Film / Reviews

'Hikaru Utada Laughter in the Dark Tour 2018': An online offering that nails the live experience

by Patrick St. Michel

Contributing Writer

Japanese pop star Hikaru Utada’s 2018 “Laughter in the Dark Tour” marked her first jaunt around the country in 12 years. The seven-city tour became one of the year’s most anticipated tickets, culminating in a Dec. 9 performance at Chiba’s Makuhari Messe coinciding with the 20th anniversary of her debut. These shows weren’t heavy on spectacle, but rather a chance to catch up and reminisce.

“Maybe some of you have left your kids at home for the first time,” Utada said during that Dec. 9 concert, captured here on “Hikaru Utada Laughter in the Dark Tour 2018,” a live recording of the Chiba show available on Netflix and iTunes. “So let’s make it like a year-end party today. It’s that time of year.”

“Laughter In The Dark Tour 2018” is notable for many reasons — it’s the highest-profile live release by a J-pop act to appear on a video streaming service, and its global availability, coupled with English subtitles translated by Utada herself, makes this a shrewd move in introducing her music to a wider audience — but the two-hour-plus performance also shines as a document for one of the bigger Japanese musical happenings in recent years, giving fans who waited so long for this opportunity a chance to revisit it and soak up the good feelings.

I went to the same show recorded for “Laughter in the Dark,” and the streaming version opts to simply relay the experience of joining thousands of others packed into Makuhari Messe to watch Utada explore her musical history. This isn’t a “film” like the Beyonce-focused Netflix original “Homecoming,” nor is it a traditional concert movie that intersplices backstage footage or interviews to develop a narrative. Rather, it’s a multi-angle souvenir of a special show, with editing kept to a minimum. That includes a mid-show “talk” video with a twist, and Utada reminding fans to not block people’s views with smartphones, details that easily could have been cut, but which add charm by being left in.

The focus falls on Utada’s performance, and over the course of these 140 minutes she jumps between cuts from her recent comeback albums and her hits from the turn of the 21st century. The tour kept things simple — nothing too flashy to distract from the music, the biggest flourish being an interpretive dancer joining her for two songs (one of which includes Utada rapping, one of the night’s best moments) — and the version on streaming spends most of its time pointing the camera at Utada, as she sings or plays keyboard.

The setlist balances itself out nicely, starting with newer songs before pivoting into ballads midway through, and closing with megahits “First Love” and “Automatic.”

As it was at the venue, the best moments of “Laughter in the Dark” come when Utada leans into the emotional weight of the evening. She approaches tears within the first 15 minutes of the concert, the combination of the last stop on her long-awaited tour and two decades as an artist genuinely getting to her.

It’s an energy that carries over to the songs and the audience, resulting in a special night that can now be revisited whenever fans want.

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