When Kiki landed on the streets of the town she had chosen, holding her broom with a tense expression, and bowed her head, saying, “Please let me live in this town. Nice to meet you,” the reaction of the people passing by was almost indifferent, to the point of being cold. It even pained me in my chest as I watched, as it resonated with my own experience when I came from the countryside to Tokyo.
Just like Kiki, the author of this article, while clinging to the one thing she believed was her only asset, began swimming in the metropolis but didn’t receive the welcome she had expected. Waves of loneliness surged high, repeatedly overwhelming her, and even the supernatural power of that one asset started to seem questionable, making her doubt her very existence. It was exactly the same situation as when Kiki couldn’t fly anymore. I understand that from an outside perspective, it may not be a big deal worth making a fuss about, but during the earnest competition of youth, even the smallest things can seem momentous (that’s why youth is cherished).
In the movie, Kiki is saved by Ursula twice. Once when she lost the precious stuffed toy of the black cat she was entrusted with and revealed her incompetence, and another time when she faced the biggest crisis of her life, losing her ability to use magic. Ursula appears as if by chance and casually extends her hand to Kiki. It usually takes a long time before the person herself truly understands the value of such a savior. Throughout our lives, we are often blessed with the goodwill of others as if by miracles, but…
Is there a specific reason why this independent female artist is named Ursula in the story? One immediate association is with Saint Ursula from Catholicism. As per legend, Princess Ursula of Dumnonia, a kingdom in 4th-century England, was martyred along with ten thousand maiden captives during a pilgrimage to Rome when they were attacked by barbarians. She earned her sainthood by refusing the barbarian king’s offer of marriage and attempting to safeguard her fellow maidens. Consequently, she came to be regarded as the patron saint of female education in the years that followed (some schools in Japan are named after St. Ursula).
Whether the character Ursula’s name was inspired by this saint is not known, as Director Miyazaki has not explicitly stated so. However, it is clear that Ursula in the film exhibits educator-like qualities. She shared her artwork with Kiki, revealing that the model for the flying girl in her painting was Kiki herself. Through this, Ursula showed Kiki that she had become even more “beautiful” despite her worries, thus encouraging her and helping to rebuild her confidence.
Deciphering Ursula’s Artwork
When Kiki first encountered Ursula, she was intently sketching crows on the roof of her mountain house, which was later revealed to be her summer residence. The crows, perhaps influenced by Kiki’s determination, sat for Ursula without protest. At this stage, we were yet unaware of the full scope of Ursula’s artistic abilities. Even when they moved indoors, Kiki was too preoccupied with fixing her stuffed black cat to pay much attention to Ursula’s artwork, and the film didn’t provide a detailed view of Ursula’s paintings.
It took quite some time before Kiki (and we, the viewers) saw her magnum opus. As Kiki grew more and more familiar with her new surroundings, her work, and the routines of daily life, an unexpected change occurred. Her magical powers, particularly her ability to fly, started to fade. Despite her best efforts, she found herself grounded, unable to remember the feeling of flight that once came so naturally. The weight of this loss bore down on her, stifling her spirit.
It was during this difficult period that Ursula reentered her life, inviting Kiki to her secluded cabin in the mountains. What was once a mere whimsical flight away had now turned into a laborious journey. The distance seemed insurmountable compared to when Kiki could fly. It required a long bus ride, a hitchhike, and strenuous hikes up and down mountainous terrain, leaving Kiki breathless.
Engrossed in the physical demands of the journey, Kiki’s mind gradually let go of her anxieties. By the time she finally reached Ursula’s cabin, the simmering restlessness and anxiety she had carried within her seemed to have temporarily disappeared. This indicated that she was ready to accept Ursula’s paintings with an open mind. As Kiki opened the door and stepped inside, the sight that met her eyes was overwhelming—the sheer power!
