Will Utada Hikaru’s “Fantôme” Change the Rules of Today’s JPop?

On September 28, Utada Hikaru’s first album in 8 years, “Fantôme”, is released. She’s been out of the spotlight since she began her hiatus 5 years ago, with a few exceptions, both personal and professional. She comes back to a different industry a different person.

Utada’s personal life during her hiatus has had the biggest impact on who she is today. The biggest and most public event for her during her hiatus was the 2013 suicide of her mother Utada Junko, who was known as Fuji Keiko during her enka career. Utada, who frequently mentioned in interviews her closeness to her mother and admiration for her, was devastated. In the past, she described herself as having a “mother complex.” It’s remarkable the number of times the word “mother” pops up in Utada’s music, with lyrics suggesting a longing for an unfulfilled connection.

However, some good things happened in Utada’s personal life during her hiatus. In 2014, she married Italian bartender Francesco Calliano, and the following year she gave birth to their first child. It is these events that “Fantôme” comes off the heels of.

“I’ll never be able to make this kind of album ever again,” she said of “Fantôme” on her website. Shaping up to be both her most universal and personal album yet, it’s without doubt that “Fantôme” and its singles are a tribute to her late mother. Even the title, “Fantôme,” which is French for “ghost,” suggests the influence of her mother’s presence on the album.

That presence is felt on the album’s first track, “Michi,” which was released in advance of “Fantôme” on September 16. An upbeat electronic track, it’s the sound of Utada reborn with a rediscovered optimism and clear references to her mother.

“Even if I thought I had walked this road by myself, it all started with you,” she sings. She later sings in English, “It’s a lonely road, you are every song.”

In terms of genre, when listening to “Fantôme” the term “new music”, as opposed to “JPop”, comes to mind. The term “new music”, which emerged in the 1970s and served as a precursor to “JPop,” referred to the new, emerging Western-influenced pop artists that had a penchant for Japanese lyrics. With Utada herself naming artists of the era such as Tulip and Off Course as inspirations for the new album, its musical identity is clearly indebted to Japanese pop music from the past, a time when Japan was quickly coming into its own as a global economic and cultural force.

Eschewing her usual mixture of bilingual lyrics, the new songs are mostly in Japanese — a clear and conscious decision based on wanting to make a Japanese pop album and to engage more directly with the domestic audience.

But will this authentic pop sound resonate with young and modern music fans who, in the past five years, have been bombarded with over the top acts like Kyary Pamyu Pamyu and BABYMETAL, Vocaloid robots like Hatsune Miku, and the seemingly endlessly multiplying AKB48 girl groups and EXILE TRIBE boy bands? As everyone else sings about their clothes, dating and partying, Utada stands strongly and proudly singing about her mother, a topic so personal yet simultaneously so universal — both traits of all enduring pop music. As trends fade into the cultural rear view mirror, Utada is a prime candidate to bring back what JPop has lost in her absence: relatability. Now, as a mother herself, what has Utada come to understand with time?


Ryotaro Aoki’s full article can be read here.