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Japanese Icons – Hikaru Utada

Some artists have a rare, innate ability to transcend borders and language barriers to make truly universal art

In collaboration with Monsutā, Japanese Icons brings you the biggest stories from the birthplace of Monsutā’s lineup of drinks, Japan. Winning the coveted title of Japan’s Best International Lager in 2022, and recently launching a range of alcoholic lemon, mango and pineapple chūhai’s, Monsutā, along with its iconic Sumo, is a brand that symbolises and celebrates the best of Japan.  From music to film, sports to gaming, this series celebrates the Japanese Icons that share the Monsutā legacy. 

Some artists have a rare, innate ability to transcend borders and language barriers to make truly universal art. With a body of work that’s spanned decades, defied genres and created a path for subsequent artists to follow, Japanese-American pop singer, songwriter and record producer Hikaru Utada is considered by many to be such an artist. Active in the music industry since the age of 15, their status as an international artist goes beyond their birth and education in America and their English-language albums, it comes from their ability to constantly evolve, incorporate new elements into their sound and ultimately create music that connects with people, regardless of what language they speak. 

Born in New York City in 1983 to a record producer father and enka singer Mother, Hikaru Utada’s upbringing exposed them to diverse musical influences from an early age. Raised in both the United States and Japan, they learned to navigate the nuances of both cultures, developing not only English and Japanese skills but a cross-cultural awareness that would ultimately become a defining aspect of their career.

At the age of 15, Hikaru Utada took the Japanese music industry by storm with their debut album, First Love. Released in 1999, it became an instant sensation, shattering records and securing its place as still the best-selling record in Japanese music history. The album’s eponymous track resonated with listeners, quickly turning the young artist into a household name.

Utada made their first foray (since their initial debut as Cubic U) into Western markets in 2004 with the release of their English language album Exodus. Now considered a cult favourite, the avant-garde electronic release marked Utada’s fourth consecutive album to debut at the number 1 spot in Japan, selling 500,000 copies and peaking at number 5 on the Heatseekers chart in the US. The album’s lead single, “Easy Breezy”, was released in early August 2004, followed by the single “Devil Inside” six weeks later with the latter becoming a club hit in the U.S., topping the Billboard Hot Dance/Club Airplay charts. 

For gamers, Utada is perhaps best known for their contributions to the Kingdom Hearts video game series. The theme songs, “Simple and Clean”, “Sanctuary”, “Don’t Think Twice”, and “Face My Fears” have become iconic in their own right, each earning international commercial and critical acclaim and showcasing Utada’s diversity as an artist. In late 2009, Utada was named  “the most influential artist of the decade” by the Japan Times and in 2010, announced an indefinite hiatus from the music industry. The announcement came via Utada’s personal blog, expressing a need for new experiences and personal growth after spending much of their teenage and adult life in the spotlight. 

After the hiatus, Utada returned with their acoustic-driven albums, 2016’s Fantôme and 2018’s Hatsukoi. The albums were well-received by fans and critics and reached number one on the Oricon album charts, reaffirming their status as one of Japan’s most influential artists. The success of Fantôme and Hatsukoi was followed up in 2022 with the release of their first English/Japanese bilingual album, Bad Mode. The album saw the artist team up with international collaborators such as Skrillex, Poo Bear, A.G. Cook and Floating Points’ Samuel Shepherd and explores a range of sonic influences from pop to electro and R&B. Many saw the album as a career-best, receiving gold certification within a month of its release and earning high praise from international music publications, being named one of the best albums of the year. The release came shortly after Utada announced their non-binary gender identity, making them one of the first public figures in Japan to do so. 

Turning 40 in 2023, Utada shows no signs of slowing down, having recently released the new EP, Gold ~ Until We Meet Again, their third collaboration with A.G. Cook. Now based primarily in London, Utada’s music also instinctively continues to find a home internationally, constantly evolving and innately maintaining Japanese and Western sensibilities. Almost actively shying away from limelight and celebrity status, Utada’s 25 + million and counting album sales come as a product of their natural inclination towards internationality. Where other artists might make deliberate attempts at international appeal, Utada’s output, at its core, transcends borders and language barriers as universal art. 

No stranger to internationality, made and canned in Japan and enjoyed in Australia, Monsutā will be back with another Japanese Icon in a couple of weeks. Until then crack open a can of Monsuta, available at BWS, Dan Murphy’s and Jimmy Brings. 

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