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  • The Localization of Kiki’s Delivery Service
  • Alexandra Roedder (bio)

In 1997 when Buena Vista, working for the Walt Disney Company, was handed Miyazaki Hayao’s Kiki’s Delivery Service (1989, Majo no takkyūbin) to localize for United States distribution, they went beyond the usual requirements of translating and dubbing the script. They hired composer Paul Chihara to edit Hisaishi Joe’s original score to, in Chihara’s words, “make the film work” for U.S. audiences. 1 These edits are simple but powerful: music is shifted to hit points of audiovisual synchronization, extra music is added to scenes that were previously silent, and some scenes have their existing music supplemented with additional countermelodies. As a result, the initial English-language version of Kiki that U.S. audiences experienced on VHS was a very different film from the one experienced by Japanese audiences in 1989 in theaters. Instead of a quiet coming-of-age story about a young witch discovering the importance of believing in herself, Disney’s localized Kiki’s Delivery Service was a series of comic misadventures returning to the status quo—with a boyfriend in tow—at the end. In considering Studio Ghibli’s reception in the United States, we must understand why the film’s score was changed and the effect of those changes on the film. Examining the differences between the two scores is also essential to understanding the implications of the 2010 rerelease on DVD, [End Page 254] which reinstates Hisaishi’s music, removes additional lines from the score, and attempts to erase any evidence that there had ever been a need to tinker with the film beyond translating it. 2

Kiki’s Delivery Service is based on the popular 1985 novel by Eiko Kadono. The titular Kiki is a thirteen-year-old witch who, following tradition, sets off to find a town of her own to live and work in for a year. In the novel, she encounters a series of challenges and adventures, and overcomes each in turn before returning home to visit her parents, with the clear intention of going back to her beloved new town just in time for book two. In the film, Kiki’s character undergoes extensive development: she learns to see the good in all kinds of people, including herself. Midway through the film, Kiki loses her self-confidence and with it, her magic powers—the ability to fly and to understand her cat familiar, Jiji. Only a desperate need to rescue a friend in danger allows her to regain the ability to fly, though she has matured beyond needing to speak with Jiji. Due to small changes in dialogue and the edits to the music, the 1997 Disney version is quite different: not only can Kiki speak with Jiji again at the end, but the small adventures are emphasized in such a way that the large-scale arc of development is completely lost.


The changed score is evident from the beginning. As the film opens, the camera pans across an idyllic lakefront with wildflowers waving in the foreground and clouds skating through a windy sky. A radio can be heard giving the weather report. In Japanese, this report is strictly predictions and information; in English, the DJ is chatty, giving information about the airship which will figure heavily in the second half of the story, and, in saying that the weather will be clear that night, adds, “If you’ve been planning something special, tonight . . . might be the night!” which, like the chatter about the airship, foreshadows Kiki’s leaving home. 3 Musically, the scenes employ the exact same segment of music (in film music terms, a “cue”), “Hareta hi ni” (“On a Sunny Day”). The cue uses a typical Hisaishi melody, regular in shape, in a gentle rolling waltz time.

Hisaishi’s melodies are highly recognizable and are an important part of what defines his style. For that reason, it is necessary that I take a moment to explain how this melody is structured. Like most of his melodies, “Hareta hi [End Page 255] ni” is in what music theorists call a rounded binary form: the entire piece can be split...