I have been a fan of the Kingdom Hearts series since before it was a series at all; enticed by the appearance of Disney characters, my sisters and I broke in our PlayStation 2 with the original Kingdom Hearts not long after its 2002 release. Between me, at 8 years of age, and my sisters at 10, we were rather pitiful at the game, and it’d take me another two years to finally complete it (and subsequently, become obsessed). I’ve spent the ten years since consuming every piece of Kingdom Hearts news and media available. My adolescent years have become inextricably tied to these games. I’ve gone through the ringer with the series, followed its many plot twists, turns, and holes, waited — patiently and impatiently — for each new title. I’ve attempted, with varying levels of success, to decipher the wayward and needlessly complicated plot.
Having thus established my cred as a Kingdom Hearts fan, I’ve got beef. I’m routinely surprised to find many within the fandom claim that the English lyrics to the first game’s iconic theme song are, like the plot of the series as of Dream Drop Distance, complete nonsense. Therefore I’d like to take another stab at dissecting the lyrics and larger meaning behind Utada Hikaru’s “Simple & Clean.”
First, somewhat of a background and history lesson, for those who are not familiar with the song or the series. The Kingdom Hearts games typically open and close with cinematic sequences, set to Utada Hikaru’s music. These full motion videos are often highly symbolic, featuring series staples like characters falling and/or reaching towards one another, only to be separated by the sea or the sky, and generally establish the themes of the game or recap the events of previous titles.
The first Kingdom Hearts game’s opening video pumped along to a remix of Utada Hikaru’s “Hikari” (光, or “light”) in its original Japanese release. Despite her writing and recording it specially for Kingdom Hearts, Utada found little inspiration in the game’s plot, describing it as “soulless.” Given the number of revisions the game underwent in its development cycle, that Utada was writing while the game was still in the works, and that requesting a musical artist to play a 30-hour game just to write one song would be absurd, it’s likely that Utada had an incomplete vision of the game’s story and characters. The relationship between Utada and Kingdom Hearts seems to be of mutual influence, as Tetsuya Nomura, the director of the Kingdom Hearts series, claims that many elements of the first game were inspired by “Hikari” and not the other way around.
Utada similarly wrote “Passion,” the theme to Kingdom Hearts II, to coincide with the story of the sequel, and seemed to have a better idea of what the series and game were all about; in an interview, Nomura says that, for “Passion,” Utada was given a much longer explanation of the game’s story this time around. Still, the relationship between the song’s lyrics and the games is tenuous at best.
This may have also been a conscious, commercial decision on Utada’s part, and not simple unfamiliarity with the games. “Hikari” enjoyed success independent of Kingdom Hearts, topping charts, earning Utada a number of accolades and awards, and helping her break into the worldwide market. “Passion,” by contrast, is one of Utada’s lowest performing singles, but both songs were never intended exclusively for the games. Writing lyrics specific to the Kingdom Hearts series would have hurt the singles’ universal appeal. Therefore, both songs deal chiefly with ubiquitous themes like love, friendship, relationships, and the passage of time.
Further complicating the equation is the process of translation. International releases of the Kingdom Hearts games feature English versions of Utada’s songs; the English counterpart to “Hikari” is “Simple & Clean”, and to “Passion,” “Sanctuary.” Rather than directly translating “Hikari” to English, Utada wrote entirely new lyrics for “Simple & Clean”, and I therefore treat it as its own song in most respects. As an interesting bit of trivia, “Sanctuary,” the English version of Kingdom Hearts II‘s theme, was actually written before “Passion.” Production-wise, the songs and their counterparts differ only slightly, but Utada cited the pain of re-adapting her music as one of her reasons for breaking with the series (whether she will return with a new song for Kingdom Hearts III or if the existing songs will be reused remains to be seen).
JQ (Interviewer): Okay, so going back a little bit, the fact that Exodus was released in English also in Japan, was that a conscious decision? Was there ever any pressure either on your label over there, or from other people to say, “Well, if you do Japanese versions of these songs, they’ll be so much more accessible, many more people will get to that?”
Utada: Uh-huh. Well, from the beginning, yeah…before doing that contract, 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 that was “Sanctuary,” and that was so hard, it’s just—and 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, they know me for that—but it’s not ideal for me as a writer, to …because, 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. And then, so, for this, uh, this contract with Island Def Jam, in the beginning I separated it to this English-language album, and I don’t do Japanese translations. I just, my integrity as an artist just would not take that, could not take that.
This all to say that, in trying to fit new lyrics to already established melodies, it’s understandable that Utada might make some interesting choices with the lyrics to the translated songs. Still, Utada is an accomplished songwriter, and none of those choices are extreme enough to affect coherency.
“Simple & Clean” tells the story of a romantic relationship and learning how to love. In the first verse, the speaker eschews physical gifts and, presumably, responsibilities and expectations in favor of time merely spent with their partner — a more “simple” relationship.
You’re giving me too many things
Lately, you’re all I need
Next comes a question of commitment; the speaker’s significant other feels that, in order to prove their love, they are expected to meet the speaker’s family. Utada uses “father” specifically, and as a song written by a woman, it echoes the traditional values for a father’s approval of a man courting his daughter, or more dramatically, asking a father for his daughter’s hand in marriage. Despite the speaker’s partner hesitating to take these steps, it does not seem to reflect a deficiency in the relationship, or even a fear of commitment — the smile seems genuine and the question does not disturb the speaker.
