As a side note, why is Diana’s old maid aunt so much richer than Diana’s natal family? My own guess is that Diana’s extended family is aristocratic by heritage, but perhaps the father made some bad investments and they have since lost most of it, which is why the aunt is the only one still able to pay for Diana’s music lessons. In this sense, Diana is very much like Jane Bennett — not only docile and beautiful and kind but also in a financially precarious position unless she marries well — and she will be expected to marry well in order to haul the financially failing family back into Prince Edward Island’s gentry class.
The Romantic Subplot
When Gilbert reveals that he and Anne tied for first in the Queens exam it is clear to Anne, seemingly for the first time, that they are true equals. This will eventually lead to a full-blown romance and marriage, but not in this first book.
After the death of Matthew we are left with Anne and Marilla together — Anne wants the best for Marilla and Marilla wants the best for Anne (college). These two goals will continue to butt heads and we’re not quite sure exactly what happiness will look like for these two, but when Gilbert offers to walk Anne home we know those two are going to end up together and we know for sure that Anne is going to look after Marilla in her old age.
Kiki’s Delivery Service is a Studio Ghibli film released in 1989. This film was always popular in Japan but — though it’s hard to remember now — Studio Ghibli films didn’t take off in the West until 1997 with the release of Princess Mononoke.
BASED ON A POPULAR JAPANESE CHILDREN’S BOOK
Kiki’s Delivery Service is based on a novel published in 1985 by Eiko Kadono. Kiki’s Delivery Service is Kadono’s best known work. Like L. Frank Baum, she really only had this one big hit and wrote lesser known sequels which are lesser known. (There are 6 in the series altogether.) As of 2017, Kadono is 81 years old.
Hayao Miyazaki is 76. The film therefore has the combined sensibilities of a Japanese pair of artists born around the time of the World Wars. This affects both the setting and the sentiment.
“Just follow your heart and keep smiling,” advises the mother before Kiki sets off. This feels like not only a distinctly Japanese thing to say, but also an especially feminine aspiration, though probably applied to everyone in Japan born after the war.
Visby is a town on the Swedish island of Gotland in the Baltic Sea. It’s known for its well-preserved town wall, a medieval fortification incorporating defensive towers. The town’s many churches include the grand, centuries-old St. Mary’s Cathedral and the medieval ruins of St. Nicolai and St. Karin. The main square, Stora Torget, has cobblestone streets lined with cafes and restaurants.
Where are these Miyazaki films set? Not in Japan but not in Europe, either. The utopian setting of Kiki’s Delivery Service (and several of the other Studio Ghibli films) has the trains, the hilly suburbs and the closeness of the sea but also has the cobbled streets and nooks and crannies of somewhere like Barcelona, with intratext on the signs looking a lot like English with a few flourishes reminiscent of kanji. We are to believe this is another world, a world where magic exists unobtrusively in the real world of the story.
[Studio Ghibli] shot 80 rolls of film in Stockholm and Visby, gathering location images as inspiration for the scenes in Koriko. For the most part, Koriko is composed of images of Stockholm. A side street in Stockholm’s old city, Gamla Stan, is one model. Sweden was the first foreign country Miyazaki ever visited.
Fictional Koriko is, however, much larger than Visby and features buildings and shops with the look of Stockholm.
The original Japanese title (both book and film) means ‘Witch’s Delivery Service’ which was personalised for the English film adaptation. I suspect this is because Western children have a slightly different set of expectations surrounding the witch trope. In the West, witches are the opponents and they are often genuinely scary and dangerous. This is a utopian story, and although Kiki is a witch, there’s not much witchy about her apart from her ability to fly on a broom. She is first and foremost a regular girl.
That said, Japanese mythology is not short on witches, oh far from it. But the scary woman Western children associate with the word ‘witch’ has most often got the word ‘baba’ in it (which loosely translates as ‘old hag’). For instance:
The amazake-babaa, who asks for sweet sake (mirin) and brings disease
The mikaribaba who has one eye — she visits your home and borrows sieves and also human eyes!
The Onibaba — a demonic hag from Adachigahara
Others are more benign and strangely specific:
Hikeshibaba extinguishes lanterns
Sunakake Baba sprinkles sand about
Also, I feel the creators did intend the Western version of the witch. At one point there is lampshading about why the crows are attacking her. Gigi points out that crows used to be witches’ allies. Kiki points out that “That was a long time ago!”
EPISODIC STRUCTURE IN KIKI’S DELIVERY SERVICE
The subtitle of Kiki’s Delivery Service means something like ‘Various Leapings’. This is an adventure story where Kiki undergoes a single, sustained character arc but it is also somewhat episodic, like Anne of Green Gables and other middle grade books for/starring girls.
