Deconstructed: Hikaru Utada's Fantôme album cover

Deconstructed: Hikaru Utada's Fantôme album cover | Random J Pop

I originally wrote this as part of my post disclosing the name, cover and track list of Hikaru Utada's 6th studio album, but decided to separate it, as it was going into way more detail. I also wrote this before Hikaru had done an interview confirming the links between her Fantôme album and her mother. But I will share this with you anyway. Seeing many of your comments on my initial Fantôme post, it seems that everybody is talking about the album cover and what it truly means. So let's discuss this together.

Ever since Hikaru Utada decided to monumentally step away from her career to live her life and start a family, there have been hints and flecks into how Hikaru Utada sees her life, life in general and how she perceives the world. We always got this through her music, but the Hikaru of 2012 and the Hikaru of 2016 are two very different people. Understandably so. Time can change everything. But in this space of time many life changing events had occurred. She had gotten married. Given birth to her first child. She had lost her mother. For Hikaru to experience these things and remain the same person would be rather strange.

Fantôme is Hikaru reaching a place where she feels she can record music for the world to hear at a point in her life where it doesn't seem to be the most important thing to her.

Hikaru had never been overly vocal about why she chose to back away from 'the industry', but recently she had said alluded to her career becoming a vehicle that she was unable to control. But prior to her saying this, her actions and her music spoke volumes. The release of songs such as "Sakura nagashi" and "Manatsu no tooriame" gave us a clear insight into her feelings, where her heart lies and that she values the living of life, completely separate from that of which her career had provided her. Because her career had held her back from truly living.

The release of Fantôme is more than Hikaru making a 'comeback', a term I imagine she wouldn't be at ease with. Fantôme is Hikaru reaching a place where she feels she can share her music with the world at a point in her life where the fame her music will bring doesn't seem to be the most important thing to her. Not that it ever was.

The album name itself is very significant. Not only does Fantôme mark the first of Hikaru's first releases to not bear an English title, but there's the name itself. Fantôme. Which is French for ghost. The connection to her mother who passed in August 2013 is obvious. But the name could also be a representation of how Hikaru now sees herself within the landscape of the music industry as a whole and how she's seen herself over the past 6 years. Hikaru and her mother are both ghosts and this album is what connects them across different forms of existence.

There are many words once can use to describe Hikaru Utada, but one which always comes to mind (that I feel many fans can agree) on is 'consistent'. Not just musically, but in everything Hikaru Utada does. From the visuals of her music videos, to her album names and album covers. There is a distinct consistency and a familiar beat that Hikaru Utada hits in everything she does.

Hikaru Utada's Japanese studio albums have always taken their titles from Hikaru Utada's emotional states in relation to the world around her. Fantôme in this sense is no different, but there's a greater sense of meaning behind this album title than any of Hikaru's other albums.

Retrospectively looking back on Hikaru Utada's album covers, there is a constant visual theme. All featuring close-ups of her face, and up until Heart station, always text-less. Fantôme's album cover breaks this consistency completely. Firstly, as with Heart station, Fantôme features text, but only of the album title. Secondly, the shot of Hikaru is from the chest up, where-as past album covers have always featured her in close-up from the neck upwards. Thirdly, this is the first album where Hikaru's face is shown out of focus; giving the impression that Hikaru herself is a ghost, in keeping with the album title. And with the album title being French, Fantôme being the only text on the cover and it being so large and the only thing in colour gives it focus, and highlights the phonetics of the name.

One thing which does connect Fantôme's album cover to Hikaru's previous ones is the font. The font in which Fantôme is type set is a form of Helvetica Neue, a variation of which was used on the back cover of Hikaru Utada's 1999 debut album First love and its 2001 follow-up Distance. A coincidence? Quite possibly. Helvetica Neue is a widely used font and is one of the cleanest fonts around. But it is in keeping with the visual canon of Hikaru Utada's Japanese studio albums, which have always used sans-serif based fonts; the one and only exception being Deep river.

But taking these decisions a step further and looking at this in detail there may be more to this. The crazy thing with Hikaru Utada always being shown in close up on her album covers is that her looks were never something which she used to push her career or her 'brand'. It was always her music first and foremost. She was never heavily made up for the sake of being perceived as an idol or a pin-up. And, if you line her album covers up side by side, it's not immediately obvious you're even looking at the same person. Whether it was due to the photography style, Hikaru's image changing as a result of her age, her hair or fluctuations in her weight, she looked drastically different from album to album.

Hikaru Utada - First love | Random J PopHikaru Utada - Distance | Random J Pop

Hikaru Utada - Deep river | Random J PopHikaru Utada - Ultra blue | Random J Pop

Hikaru Utada - Heart station | Random J Pop Hikaru Utada - Fantôme | Random J Pop

Hikaru never deciding to place her name on her albums could speak for how she perhaps didn't want there to be focus on who she was, but just her music. Although it could just as easily have been a visual choice. Omitting your names from an album cover is always a brave move. It's something artists often don't employ until they are well into their careers and they are established enough to not need their name on a product to sell it. But Hikaru did this from the beginning, only choosing to include her name when she was 5 albums deep into her career. Why? Heart station and Fantôme are the only 2 albums to not be shot or creatively directed by her ex husband Kazuaki Kiriya, which is the most logical reason for the visual shift and use of text. We will never truly know. But something we can speculate is perhaps that Hikaru wanted to make a name for herself without relying on her name.

Despite Hikaru Utada's mammoth success, she's never done a great deal of interviews or public appearances and has only done a couple of tours. Some J-Pop stars get into the industry for the sake of fame, but Hikaru never did and even now doesn't seem to really want it. Even her decision to launch an English music career under her surname as opposed to her widely known first name alludes to this in some regard. She made zero effort to capitalise on her success in Japan or follow the same formula musically. Where most artists would attempt to capitalise on past successes or pimp an aspect of themselves to further their career or their sales, Hikaru never has. Not once. Her album covers show a real level of humility and humbleness, just as her music does.

There is a duality that comes with Fantôme's album cover, which sums up Hikaru to a tee. Hikaru has always been the sum of two parts. Her being bilingual for one. The almost accidental commercial success of her releases, despite not wanting the fame that comes with such things. And her baring her soul to a world that she'd be more than happy to never face. With Fantôme comes darkness and uncertainty, but also a sense of comfort and resolution. Whilst darkness is oft seen as something to avoid, it can also be a source of comfort. The album cover speaks to this notion. It's haunting, but it's beautiful and comforting. You can't help but be drawn to it. With this, its clear that Fantôme is not just a homage of her mother, but a representation of how Hikaru sees herself in the world. In essence, they are both ghosts - which is what keeps them bound together. But as Hikaru embraces and comes to terms with the loss of her mother, she there-in finds closure. Allowing her to close a chapter of her life and embrace a new one. So in this regard, Fantôme is also a new beginning.

Deconstructed will be a new selection of posts where I pretty much go into details and nit pick. Please note, most of these points are my opinion. Nothing here is fact unless stated otherwise. But I hope this gives a forum to those who look into details and wonder about things the same way I do. So please feel free to continue the conversation in the comments.

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