J-Pop Sunday: Utada Hikaru

Hi everyone! I’m hijacking the column this Sunday in order to talk about the queen of J-Pop. That’s right – Miss Utada Hikaru.

Absolute goddess Utada Hikaru right there

Quick Guide
Act Name: Utada Hikaru (better known as Utada in Western territories, or Hikki by her fans)
Line-up: Hikaru Utada (宇多田光)
Years Active: 1996–2011 (currently on hiatus)
Genre: Pop
Robyn’s Choice Tracks: Simple and Clean (2002), Passion (2006), Nichiyou no Asa (2006) Flavor of Life (2008)

You could pretty much say that music was in Utada’s blood. She was born and raised in New York City, and her father was a record producer, while her mother was an enka singer. When Utada’s career truly began in 1996, she did her recordings with her mum under the name of Cubic U. Her first record, Precious, came out under this name, and was in English! In fact, Utada has had three English albums, not to mention a number of EPs and singles. Utada didn’t make her debut in Japan until 1999, but it was a big one. First Love is the best-selling record in Japan to this day.


The eponymous single from First Love is a ballad

On the whole, First Love is a pretty 90s affair. While it doesn’t have the musical depth of Utada’s later albums, it’s still a good listen. And if you go digging for the videos, there are some ridiculously awful special effects.

However, it wasn’t this which introduced me to Utada. I find out about most of my J-Pop from anime or video games, and this was no exception. In 2002, Tetsuya Nomura approached Utada Hikaru and asked to use her song ‘Hikari’ in his new game, Kingdom Hearts. She re-recorded it for the game, and in English-speaking territories, it became ‘Simple and Clean’:


The opening track to Kingdom Hearts, which is a mashup of Disney and Final Fantasy. In other words, the bomb.

It was ‘Simple and Clean’ that would open her up to a whole new audience, especially in the West. It’s such a beautiful song, and when juxtaposed against the dream-like opening of the game, her vocals seem even more impressive, if that’s even possible. She positively has the voice of an angel. Although she’s perfectly suited to both English and Japanese, I find that I tend to prefer the Japanese versions of her songs. I’m not sure why, they just seem to flow better. Utada was featured again in the next Kingdom Hearts game with her song ‘Sanctuary’, but the original Japanese version, ‘Passion’, is far more impressive.


Strange anime lady is having a grand old time here.

‘Passion’ is my favourite Utada song, and it’s taken from Ultra Blue, my favourite Utada album. I love ‘Passion’ because it’s so unlike anything else she’s ever done. As soon as that guitar kicks in, you know you’re getting into something good. Utada always manages to create so much atmosphere in her songs, but nothing even comes close to ‘Passion’. Essentially, if you listen to no other J-Pop album (but why wouldn’t you, we’ve shown you some cracking bands), then at least listen toUltra Blue. It’s full of pop goodness. Virtually every track has a different feel and as a whole, the album showcases just how talented a songwriter Utada really is.

Utada’s last Japanese album was Heart Station, and it’s a whole load of fun. It’s pretty much what you’d come to expect from Japan’s biggest star, and final track ‘Flavor of Life’ is a joyous, life-affirming affair. Unfortunately, it’s impossible to find a video of the original version, but Utada also included a ballad version on the album.


Utada performs with a pretty cool string section in this slowed down version of Flavor of Life

She released the English album This Is The One in 2009, which had a greater influence from R&B, rather than the electro-pop that she’s famed for. It received generally good reviews, although it wasn’t quite as successful as her previous Japanese efforts. This was to be Utada’s last full album release, and the last one released under the name ‘Utada’, before she announced a two to five year hiatus in 2011. However, in between that, she released a few singles, and bizarrely enough, appeared on ‘London City’ by UK rapper Devlin. Remember him? I don’t, but sure enough, there are some samples from ‘Passion’ on that.

Hopefully, we’ll see a return from Utada Hikaru soon. After all, if Kingdom Hearts 3 finally makes an appearance, it’ll need a new theme tune…

More Utada Hikaru:
Facebook (English): https://www.facebook.com/Utada
Twitter (Japanese, with occasional English tweets): https://twitter.com/utadahikaru
Youtube: http://www.youtube.com/user/hikki

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