What's With The Multiple Versions of Kiki's Delivery Service?

by Justin Sevakis,

Fred asked:

I recently was at a second hand shop, and came across an old VHS tape of Kiki's Delivery Service, I guess from when it was first released by Disney. I already had the movie on Blu-ray but it seemed like a collectable, and it was only 50¢, so I bought it. I finally got around to playing it, and I noticed that, in addition to English credits in a big tacky font, the opening and ending themes were replaced with English songs! What are these songs, and why were they replaced with the original songs on later releases?

When Walt Disney Pictures licensed the Studio Ghibli library back in the late 90s, Kiki's Delivery Service was the first of the films to get a US release, as it was arguably the most plainly family-friendly film in the catalog. (Even Totoro had a bath scene and a parent in the hospital.) Since the direct-to-video business was still pretty healthy in those days, it skipped theaters and got put out on VHS and laserdisc. Despite that, the film got the all-star dub we know today, with Kirsten Dunst as Kiki, Phil Hartman as Jiji, Matthew Lawrence as Tombo and Janeane Garofalo as Ursula. It was released on VHS and Laserdisc in September, 1998. (While the Laserdisc did have Japanese audio, it did not have subtitles.)

The Disney-Ghibli licensing contract had a very firm "no cuts" policy, but it wasn't entirely clear about what other modifications Disney would be allowed to make. As their intent was to make a very mainstream product for American release, Disney made a few fairly minor tweaks. Credits and a handful of signs were Photoshopped into English. They added additional music (mostly new arrangements of classical pieces meant to blend in with the original soundtrack) to scenes that were silent (see the recent answerman about adapted dubs replacing music for more info on how Western film scoring has a different mindset to it than anime typically has). Comedian Phil Hartman was allowed to improvise a few lines, and he also delivered a key line at the end in a way that drastically changed the meaning of the scene. (This could've been an honest mistake, simply a matter of following the script but not consulting the original audio.)

But the most conspicuous change was in the opening and ending themes. The original songs, "Rouge no Dengon" and "Yasashisa ni Tsutsumaretanara," were existing pop songs by Yumi Matsutoya (then using the name Yumi Arai) from 1975 and 1974, respectively. However, this was still the era where Americans were pretty afraid of foreign languages, so Disney preferred not to have any Japanese singing. Since they were fairly generic songs that weren't composed to match the film, Disney commissioned a pair of new upbeat English pop songs for the US release in a similar style. This was likely cheaper than licensing a famous Western song of any real notoriety.

Los Angeles area indie singer/songwriter Sydney Forest got the job. A composer, vocalist and guitarist hailing from San Diego (her mother had been a child pop star, singing the enduring novelty song, "I Want a Hippopotamus for Christmas"), Forest had also managed to land the ending theme, "High School Highway," on the WB teen drama series "Popular." She composed two cheery pop songs that had a vague thematic connection with the film: "Soaring" and "I'm Gonna Fly".

Forest (now Sydney Taylor) had just been signed as a songwriter with Disney Music Publishing, and Kiki was her first assignment. "I watched the video without any sound, no dialogue or music, and actually roped in my boyfriend at the time (now husband of 20 years) and he made up the guitar part," recalled Taylor, who was kind enough to answer a few questions for me by email. "It was the first song we wrote together, so it is very special to both of us. We had broken up and went on a church retreat together and he helped me work on [I'm Gonna Fly] and ended up getting back together... and were married within 4 months." She had no idea who Miyazaki was at the time, but has since become a huge fan, and looks back on the assignment with a lot of gratitude. She didn't find out that some fans were upset about the replacement songs until later.

Ghibli was apparently not a fan of the changes Disney had made to the film, and when it was re-released on DVD in 2010, the songs were back to the original Yumi Arai tracks, the additional incidental music and most of Phil Hartman's ad-libbed lines had been removed, and the important line at the end was restored to its original intent. The original Disney version has not been released since.

Taylor kept at the LA music career for a while, but after a few years she left the music hustle to raise a family. (After the events of 9/11, her priorities changed, she tells me.) However, she still works as a songwriting coach, and she and her husband have composed several religious-themed works over the years, including a musical. It's work that she plans to ramp up, now that her three kids are getting older.

"I was so sad when I went on to order the Anniversary edition release of Kiki's and read the comments that my songs had been replaced. But, I have to say, it was a great comfort to read the comments in the review section and see how many people were upset [about that]. I am also touched when I see how many people on YouTube sing their own version of “I'm Gonna Fly” or “Soaring”. It makes me deeply happy, in a way that even commercial success can't touch." Her old catalog of pop songs is still available via her Bandcamp page, including the two songs from Kiki. (Do check out her full album, though -- I've been a huge fan of her work for years.)

Interestingly, Kiki isn't the only Miyazaki film to have been slightly tinkered with in its original US release by Disney. Castle in the Sky (Laputa)'s original 80s synth soundtrack was initially deemed too dated sounding, and Disney went to great expense to have it re-recorded by the Seattle Symphony Orchestra. It, too, was reset to its original upon later re-releases.

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Anime News Network founder Justin Sevakis wrote Answerman between July 2013 and August 2019, and had over 20 years of experience in the anime business at the time. These days, he's the owner of the video production company MediaOCD, where he produces many anime Blu-rays. You can follow him on Twitter at @worldofcrap.

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