The Mystery of the “Picture within a Picture”
The painting is steeped in a refreshing coolness, tinted with blue, while the redness of the crescent moon in the top right corner lends the composition a focused intensity. Pegasus, the mythical winged horse, takes flight across the starry sky. Next to the horse’s white face is the silhouette of a girl. The trailing elements – her hair, the pegasus’ ethereal wings, and the full tail – all point to the left, suggesting the speed of their journey.
Most people instinctively perceive a winged horse soaring in the sky as a symbol of unrestrained freedom. Furthermore, the pegasus has often been associated with artistic inspiration. For this reason, Kiki’s ability to “fly,” represented alongside the pegasus, suggests an underlying theme of creativity.
Joining the pegasus are several crows, birds often seen as companions of witches, flying low with their white necks visible.
The figure closest to the moon is a bull with grandiose horns, appearing to charge at the moon, as if having consumed half of the full moon or aiming to devour the remaining crescent. With its tail trailing behind, its flight is not graceful. Just below the moon, there’s a barely noticeable scorpion, inferring that both figures might represent the constellations Taurus and Scorpio.
In Western astrology, Taurus, the bull, symbolizes a period of activity under the moon, often associated with creation. The waxing moon phase signifies a time of acquiring wisdom of life. However, whether these specific meanings are intentionally incorporated in the artwork remains unclear. Even if chosen randomly, it appears as a delightful synchronicity.
On the ground, dense coniferous trees rise, surrounding a lone house. A woman with arms extended toward the pegasus or possibly Kiki, standing on the roof, resembles Ursula based on her attire.
The painting lacks conventional perspective. The dreamlike colors and floating quality of the animals evoke a Chagall-like vibe, particularly when one focuses on the pegasus. However, the depiction of the bull is a stark departure from Chagall, indeed, it’s unlike anything typically seen in European painting. No traditional European painter would compose a scene where a cow captured from the side is placed next to a horse captured from above. Moreover, this cow is not necessarily in a shape that is seen from directly above. It has a robust raised back with a face that appears as if viewed from the front.
This reflects the perspective of a child’s eyes. A delightful bull, as seen through the uninhibited eyes of a child, is present here. This bull, despite its unrealistic flatness, emanates a sense of weight and existence. This unusual portrayal of the cow sets this painting apart. Would this artwork have been as captivating if the bull were drawn from the same viewpoint and in a similar posture as the pegasus?
Another reason this painting surprises viewers when it appears in close-up in the film is because it employs a stylistic language distinct from Miyazaki’s usual works. Yet, by being integrated into the film, both elements complement each other beautifully.
Miyazaki, the director, might have intended this contrast. The original artwork came from 1976 and wasn’t connected to Studio Ghibli. Thirteen special needs students from a junior high school in Hachinohe City, Aomori Prefecture, collaborated on it. Titled “The Flying Ship,” one black and white woodblock print piece depicted “Pegasus and a Cow Flying through the Starry Sky.” Miyazaki found it by chance and was inspired to color it and use it as one of Ursula’s oil paintings in the movie.
Aside from incorporating Kiki’s face into the pegasus’s mane and turning the students into the mountain cabin and evergreen trees, the painting remained largely unchanged, retaining its original energy. Knowing that the unique quality of the painting came from a children’s collaborative project brings a sense of fulfillment. The passion of their teacher, Mr. Kokuro Sakamoto, also shines through.
Art often uses the idea of a picture within a picture. For example, a painting on the wall of a room where two lovers are sitting together might show a ship in a storm, symbolizing love’s challenges. Or, if the painting shows a calm journey under a blue sky, it might hint at an upcoming marriage.
Ursula’s painting, too, is a picture within a picture (not within the painting itself, but within the movie), and this suggests Kiki’s future, intertwined with the pegasus, will be dynamic and inspiring. This is a cause for celebration!
Nakano Kyoko – Born in Hokkaido. Lecturer at Waseda University. Specializes in German literature and Western cultural history. Known for her insightful essays that combine extensive knowledge of history, art, and understanding of human psychology. Author of “Scary Paintings” series (Kadokawa Bunko) and “Mystery of Famous Paintings” series (Bungeishunju).