In Sora’s reveal clip for Smash Bros. Ultimate, an orchestral rendition of Hikaru Utada’s “Simple and Clean” played in the background. Fans immediately took to YouTube, commenting on uploads of the tune that Smash Bros. had brought them, and reminiscing about when they heard the tune for the first time.
(This article refers to the artist by the English language naming order conventions, as written on Utada’s official site.)
“Simple and Clean,” and the original Japanese language version “Hikari,” haven’t only become inextricably connected with Sora and Kingdom Hearts, but also embody Utada like no other songs in the Japanese-American singer’s catalogue. This is that rare instance when the songwriter personally wrote the lyrics in different languages for each version of the song.
So often when things are translated, there are complaints that the translations are not exactly the same. “Simple and Clean” and “Hikari” are not the exact same. The words are different, but the feelings they evoke are similar. They co-exist, together, brilliantly.
I remember when “Hikari” was released here in Japan nearly twenty years ago. There was (and still is) buzz and excitement about any song from the artist, in a way that wasn’t quite the same with other singers. In the late 1990s, Utada had exploded onto the scene at the age of 15 with singles like “Automatic/Time Will Tell” and “Movin’ On Without You,” that sold millions. The artist’s debut studio album First Love went on to become Japan’s best-selling album ever, and its follow-up, Distance, would later land at fifth place on the country’s all-time sales charts.
Tetsuya Nomura, the creator of Kingdom Hearts, wanted Utada to sing the theme. “Utada is the only artist I envisioned singing the theme song for Kingdom Hearts,” Nomura said in 2002 (via IGN). For Nomura, Utada was proof, “that music transcends national and language barriers.”
At that time, however, it was still difficult for Asian and Asian-American artists to break through in the US. Sure, Kyu Sakamoto’s “Ue o Muite Arukou” (which was retitled as “Sukiyaki”) topped the U.S. Billboard charts in 1963, but it would be the only song by an Asian artist to do so until BTS in 2020, with “Dynamite.” Utada was certainly a pioneer, and because of its inclusion in Kingdom Hearts, “Simple and Clean” was able to reach a mass audience.
Utada, of course, didn’t exactly arrive out of nowhere. Born in New York to record producer Teruzane Utada and popular singer Keiko Fuji, Utada went to school in Tokyo but got their music education first-hand. “I did my homework in the studio, slept in the studio, and I made my first song when I was like 11, I think,” Utada told NPR in 2009. “And I was recording from like 12-13, so it was just like the family business.”
What made Utada stand out in Japan when First Love hit wasn’t only the songwriting, singing, and performing skills, but the fluidity with which the artist moved between Japanese and American culture. Utada was truly international. Unlike the other stars of the era, Utada wasn’t writing songs with English phrases or in English because that was cool — or, at least, considered as such in Japan. English and Japanese are Utada’s native languages, and each represented a different part of the artist.
It’s not only heritage and culture that language conveys. Utada, who is nonbinary, has used it to fully express themselves in different ways. “So when I write Japanese songs and sing them, I sound a little more androgynous, like boyish,” Utada also said in the same interview. “And then I, I noticed this recently like with this in my latest album in English [This Is The One], I seem to sound a little more feminine when I write songs in English, like the woman side of me seems to come out a little more.”
Having a deep understanding of both languages is perhaps why when Utada translated “Hikari” into English, it wasn’t done in a line-by-line exact rendition. Instead, the song was rewritten to suit the language. The words are different, but the spirit of the songs is the same.
In a 2009 interview with JQ magazine, Utada explained:
I’d done a few songs where I had to translate. Like for Kingdom Hearts, I had to make an English version of the song ‘Hikari,’ which became ‘Simple and Clean,’ and then also for Kingdom Hearts II, I had to make the Japanese version which was the song ‘Passion’ and then the English version of that was ‘Sanctuary,’ and that was hard…it felt strained — and as a result, I’m happy that I worked hard to do those, because those English versions are really good and ‘Simple and Clean,’ I think, is a really good song, and people…most of the people that know me here [in the U.S.], they know me for that — but it’s not ideal for me as a writer, to…because, I think my level of how good I am in English and Japanese are both the same, so there is a difficulty in terms of technical stuff.
But it wasn’t only the words that needed to be changed with “Hikari” and “Simple and Clean.” The melodies also needed to be slightly tweaked. In the same interview, they added, “Actually, I changed the melodies for ‘Simple and Clean’ and ‘Hikari’ because when you change the language you’re singing in, the same melodies don’t work — and as a writer, it’s just very frustrating to have, like…I wrote these melodies for Japanese words, and to have to write in English for that, it’s just not right.” The only way to fix that is to change the melodies, to best suit the strong points of each language.
Utada has talked about those differences, and how they even create different personalities. “This happens with a lot of bilingual kids, but I seem to sound a little more diplomatic when I speak in English or a little more settled down, like calmer, kind of, I guess, and kind of proper,” Utada told NPR in 2009. “And then in Japanese, I think this is because I learned, I used to read a lot of Japanese comic books, I sound more like a comic book character, like just kind of wacky personality sort of – a lot more animated. And when I sing or when I write, it’s a bit different too.” This is something I’ve also noticed in my children, who were born in Japan. Their personalities do change slightly depending on which language they are speaking.
“It’s fun in Japan to push that envelope a little bit, constantly, and to play with the beauty of the language, the subtleties and everything,” Utada told JQ.
“But with English, it’s easier to be more blunt, or…like really metaphoric, but that doesn’t make much sense maybe, like in a Beatles sort of way, and that’s the difference, I’d say, but I enjoy working in both languages.”
And it seems the world certainly enjoys hearing it.