Broadcast 5: Hikaru Utada
(Utada Hikaru, Utada, Hikki, Cubic U)
Point Of Origin
New York and Tokyo
Who is Utada?
New Years is one of my favorite times of year because for me it’s filled with music countdowns and personal reflections of what I’ve listened to the most that year; what music I’ve been introduced to; and what songs and albums from already beloved artists have come out that year. This sense of personal reflection brings me to talk about one of the artists that first got me into listening to Japanese music in the first place: Hikaru Utada.
Utada is one of the most famous and top-selling singer-songwriters from Japan, known by many around the world because of Utada’s involvement in the Kingdom Hearts franchise with the songs: 光 (Hikari) and English version Simple and Clean; Passion and English version Sanctuary; Chikai and English version Don’t Think Twice; and Face My Fears, an original English single with Skrillex. Many of Utada’s songs have garnered international attention outside of Kingdom Hearts, such as First Love and Can You Keep a Secret? among others.
Hikaru Utada was born in 1983 in New York City to Japanese parents both in the music industry—record producer Utada Teruzane and modern enka (sentimental ballad and traditional Japanese music) singer Keiko Fuji. Moving between New York and Tokyo and being fluent in both English and Japanese, Utada released an English album in 1998 under the stage name Cubic U that was heavily influenced by the American R&B scene.
At the age of 15, Utada released a Japanese album called First Love (1999) that launched to number one on the Oricon charts in Japan in the first week, becoming the highest selling Japanese album of all time. While still keeping some of the same R&B influences from before, this album expanded to also include J-pop and dance-pop elements. Since then, Utada has broken many records, selling over 50 million records in Japan alone by the end of the 2000s, making Utada “the most influential artist of the decade” in the Japanese music landscape according to The Japan Times.
One of Utada’s earlier singles called traveling released on the album Deep River (2002) is a song that is easy to listen to and is one of my most played songs by Utada this year. This song is a dance-pop bop influenced by house music and was written and composed by Utada. For me, this song encapsulates the early Utada that I first came to love close to 20 years ago, and I only wish I had seen this wonderfully weird music video back then as well. The video’s futuristic themes perfectly capture the feeling of the song for me of letting go of reality and escaping into another world. It’s artistic, fun and slightly bittersweet—exactly the elements that I love about Utada’s music.
During the height of Utada’s career in 2010 the singer unexpectedly announced a hiatus from music after 12 years of dedication to the industry, with the intention of growing as a person and having a broader range of experiences. In 2015, Utada announced the birth of her son, and stated that new music was on the horizon, written mostly during their pregnancy. Their mother died in 2013, so being pregnant herself inspired her to write the album Fantôme (2016) (French: Ghost) which deals with themes of grief, loss and love. The album Hatsukoi (2018) (First Love) came soon after—which includes some of my favorite songs from Utada to date and I think is a great place to start if you want to listen to more of their music.
あなた (You), is my third most listened to song from Utada in 2021 and is the second song on the album Hatsukoi. I feel like this song is a great example of Utada’s songwriting and I love the confidence in the arrangement and how strong Utada’s vocals are. This song is about the kind of love that a parent has towards their child, and the music video is simply Utada singing in a recording studio. It’s a beautiful devotion to Utada’s own son and is set in a place that seems integral to Utada as a person—Utada grew up in recording studios as a child and after coming back from hiatus, Utada came to see the studio as a kind of sanctuary for expression. I really love how this song flows with the other strong and emotional songs in the album, so I would recommend giving it a listen in that context as well.
Time is another song I listened to quite a bit this year. This song came out as a single in 2020 and will be on Utada’s upcoming album BAD MODE (2022). I feel like this song does so much in such a short time and it’s definitely worth a listen with good headphones. I love the synth R&B feel that seems to connect full circle to Utada’s R&B roots and the music video is simple yet layered—the video’s effects enhance the layers that Utada expertly divulges throughout the song both in the composition and vocals. My favorite part of this song is the ethereal lead-up to the drop at 2:30 and the resolution afterwards—it’s very satisfying and I think the video does a good job of capturing the intangible and airy feeling in the synth textures as well.
Finally we come to my most listened to song of 2021 not only from Utada but from any artist—One Last Kiss. Utada has always been adept at portraying the melancholic nuances of life and love, and this song is no different. This song captures the pure joy of being in love along with the bittersweet undertones of an eventual end. The video is punctuated by a beautiful sunrise and an equally beautiful sunset, and to me, this song really captures how being in love never feels like there’s enough time and how there’s this sense of reaching for one more unforgettable memory on the horizon.
This song was written and composed by Utada and co-produced with A. G. Cook for the Neon Genesis Evangelion Rebuild Film Series. In 2021 Utada released an EP called One Last Kiss that includes remastered songs from Utada’s previous Neon Genesis Evangelion theme songs for Beautiful World and 桜 流 し. The music video for One Last Kiss is an intimate look at Utada’s life in London and was directed by Neon Genesis Evangelion director Hideaki Anno. I love that this song, like many of Utada’s other songs, were written with specific projects in mind, but I’m still able to enjoy them outside of those contexts wholeheartedly.
I really feel like Utada has grown as an artist throughout the years, and I’ve especially been enjoying the music that’s come out recently. I can’t believe it’s been 20 years since I had a neopets account dedicated to Hikki-Chan, and I’m really looking forward to the new projects Utada has going forward. This year was an exciting year for Mys. Utada, who came out as nonbinary in June just at the end of pride month on instagram (which also shows Utada’s pronouns as she/they). Utada’s 8th studio album BAD MODE comes out digitally on January 19, 2022 and the CD release is on February 23. Also on Utada’s birthday and album release date, January 19th, there will be a digital concert streamed online called “Hikaru Utada Live Sessions from Air Studios.” Check out more information here: https://www.utadahikaru.jp/livesessions2022/en/
Check out the concert/documentary translated into English by Utada for Utada’s 2018 concert called Laughter In The Dark on Netflix.
Utada’s instagram is part music news, part found items from the streets and I love it:: https://www.instagram.com/kuma_power/
I found the YouTube channel hikkipedia really informative: https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCA0dwttJsaKSeUhfsHtXPdA
I had a hard time narrowing down the songs for this article, and some of my most listened to songs don’t have a music video, so check out some of those songs here: https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PL3ak6RpCfPehF94PwJu3rFNSvEunYkkKA
This Broadcast was written by Erin; you can find them on instagram at @thekniterin.