The year is 2007. Twelve year old me is scrolling through Bebo, when I stumble on a 240p YouTube video of Utada Hikaru performing “Traveling” at her Tokyo show for the 2006 Utada United tour. It literally changed my life.
The floor is lit up by hundreds of LED screens showing scenes from her vibrant music videos, her costumes range from a cloudlike tulle dress fit for a fantasy video game to an elegant red floor-length dress to a goth-inspired black lace and leather outfit. I would spend a considerable amount of time trying to emulate her haircut and her outfits without much success (my hair is curly.) I specifically remember keeping my eyes out for boots similar to the ones she wore for years before I gave up.
And the music! Layers of synths and polyrhythms coupled with Utada’s timeless, clear voice.
This was pre-YouTube music copyright enforcement, so I delved into her discography. I would embed said YouTube video, but of course, they were all taken down a couple of years after. What was left for me to consume were mere scraps – blurry photos from forums and minute long “previews” of music videos that were not licensed outside of Japan.
The next year she would release her album Heart Station, a more mature yet just as timeless electronic pop record. It was extremely difficult for me to obtain a physical CD – I was 13 with no pocket money, no knowledge of online shopping – especially online shopping through foreign websites.
iTunes was no help either – at this stage not all of her discography was licensed for Australian audiences, and trying to navigate through loopholes that let me access Japanese iTunes was very complicated for me. I had other things to do as well – changing nappies, homework, Arabic class. It seemed a bit embarrassing to my parents that I would be so dedicated to a forbidden type of media.
From Utada Hikaru I would go on to discover more Japanese, Korean and Chinese artists, but my obsession with foreign music wasn’t easily understood. “How do you know what they’re singing??” was a common jab. Um, I can read translations okay.
I’m not salty that these same people would, three or four years later, be spending hundreds of dollars trying to see their favourite k-pop acts. Not at all.
Anyway, I found a Japanese copy of Heart Station while wandering into a nondescript Asian DVD store in Campsie. It had the original packaging, so I knew it wasn’t a rip – and it was only $10! I walked out contented, Utada and a couple of k-dramas in my arms.
Determined to find more physical copies of her records, I jumped headfirst into any and every Asian DVD store I walked past. I must have been extremely lucky that day in Campsie, because I would never find another Utada Hikaru record again.
I distinctly remember being inside a record store in Chinatown and asking the shopkeeper if they held any Utada Hikaru records, only to receive a shrug in return. The maze of Taiwanese, Japanese, Korean and Chinese media was impossible to sift through, especially for someone who only reads Indonesian and English. At one point I accidentally found a pile of Japanese porn DVDs. This really put me off going back to any of those shops again.
It was just too difficult to follow her career as a stan. My interest faded since she went on a four year hiatus in 2009. When she came back with albums Fantome and Hatsukoi, I took notice of her new sound, paired with producers she had met in London. But I never expected to see a live performance like Utada United in its full length again.
I was surprised when I saw heaps of tweets from Utada fan accounts announcing that her 2018 Laughter in the Dark tour will be released on Netflix in 120 countries.
I had to process this for a couple of weeks after the release before going on to my friend’s account to watch it (ten years later, I’m still broke.) The irony of having dedicated so many of my teen years to scouring shops and the internet for an affordable copy of the Utada United DVD, only to be handed Laughter in the Dark on a silver platter, was definitely not lost on me. Hence the weeks of emotional processing.
Utada has carefully written the subtitles herself, which is great because relying on song translations from amateur speakers was all I had before this. Also, this is the first time I’ve watched her perform music with subtitles, and though it might be obvious, it hadn’t occurred to me how meaningful it is to finally know what she’s singing about, the context of her vocal and body expressions, the narrative that follows the music, at the same time as watching it.
I can see that without knowing the history of her career, most who stumble upon the show on Netflix might not find it as entertaining as I would. But I still think it’s a masterpiece. The stage is simple but bursts into more and more colour as it progresses, her costumes are more sleek and mature than her mid-2000s Utada United style. Don’t take my word for it, her dresses alone are having their own tour through Sony stores in Japan.
And I haven’t forgotten about the music. Her voice is completely expressive. The themes of her songs are definitely things that have resonated with me personally – during the song “Tomodachi”, she dances with another female dancer, making it absolutely clear the meaning of the song – an unrequited love with a female friend. In her performance of 2008 song “Kiss & Cry”, she utilises the original lyrics at the end of the second verse, which were changed due to a deal with Nissin Cup Noodle company to use the song in their ad, which explicitly refer to teenage self harm.
In addition to dancing, which she hasn’t ever done in performance until now, she also demonstrates her ever-growing production skills by live mixing her 2002 song “Sakura Drops”, making it fresh and new. Of course, my judgement may be due to the fact that reinterpretations of early 2000s music styles are having their moment in the electronic pop scene right now, but I’m also really happy she’s stepping up and showing the world that she’s not only a pretty voice, but an amazing performer, composer, producer and, in a surprise interview segment in the middle of the show, actress as well.
Header image is taken from Playstation Flickr account.