I think it’s better to leave with decorum and great dignity. – Jiji
It’s been over thirty years since Studio Ghibli’s Kiki’s Delivery Service (1989) debuted in Japan and won the hearts of thousands, if not millions.
Kiki’s Delivery Service was also famous animator, director, and screenwriter triple threat Hayao Miyazaki’s third project (the first two being Studio Ghibli’s first-ever film Castle in the Sky, 1986 and My Neighbor Totoro, 1988) post-founding the company.
Miyazaki’s first three entries were both directed and written by him, Kiki’s success being especially impressive considering how successful My Neighbor Totoro was.
While Kiki and her black cat companion Jiji may not be the cultural icons Totoro and friends are, Kiki’s still made a respectable $39 million to Totoro’s $45.1 million and continues to stand on its own as an influential and powerful film about childhood, independence, and inner strength.
Not to mention the refreshing girl-positive message.
Unlike Totoro, the two English dubs recorded for Kiki’s fit the characters and were fun to listen to, a miracle coming from Walt Disney Home Entertainment and its obsession with celebrity voices (thanks, Kirsten Dunst!). The original Buena Vista Home Video dub of the movie was released in 1997 at the Seattle International Film Festival to great success and made available for VHS a year later. Which makes the minute changes that took place from dub to dub all the more… bizarre.
My ‘Soaring’ by Sydney Forest-obsessed younger self used to own one of the tapes Disney released as its first take on the movie in 1997-1998; as a result, I immediately noticed that some of Jiji’s dialogue and reactions were missing not even ten minutes into watching the reissued Disney DVD version (2010) for old time’s sake.
I bring this all up because the differences between the original Japanese dub and the two English dubs lend themselves to a most interesting conundrum. This conundrum being the depiction of Jiji as a child vs. guardian and the significance of speech (and there lack of).
The Great Cat Conundrum: Child vs. Guardian
If you grew up on either of the two English dubs, you probably remember him being on the snarkier side (Disney’s Jiji was voiced by comedian Phil Hartman).
On the other hand, the original Japanese dub gave Kiki’s cat companion a cuter, much more feminine voice (Jiji was voiced by Rei Sakuma, the actress behind Shampoo from Ranma 1½ and Peorth from Oh My Goddess!).
While the same character at their core, the two Jijis’ voices result in them appearing of different ages and genders. The English Jiji’s adult snark belies his concern for Kiki; the Japanese Jiji sounds the part of a concerned father or mother from the get-go.
Oddly enough, a similar thing happened in Studio Ghibli’s The Cat Returns (2002) with the Cat King’s smug messenger Natoru. It took this writer a few years to piece together that the character had originally been conceived as a female cat.
Natoru’s English voice actor, comedian and Conan right-hand man Andy Richter, was most likely chosen for his humorous delivery despite the gender of his character just as Phil Hartman had been.
Speaking of delivery, both Jijis drive the plot forward (and by extension, Kiki’s coming of age through trial and tribulation) to different degrees of success. As the film progresses and Jiji slowly loses his voice, it becomes clear that the cat is meant to represent the part of his owner still grounded in childhood.
In that regard, the English Jiji sounding like a grown man muddles the theme; the Japanese Jiji embodies innocence on voice alone, despite the character being the realist to Kiki’s idealism.
Japanese Jiji’s child-like qualities come through in him joyously pointing out a mug that resembles him at a supermarket and an arc halfway into the movie where he’s forced to temporarily replace a cat doll.
Which isn’t to say English Jiji doesn’t have his own merits.
What makes Jiji such an intriguing sidekick is the fact he manages to serve as child and guardian to Kiki, even with the Disney English dub’s discrepancies. We as an audience are privy to Jiji’s realism the moment he is introduced, cautioning Kiki against leaving home on a whim to pursue witch’s training.
He continues to advise her to little avail, playing the role of supportive sidekick until Kiki loses her flying ability, her power, and renders their bond silent.
This ‘guardianship’ works with and against Jiji’s cute design and Japanese Jiji’s voice. English Jiji makes a more convincing familiar/guardian figure in terms of sounding older than Japanese Jiji; meanwhile, Japanese Jiji evokes a kind of innocence present in Kiki as well.
Now, an argument can be made for Jiji representing…
1. Kiki’s Childhood
2. Kiki’s Coming of Age
3. Both Kiki’s Childhood and Coming of Age
Regardless of the truth, Jiji’s ambiguity lends itself to several different readings.
Judging from Jiji and Kiki’s interactions, it’s fair to say they alone understand each other (if Jiji truly talks at all). What matters is that Kiki believes in the reality of their bond. With that said, this particular writer is caught between two readings.
If Jiji does, in fact, represent Kiki’s childhood, does that mean the latter stops being able to understand him as a direct result of her ‘growing pains?’ Or, is Jiji’s silence inevitable, an impetus, the push Kiki needs to become the master of her own fate regardless of her specific problems?
In other words, did our witch-in-training need the extra push, or not? I wouldn’t say the two are mutually exclusive, but they come with their own nuances.
Why Jiji’s Voice Matters
This may also come as a surprise to those who grew up with either English dub, but the exaggerated ‘me-OWWW!’ Jiji utters at the end is exclusive to Buena Vista and Disney.
This take on Kiki’s moment of triumph was meant to signify her and Jiji’s spoken bond being restored, albeit in contrast to director/writer Miyazaki’s original intent.
If you were to peruse American adaptations of anime and horror movies, you would see a long legacy of ‘softening’ content and endings for American audiences. I don’t know how or when American cinema gained this reputation, but its fingerprints are all over the English versions of Kiki’s.
I, for one, prefer Japanese Jiji’s arc. While I have a lot of nostalgia for Disney’s English Jiji and his wisecracks, the story of Kiki’s is ultimately about girlhood. It’s about ups and downs and losing faith in oneself only to remake oneself stronger than ever.
Kiki’s journey is one of consequence, fleeting moments. There is something both beautiful and sobering about her and Jiji’s dynamic no longer being as it was, but the latter’s silence does not equate to tragedy.
It’s moving on from childhood with great dignity and decorum.