How do you follow up the fastest-selling album of all time?
This is where Utada Hikaru found themselves after the massive success of their second album, Distance in 1999. The album still holds the record for quickest-selling album in Japan, selling 3 million copies in one week, and held the global record until 2015, when Adele’s 25 overtook it by 300K copies. Every single on Distance hit #1 on Japan’s Oricon Singles Chart, including the classic “Can You Keep a Secret?”
Given all this, it’s not much of a shock that Utada’s 2002 album Deep River couldn’t reach the same commercial heights. It still sold 2.35 million copies, and three of its four singles hit #1, a stellar run in its own right. However, Deep River has endured in the international consciousness because of one immortal song.
It’s hard to understate the power of “Hikari,” which has served as the (official and unofficial) theme song to the Kingdom Hearts video game series for 20 years. The melody was the basis of multiple tracks on the first game’s score, and the English version “Simple and Clean” was used extensively to advertise it. Utada sang “Hikari” at Coachella this year to great acclaim, and when it came time to reveal Kingdom Hearts’ Sora as a playable character in Super Smash Brothers Ultimate, it had to be accompanied by “Hikari.”
“Hikari” (and “Simple and Clean”) is a song about the nervousness and longing that comes with the deepening of a romantic relationship, a melancholic look at an uncertain future. In both the Japanese and English versions, introducing a partner to Utada’s family is a source of stress and fear for both parties. The demand for perfection also rears its ugly head: in “Hikari”, Utada tells their partner, “You don’t have to be perfect/Just a little better,” while in “Simple and Clean,” Utada’s partner asks, “Don’t get me wrong, I love you/But does that mean I have to walk on water?” The tension arising from the obviously deep love Utada and their partner share and a future that threatens to shatter it with the mundane, is woven throughout the entirety of Deep River.
Deep River may still have Utada’s commanding and confident voice, but the album itself is darker than Distance, infused with melancholy and expressions of anxiety in every song. Fear of what lies ahead works its way into almost every song — how do you move forward in romance in this way? In life? As a professional who’s hit a peak no one else can hope to match?
“Hikari”’s most obvious musical counterpart on the album is “Uso Mitai Na ‘I Love You’’’ (“The Dubious ‘I Love You’”). Both songs start their choruses with the same rhythmic and melodic progression, and “The Dubious ‘I Love You’” treads similar lyrical ground, with Utada begging their lover to continue telling them they love them, even though eventually neither of them will mean it. While “Hikari” has some hope for the relationship’s future, here, Utada, is more in denial:
A story that will end emotionally
Began that day when you said ‘I love you’
I can’t wait patiently for the start of the second half.
The lyrics use evocative words like “chijou”, meaning both “earth” or “ground” as well as “foolish, blind love”; Utada is saying both “I will gradually sort out the lights and shadows of this earth” and “I will gradually sort out the lights and shadows of this foolish passion.” The propulsive rock melody accurately reflects Utada’s turmoil, but also suggests there likely isn’t a happy ending here.
You could say the same of “Sakura Drops.” Lamenting a cycle of failed romances (“Why have I suffered the same blows countless times?”), Utada keeps fruitlessly pushing forward regardless, hoping that “Even the cherry tree, swaying in the wind/Will eventually blossom.” The relentlessly nostalgic electronic chimes throughout the chorus suggest simpler times — the melody echoes more traditional Japanese music, evoking imagery of gentle ocean breezes and delicate blooming flowers, both of which appear in the music video.Utada wants to let go of the worry growing in their heart over beginning a new romance, and expresses that openly, but as they say, “In the revolving seasons/My shoes are wearing out, more and more.” Their own feelings only come out fully in the song’s end, and they sound like a heavy burden to Utada: “I love you, it can’t be helped/That has nothing to do with this.” Once again, love only opens a path to an uncertain and potentially disastrous future, one they’ve repeated over and over again.
As with “Hikari” and “The Dubious ‘I Love You,’” “Sakura Drops” has its own counterpart in “Tokyo Nights,” a ’90s-style R&B track where Utada seeks meaning (and love) beneath the city lights. Unlike in “Sakura Drops,” Utada here is frustrated, not resigned, to a fruitless search, noting that they’re, “Fooling around collecting time limits/Who’s keeping you here?” Their loneliness is palpable, though, and they beg the lights themselves to stay with them and to continue to envelop them. As with the closing confession in “Sakura Drops,” Utada does not want to admit just what the lights mean to them, only saying they “Wanna hide their feelings/They’re as honest as a baby’s.”
While the album crafts multiple duologies, it also continues to tug at the album’s central tension. “Final Distance,” a slowed-down cover of a song from their previous album (“Distance”), explores this tension while also ruminating on death and loss. Meant as a memorial to a child fan who died in the 2001 Osaka School Massacre, making the song a ballad shifts its framing from a romantic lens to that of a grieving relative wishing their lost loved one could be part of their future. Repeating multiple times “I wanna be with you now,” Utada evokes a feeling that the song is them pushing themselves forward in the face of unimaginable pain, and that they feel the person they lost right beside them.
The title track of Deep River serves as its thesis statement. Utada is reassuring their partner that they accept their quirks and flaws because of their love, and insists that they don’t need to be perfect or the same as everyone else to have them — “You don’t need to flow through all these rivers/Accepting everything.” Utada insists throughout the song that their lover’s individuality is “Why I chose you.” However, the melody is melancholy, as if this acceptance could eventually unravel them both. Utada also allows themselves a moment of biting sarcasm against both their partner and their anxiety, asking them, “Who could you possibly protect while being such a hypocrite?” In the end, Utada doesn’t want someone who molds themselves into an acceptable form for every situation. As they say, “You changed shape countless times/And then flew down before me/I’m searching for you today.”
Deep River was one of the first J-pop CDs I ever owned. I wanted my own disc to listen to the Kingdom Hearts theme I heard in the commercials and at my best friend’s house over and over again, and I managed to get a copy of it from a booth at an anime convention. All of the songs, not just “Hikari,” stuck with me for decades afterwards because of their sweeping, emotional beats and lush melodies. As I’ve grown older, the delicate tightrope act the album walks in exploring the uneasy duality of loving and knowing you will probably lose that love soon resonates even more strongly. Utada was barely 19 when they wrote and composed this album, coming off as much wiser than their years would suggest and putting words to emotions I wouldn’t feel for years.
Deep River is an incredibly special, bucolic, melancholic album, and it’s no accident that its last words serve as the triumphant resolution to Utada’s album-long anxieties:
“Regardless of warnings, the future doesn’t scare me at all… nothing’s like before.”