You smiled at me and said
“Don’t get me wrong, I love you, but does that mean I have to meet your father?”
When we are older you’ll understand
What I meant when I said
“No, I don’t think life is quite that simple”
In their response, the speaker introduces a gap in maturity between them and their partner, and the major issue of the relationship. By denying that their partner meet their father, the speaker is rejecting society’s idea of what a relationship should look like, in favor of their own construction. Their partner, presumably younger and somewhat naïve regarding relationships, feels they must go through the motions of what, to everyone else, qualifies a relationship, like meeting parents or moving in together or getting married or merely changing your Facebook status from “Single.” The speaker, however, dismisses these notions, in favor of their more enlightened view of relationships: that they mean more than what others see when looking in — that they are defined exclusively by what exists between the people involved.
The concept of simplicity functions on two levels in “Simple & Clean”; in the first verse, the speaker brushes off their partner’s conception of relationships as ‘simple’ — that is, the partner is following society’s conveyor belt relationship, which is, to the speaker, an overly simplistic view of romances, boiling them down to actions and checkpoints rather than love and intimacy. The second level is explored in the second verse, which we’ll get to later; before that, Utada returns to the hook, which paints the relationship in a somewhat uncertain light.
When you walk away
You don’t hear me say “Please, oh baby, don’t go.”
Simple and clean is the way that you’re making me feel tonight
It’s hard to let it go
The meaning here is somewhat obvious; the couple breaks up, or at least argues, as couples are wont to do. The speaker’s affection is called into question, most likely because they don’t seem eager to undergo the expected forms of commitment. The speaker is, however, quite in love and eager to hold to the relationship. It’s an issue of miscommunication; the speaker expresses love and commitment differently than others, hence their partner not hearing them.
The second verse continues the speaker’s desire to break from the questions and motions of the everyday world. The format of the first verse is repeated, with another, slightly different question from their partner.
The daily things (like this and that and what is what?)
That keep us all busy are confusing me
That’s when you came to me and said
“Wish I could prove I love you, but does that mean I have to walk on water?”
The “walking on water” herein meaning being perfect, or above human — the speaker’s partner feels they must prove themselves by some grand feat, which is, by nature, impossible. This may stem from the same source as before — a desire to keep with society’s expected gestures for a lover — or that, given the speaker’s disinterest in the typical, the partner then feels they must do something grandiose to prove their affection. The speaker, after all, sends mixed signals, rejecting the actions that typically prove commitment yet insisting that they are in love.
When we are older you’ll understand
It’s enough when I say so
And maybe some things are that simple
The speaker’s response is that of content. This is the second conception of simplicity, this time a more positive one (in the speaker’s eyes): they do not need any fancy gestures or proclamations to feel reassured in the relationship. The love that the speaker and their partner share, and their unique ways of showing it and expressing it, are “enough” for the speaker. It’s somewhat of a shift for the speaker, who was previously contradictory and non-committal; they acknowledge that they may have been over-thinking and over-complicating things, that the simple act of being in love is all that matters.
Moving finally into the bridge, the speaker captures their newly realized expectations for the relationship, explaining what was before unclear.
Whatever lies beyond this morning
Is a little later on
Regardless of warnings the future doesn’t scare me at all
Nothing’s like before
The speaker is happy with the day-to-day of the relationship, the love independent of others’ expectations and values; the speaker wishes to remain in their notably temporary bliss, to enjoy the simple, and clean, feeling of being in love. There will be times to worry about the minutiae of their relationship, to meet parents and showboat, but that all is “a little later on.” Others insist to the speaker that this is irresponsible, but “regardless of warnings, the future doesn’t scare me [the speaker] at all.” The “nothing’s like before” line functions to separate the current relationship from any in the speaker’s or the speaker’s partner’s past — that this is something new they have formed, with a brand new playbook and new rules. They don’t need to base their relationship around what their previous relationships have been like, or around society’s expectations.
“Simple & Clean” is, if you’ll forgive the redundancy, a simple pondering on relationships and follows a person figuring out what they want from their partner, who is confused by the speaker’s views of love. Excluding the two quotes from the speaker’s partner, it reads mostly as an internal dialogue — the speaker wants, at first, for their romance to be complex and dramatic, but learns to value the simple act of loving and receiving love in return.
What this has to do with the opening to Kingdom Hearts is unclear. As a series with no true canon romances (besides the Disney characters like Mickey and Minnie), the dynamic presented in “Simple & Clean” is difficult to apply to any of the characters of Kingdom Hearts. That said, many of the individual lines in “Simple & Clean” echo lines in Kingdom Hearts, specifically the bridge, which is reminiscent of the conversation Sora and Kairi share the night before they expect to leave Destiny Islands — in particular, Kairi reflecting that while there’s a big scary world out there for them to see, she knows she can always return to the safety of her home and her friends. The lyrics of “Hikari” coincide much better with Kingdom Hearts, but given the challenges faced by Utada throughout the process of writing both songs, she did a fantastic job with “Simple & Clean,” telling an insightful story that at the very least complements some of the ideas in its Japanese predecessor.