Going the (Final) Distance with Utada Hikaru

A look back at “Final Distance,” a song released 15 years ago to honor a national tragedy, at a time when national tragedies now feel commonplace.

I wanna be with you now…

I can’t fully explain why I feel as spiritually connected to Utada Hikaru as I do.

I don’t have the ability to communicate how I can relate so strongly to music that isn’t even originally written in my own tongue, nor the desire to convince anyone else to feel the same way. Whenever I get a snarky “Who?” or a condescending comment about J-Pop in general, I don’t bother responding. Maybe one day I’ll do a proper introduction to Utada’s music for those who’d genuinely like to learn more. It’s different than my love for Britney or Madonna or Grace Jones or Janet Jackson or Kylie Minogue — she simply speaks directly to my soul. (And my awkward first sexual experiences.) And everything in between.

Shit’s fucked these days. There’s no denying that. There’s a heaviness hanging over this country — the whole world, really — that’s too suffocating to ignore. Things feel particularly dire in the wake of this horrendous string of racially-induced police murders. Murders of police. The Pulse massacre. Christina Grimmie. This batshit election. I’m not out of faith — but it is hard to smile right now when confronted with bloody, brutal headlines each and every single morning.

Obviously, I’ve been bummed out about Internet writing for a while, too. Five years ago, this website was full of “yas!” and “slay queen!” and “SIT THE FUCK DOWN AND STOP YOUR ENTIRE LIFE” — way more upbeat and energetic than it is now. Pop music, and the political atmosphere, felt lighter then. But I lost interest in maintaining that over-the-top “stan” voice. I don’t really talk like that anymore, because I don’t really feel like that anymore — barring the infrequent moments of hope that Britney provides, obviously.

But yesterday, something did briefly awaken the stan deep inside for the first time in a while, in spite of so much sadness: Utada’s formal announcement of her upcoming sixth Japanese studio album, due out on September 28. (FINALLY.) One might even say I’m…shaking and crying about it.

Naturally, I fell straight into a Hikki K-hole last night, revisiting all of her past albums — and one song in particular stuck out as fitting for this particular moment in time.


Almost fifteen years ago to the day this month, Utada released a single — an unintentional single — that came in the wake of a national tragedy.

(This is an awful story — just an advance warning.)

Back in June of 2001, a mentally ill former janitor entered a Japanese elementary school in Osaka and went on a murderous rampage with a kitchen knife, killing eight children and injuring several others. One of the children murdered was a six-year-old girl named Rena Yamashita — a fan of Utada. She’d reportedly just won an essay contest after writing about much Utada inspired her.


Utada, who was working in the studio on her third studio album Deep River at the time, found out about the attack from her father, and decided to release a song in tribute to Rena.

She wrote an explanation on her blog a few weeks after the massacre:

“I would like to devote this single ‘FINAL DISTANCE’ to a person. The word ‘devote’ may sound pompous and strange, it’s more like…’dedicate.’ I had been stuck in the studio since the 9th of this month and I was informed by my father on the second day of the recording in the studio about what had happened in Ikeda city in Osaka the day before the 9th.

At that time I was also informed about the girl called Rena Yamashita and shocked more than words could express – I would sound so fake no matter what word I use, but I was really really mortified and sad, so I thought if there was anything I could do…and decided to dedicate this song – which I just started writing – to her (and of course to all the people directly involved in the case as well…) then and there. Given sorrow and anger, tenderness and power born from them, and what not, I found a new meaning in the song and thanks to it I was able to hold on till the end.

The song, called “Final Distance,” already existed as a song called “Distance,” the otherwise perky-sounding title track of Utada’s second Japanese studio album released in March of 2000.

But Utada found new meaning in the lyrics, reworking the song entirely as a wrenching, emotional ballad. Backed by a somber piano and sorrowful strings, Hikki transformed the earnest phrase “I wanna be with you now” into a quivering plea.

Although all of Utada’s ballads are emotional — she excels at conveying emotion in general — “Final Distance” especially hits a nerve, and is arguably one of her rawest moments on record.

We’ll soon be able to embrace this distance / We should stay together / I still need to be with you…

Utada herself has been through a tremendous amount of personal trauma after the shocking suicide of her mother, Keiko Fuji, three years ago. The lyrics of her latest singles certainly seem to suggest that she’s very much still dealing with her loss. Frankly, the fact that she mustered the strength to return with an album at all this year is inspiring.

I don’t mean to make this the Most Morbid Blog On The Internet, but I’ve always kept it 100 underline underline emoji when I’m feeling blue. As one of my new favorites Madeline Juno aptly pointed out in her latest vlog, an “all positivity everything” mentality is dangerous to maintain. Sadness and grief shouldn’t be avoided. Embrace it fully — it makes the happiness worth having.

Please love each other and love yourselves. There’s far too little of that happening in the world right now.

And keep on trying, baby.

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