When Hikaru Utada debuted in December 1998 with the single "Automatic/Time Will Tell," the Japanese media hailed her as a singer of tremendous promise who had emerged like a meteor. And no wonder, because a 16-year-old singer born in New York City had appeared out of nowhere with superb singing skills and songs that she had written herself in the R&B (rhythm and blues) style.
Hikki, as her fans call her, is very popular with people of all ages, from children to grown-ups. "I like the un-Japanese feel of her music," says one. Another enthuses, "All her songs are just great. She has an excellent sense of rhythm, too." Her first album, which she brought out in March 1999 under the title First Love, has sold 9 million copies, the highest album sales ever recorded in Japan. No one has been able to break this record so far.
At the time of her debut, Utada was a high school student. So in order to keep up with schoolwork while pursuing her singing career, she rarely made public appearances. The first time she appeared on stage was at the concerts she held in Tokyo and Osaka in April 1999. The middle school girls who saw their favorite singer with their own eyes for the first time were all very happy, saying, "It was a great concert!" and "She's such a cool singer!"
In May 2002 Utada came out with her eleventh single, "Sakura Drops/Letter," and in June she released her third album, Deep River. "Sakura Drops" is a stirring ballad performed tenderly with her husky voice, and it was used as the opening song for a TV series that was aired from April to June. Deep River is an original album including several hit singles. Although it isn't as strongly R&B flavored as her earlier albums, it's a fine work demonstrating that her expressive powers have improved even further, according to critics.
Utada has also been active in areas other than singing. Chuichi, a cat character that she designed herself, has been used in a TV commercial for a cellular phone service. Chuichi is the name of a Siamese cat that Utada's father used to live with when she was a child. Based on the stories her father told her, she drew the character using a computer. Chuichi has already been popular for some time: He has appeared in Utada's CDs and her Website, and many Chuichi character products are sold, including stuffed toys and T-shirts. The TV commercial is rather comical. Alone in a room, a computer-animated Chuichi has fun with a cell phone, playing music and videos. The background music is a remix version of "Traveling," one of Utada's hit songs.
Her other nonmusical activities include voice acting in the animated series Black Jack, based on stories by the cartoonist Osamu Tezuka. The series was broadcast on a broadband Website from August 2001 to February 2002. In it she played the part of Pinoko, the cute little assistant of a genius surgeon who goes by the name Black Jack.
In fall 2000, Utada enrolled at Columbia University in New York. But she has been on leave since January 2001 and is now focusing on her musical career. In February 2002, moreover, she signed an exclusive contract with a major music label in the United States, and she is scheduled to make her U.S. debut next year. Utada, who entertains fans of every age with her ever-improving singing and song-writing skills, is sure to blossom into an artist of international acclaim.
Photo: The cover photo for Utada's single "Sakura Drops/Letter." (© TOSHIBA-EMI LTD.)