Each delivery — and they tend to go a bit wrong — turns into an episode. I imagine these formed chapters in the original book. This affects pacing, of course, because the audience needs to see something’s at stake, and drama must escalate until the denouement. Eventually the ticking clock is used to amp up the tension — Kiki must make a delivery before Tombo comes to pick her up for the party at 6 o’clock. She doesn’t make it, and the audience is invited to share in Kiki’s pain.
MAGIC REALISM IN KIKI’S DELIVERY SERVICE
Magical realism, in other words. We first see Kiki as she prepares to take off for her one year stint away from home. Via backstory delivered by an old woman (the grandmother?) talking to the mother we learn that witches must spend a year away from home as part of their training. It’s tradition. Kiki is 13 — a transition age in literature as well as in life — and must wait for the right winds and a full moon before taking off. There’s something almost Amish about this tradition and, like many documentaries about Amish communities, we are left with a feeling of hygge.
A GENUINE UTOPIA
The entire homestead is hygge, with healthy vines growing up the sides of a thatched roof house, and a vibrant, healthy garden. This is the dream house as described by Gaston Bachelard, with Kiki’s bedroom on the top floor — a gabled ceiling adding to the cosiness.
It’s the sort of film which inspires diorama enthusiasts to make scenes such as this:
You can even buy wall art like this:
DESIRE AND WEAKNESS
Kiki’s desire line is introduced right away as she rushes inside to tell her mother she’s leaving, having listened to the weather.
Next we get a small insight into her psychological shortcoming — she gazes at herself in a full-length mirror and is disappointed in her dress. Kiki is shown to be overly concerned about the colour of her black dress. This will be her downfall. Modern believers in the nurture theory will also note with interest that the father treats his 13 year old daughter like a toddler — partly for old time’s sake, throwing her up in the air — but also calls her his ‘princess’ (at least in the English dub). Kiki has been nurtured in a way that makes her fussy about clothes.
Kiki also has a practical shortcoming — she isn’t that great at flying. This is a great shortcoming to have as it allows for plenty of nail-biting scenes as she loses control of her stick. It’s made even worse when the mother insists she take the old broom rather than the one she’s been practising on.
AN ODYSSEAN MYTHICAL STRUCTURE
There are three main types of mythic structures and Kiki is of the Odyssean kind, in which a hero (in this case a little girl rather than the usual man) leaves home, encounters a variety of characters, learns more about herself then returns home (or finds a new one). It’s a structure as old as the hills, and popular with audiences worldwide. This explains why this Japanese story is popular with other audiences.
THE CHARACTERS KIKI MEETS ON HER JOURNEY
A shortcoming of the Odyssean structure is that — at least to this modern viewer — it can feel like one damn opponent after another. Then, of course, there’s the big big struggle. It gets a bit ho-hum. Here’s the other thing: in a utopian children’s story there can’t really be any genuine opponents. What have we got instead?
The first opponent is a classic dynamic in a girls’s story — Kiki encounters the snooty, slightly older witch who rejects Kiki as being from the country.
This is swiftly followed by the weather, which the radio said was going to be perfect but turns into a storm. (Later in the story we have a heavy rain — the kind of rain that a Japanese audience is used to, as it rains like that every June during ‘rainy season’.)
The cows who lick Kiki’s foot at first might be angry but turn out to be benign (and humorous). By the way, this is a classic fairy tale trope — hiding in a haycart to escape. A maiden escapes her psychopathic groom in the Bluebeard tale collected by the Grimms — “The Castle Of Murder”. Obviously, this children’s tale is a lot more benign than that.
When Kiki reaches Koriko the townspeople are not friendly. They haven’t seen a witch in many years and don’t know what to make of her. They don’t flat out reject her, either. The overall hostile feeling is symbolised by the policeman, who tells her to be careful flying her broom otherwise it’s a traffic violation.
Tombo — making use of dramatic irony — is instantly attracted to Kiki but Kiki’s main psychological shortcoming comes to the fore and she rejects him as some sort of enemy. Tombo is actually an ally, but a romantic opponent. Middle grade stories often have a romantic subplot — this one is mirrored by the romance betwen Gigi and the white cat next to the bread shop. The ‘romance’ is based on the shared interest of flying, and is really just a deep friendship. The two will only get together after they have been shown to be equals.
It is only after making Kiki suffer through all of this opposition that she gets a lucky break and meets the pregnant owner of a bread shop who takes Kiki under her wing as a not-quite-mother figure (the mythical mentor, to use Joseph Campbell’s terminology). Asono is in danger of becoming a bit too ingratiating, telling Tombo not to phone back (even though Kiki secretly wants him to), but we find out in a subsequent scene that in fact Asono has Kiki’s number — she orchestrates them getting together in the end.
