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Leaving the Girl Behind

Japan's Pop Star Has Made Her 'Exodus' to Adulthood

By Sean Daly
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, October 14, 2004; Page C01

NEW YORK -- Utada Hikaru doesn't do cleavage. She doesn't tend to flash acres of golden abs, as do divettes Britney and Jessica and Christina when the cameras are ogling them. And only rarely does Utada, Japan's reigning pop princess since she was a wee 15, take her bare legs for a stroll.

"When I dress girlie in New York, I always feel like I look like a hooker just because I'm Asian," says the tiny 21-year-old, sitting in the posh lobby of the Four Seasons Hotel and clad in jeans, ratty sneakers and a tan corduroy jacket pulled snug over a pink Minnie Mouse sweatshirt. "I look in the Village Voice, and there's three pages devoted to 'Asian Girls' ads."


Utada Hikaru's English-language debut is an inventive melange of techno bleeps and blips, intricate rhythms, and early-Madonna-like vocals. (Shorefire Media)

The singer-songwriter-producer has sold more than 17 million albums in Japan in just five years without tarting herself up à la MTV's wailers gone wild. (Her 1999 debut, "First Love," is the best-selling album in Japanese history.) She's affectionately known as "Hikki" on the oodles of Internet fan sites that thrill over her good-girl likes (literature, "The Three Amigos") and tsk-tsk dislikes (partying, a dirty house). She also has a clothing line, a calendar and a self-drawn cartoon pet named Chuichi that catfights with merchandising juggernaut Hello Kitty.

Utada's English-language debut, "Exodus," was released this month on the Island/Def Jam label. But that doesn't mean Japan's version of Hilary Duff is all happiness and light these days.

Unlike the go-girl "J-pop" music that helped make Utada the No. 1 target of the feverish Japanese paparazzi, her new sound can be chilly, lonely, sad -- an utterly inventive melange of techno bleeps and blips, intricate rhythms and a voice that sounds a little like Madonna back when the Material Girl was trying to bring the ballads. The only times Utada sounds like she's having fun is on the silly first single, "Easy Breezy," and on three collaborations with hip-hop superproducer Timbaland, the one-man hit machine who's sent Missy Elliott and Justin Timberlake to the top of the charts.

The truth is, Utada -- who was born in New York City and, as the only child of musician parents, has spent most of her life whiplashing between Manhattan and Tokyo -- isn't sure who she wants to be these days. It isn't an anonymous college student: She dropped out of Columbia University after half a semester a couple of years ago because "it wasn't as difficult as I was hoping it would be." That said, she's also questioning whether she wants to remain a gossip-fodder pop star -- in Japan or America. The fame game, Utada has found out at a rather inopportune time, can be a big metaphysical bummer.

"I've been forced to think about what I'm trying to be or what I'm supposed to be or what I am," sighs the bilingual Utada. "People in the record company have a hard time categorizing me and pitching me to the radio, because they look at me, and obviously I'm this young girl. No matter what my music is like, I'm still competing with all the other young girls in the market . . . Ashlee Simpson, Jessica Simpson, Britney Spears, Avril Lavigne, blah blah blah." Utada, who brags about sharing a birthday with Edgar Allan Poe and who seeks comfort in Leo Tolstoy (" 'cause he actually deals with a lot of family drama" -- remember that clue, folks), admits that it's all starting to make her a little sick.

"I just went to the doctor's this morning to get a general checkup. After checking me out, the doctor asked, 'Are you under a lot of stress?' She didn't even know what job I do," says Utada, parting the long black hair that routinely threatens to swallow her face. "I have had health problems with stress. I guess I keep it all inside."

That visit to the doctor, however, also inspired this revelation: "I like getting blood drawn. I like getting shots. It's stimulating. I don't see why pain is that bad. I'm not like a crazy S&M person, don't get me wrong. I'm just really good with pain. I just enter a zone, and tell my brain, 'Okay, I'm going to feel pain, but it's not bad. Let's see how it feels.' "

Nope: Utada, who lists Radiohead, Bjork and Nine Inch Nails as faves, isn't like American pop stars at all.

(Okay, okay, maybe just a little. Utada did do the questionable early-marriage thing, at age 19, to music-video director Kaz Kiriya. But much to the dismay of the tabloids, the two have stayed happily hitched. "When I first got married, everyone said, 'You're too young' and 'Why don't you wait?' I figured a lot of marriages fail, right? . . . If I waited until I was 35, I wouldn't be better equipped or more prepared to be married than I am now."

(Oh, and despite how much she says she enjoys being a nobody in New York, she does kinda dig the sobbing-fans phenomenon. "I always tell them, 'Oh, don't cry! It's just me!' I don't know what they see in me that is that special and idolizable. But when someone's moved that much, it moves you.")

"I don't think 12-year-old girls are going to hitch to my new music," says Utada. "I think my audience is much older than that."

Eric Wong, Island/Def Jam's senior director of marketing, boasts of Utada's "enigmatic pop skills" and "unique blend of alternative, pop, dance and funk grooves," but "enigmatic" and "unique" aren't exactly the best buzzwords when you're selling to today's teen-pop market. Utada says there are possible plans for a small U.S. tour next year, but the rest of 2004 is relatively empty.


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