Asono’s husband is a huge, strong man who doesn’t say a word and at first we might wonder if he is an opponent. We first see him from Kiki’s viewpoint as she tries to exit the outhouse one morning. Here’s a bit of Japanese culture worth mentioning: In Japan (with women, for sure), when you’re in the toilet cubicle you are anonymous. No talking to your friends between stalls in malls or any of that business. Don’t try to talk to someone who’s sitting on the can. This scene with Kiki makes more sense if you understand it’s embarrassing for a girl to be seen by a man exiting a toilet. (Girls don’t poop, or something.) However, we soon see this guy wink at Gigi, showing off about how well he can spin buns on a tray. He makes that sign for Kiki’s business — a beautiful creation made of glazed bread. This is a laconic giant with a heart of gold.
Some of the delivery recipients are nice; others are haughty. There is a direct correlation between rich, ostentatious houses and haughty, ungrateful people — another moral lesson. The dopey dog turns out to be an unwitting ally — and a great comic character. (Both horror baddies and comical characters are robotic, acting as if they’re not allowed to deviate from some script. When the big dog delivers Gigi safely outside it’s because he’s been told to and he has no real choice.)
Kiki’s confidante turns out to be a slightly older woman, living on her own, sketching by day. She is more confident than Kiki, both sexually and otherwise. She doesn’t appear to be so friendly at first, making Kiki wait while she finishes her sketch before Kiki can finish her mission. But sometimes people who are not overly friendly turn out to be the best of friends (in romantic plots as well as in friendship ones). It is indeed this older friend who leads Kiki to have her own anagnorisis. After a speech about needing inspiration in order to create, Kiki says, “Maybe I have to find my own inspiration.” There we have it, the character arc. Now she just needs to make good with Tombo.
The snobby, well-dressed girls are mostly opponents inside Kiki’s imagination, as she feels she is not as pretty as they are. Also, they are spending time with Tombo. She wishes she were them, in some ways.
Tombo is probably a nickname, because in Japanese it means ‘dragonfly’. Dragonflies are a common sight in a Japanese summer and if you watch a lot of anime you’ll already have noticed that for a Japanese audience the dragonfly is strongly associated with summer, and laidback atmospheres.
The dragonfly has the most impressive flying mechanics found in all of nature, and human technology has not yet been able to replicate its ability to duck and dive — the tombo has the most exquisite control.
GIGI THE CAT
The cat character serves three main purposes:
His sardonic tone moderates what might otherwise be a saccharine story.
The romantic subplot, which is mirrored by Kiki and Tombo
Symbolically, Gigi is Kiki’s inner voice. We hear via Gigi what Kiki is really thinking even as she tries to remain upbeat and ‘keeping on smiling’, as advised by her witch mother. This explains why Kiki loses the ability to understand Gigi. She has lost a part of herself, in turmoil, unable to express her liking for Tombo, hindered by her own pride (a psychological shortcoming reminiscent of Pride And Prejudice*, in fact).
*Also like in a Jane Austen novel, the heavy rain gives Kiki a cold, which sends her to her (psychological death) bed.
WORK HARD IN ORDER TO FIND YOURSELF
This is the particularly Japanese principle underlying Kiki’s Delivery Service, one which Hayao Miyazaki must like, because he used it in Spirited Away (after pulling himself out of ‘retirement’ to make it… This says something about Miyazaki’s work ethic).
Kiki helps out at every opportunity. She lends a hand in the bakery, she goes above and beyond to help the old woman cook a herring pot pie for her ungrateful granddaughter, and she will go to the ends of the earth before disappointing someone by failing to make a delivery, even when the rewards are little.
This is closely related to the Japanese concept of omotenashi, which basically means ‘hospitality’, but goes much further than that. It refers to the specifically Japanese virtue of paying such close attention to your guest that they want for nothing, all the while expecting nothing in return. (I guess this is related to a Buddhist aspiration to be neither overly happy nor overly sad however things turn out.)
THE SYMBOLISM OF FLIGHT
Flight is very popular in children’s stories and most fantasy will include a spell in the air, through whatever means. In fact, the closer you look, the more likely you will conclude that a successful utopia requires flight.
Here, flight obviously represents freedom. But as in all symbols, the ability to fly can also be symbolic of ‘failure to fly’, or failure to take advantage of one’s freedom. (If anyone flies or falls for too long, Icarus and his imaginary cousins are probably being invoked.)
THE FINAL BIG STRUGGLE
There are a number of battles, culminating in Kiki’s rescuing Tombo as he hangs suspended from the dirigible, which crashes into the clock tower.
This is a welcome girl friendly message — not many Hollywood children’s films star girls, and girl stars don’t often come to the rescue of boys. In Tombo we also have a bit of a ‘manic pixie dream girl’, which is also a change for a Western audience.
The rescue scene follows a ‘riding bitch’ scene which Miyazaki seems to have a penchant for; you know, the bit where the girl gets on the back of a bike and the boy leads the way.
These two scenes combined show us that Tombo and Kiki are equals — they both love flying, each have a lot more to learn about it, each find themselves in perilous situations occasionally, and if only Kiki can admit to herself that she likes Tombo, they’re equally cheerful and fun.