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Toon tunes
The reality behind the virtual Puffy AmiYumi

"It’s like Christmas in August," gushed Sam Register, vice-president of development at the Cartoon Network, as he described over the phone last summer the large box packed with Mattel toys that had just been delivered to his LA office. Inside were dolls, action figures, and playsets — a whole new product line — based on Hi Hi Puffy AmiYumi, the network’s animated show inspired by the real-life Japanese pop sensation Puffy AmiYumi. And Register wasn’t kidding about Christmas: the toys hit shelves just in time for the Christmas buying rush as the show went into heavy rotation, moving from two to five nights a week and positioning itself as the network’s most popular show outside of the Adult Swim block.

The series — a cross between Powerpuff Girls and Josie and the Pussycats — is imbued with the playful spirit of The Monkees or The Partridge Family. It follows the antics of peppy, poppy, pink-haired Ami, prickly, punky, purple-haired Yumi, and their semi-bumbling manager, Kaz, as they travel the globe in a colorful tour bus, evading obsessed fans, learning ninja skills, fighting bulls and alien abductions, hallucinating from bad sushi, and, of course, rocking many a house. When it debuted, in November of 2004, Hi Hi Puffy AmiYumi earned the highest rating for a series premiere in the Cartoon Network’s history. Nine months later, according to Register, viewership remained strong for its target audience of six-to-11-year-olds and was even attracting older fans who usually tune in to the channel only for Adult Swim. The Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade in New York last year featured balloon blow-ups of the Puffy girls and the girls themselves performing one of their songs. Gameboy has since released a Hi Hi Puffy AmiYumi: Kaznapped game, and more sophisticated games for Nintendo and Playstation 2 are due later this year.

Last summer, meanwhile, 5500 miles away, two Japanese women in their early 30s, Ami Onuki and Yumi Yoshimura, were about to set out on small theater tour of the US to promote Hi Hi Puffy AmiYumi: Music from the Animated Series (Sony) in front of audiences that would surely be dwarfed by the numbers the cartoon draws in. (The Somerville Theatre was one stop on that tour last August.) With the help of a translator (neither woman speaks English), the two did their best to put in perspective the impact the cartoon had had on their career. Their pre-cartoon forays into the US were nightclub gigs attended mainly by the same indie-rock audience kitschy Japanese pop bands like Shonen Knife have drawn. Slowly, that had begun to change.

"We heard that the cartoon is popular among the younger kids, so we made the venues all-ages, and as expected, there were a lot of younger kids there," Ami said of the tour.

DJ Krush, the Boredoms, and Cornelius have joined Shonen Knife in finding indie success in the US. But the combined buzz generated by the cartoon, the concerts, the toys, and the albums (Hi Hi amounts to a greatest-hits comp created for the show) has positioned Puffy AmiYumi to make the biggest Japanese impact on mainstream America since Kyu Sakamoto’s "Sukiyaki" topped the charts in 1963. Yet they have a long way to go before they catch up with the mania they’ve inspired at home.

Ami and Yumi came together via a nationwide record-industry talent search in 1995, a beginning that echoes the genesis of the Spice Girls and countless other pre-fab acts. Guided by songwriter/producer svengalis Tamio Okuda and Andy Sturmer of the early-’90s California power-pop band Jellyfish, Puffy, who in the States had to tack on the AmiYumi at the behest of a certain hip-hop mogul who doesn’t even use the name anymore, scored huge throughout Southeast Asia with their 1996 debut single, "Asia No Junshin." Millions of units were moved and massive stadium gigs followed, as did a weekly variety show and shelves full of every kind of Puffy-related merchandise imaginable.

"It was insane," recalls Tokyo-bred 29-year-old Noriko Kaji, bassist for the Seattle punk trio Amazombies, who was living in Japan when the Puffy craze first hit. "It was like a whole cultural revolution. Everybody from little five-year-olds to 80-year-old ladies was humming their songs. And punk-rocker girls wanted to wear anything that Puffy wore. In Japan, Puffy are a pop group that punk-rockers are allowed to like. Their very rock- and punk-influenced songs were a new thing in the J-pop world, so they were pioneers in that sense."

As a playful career overview, the Hi Hi Puffy AmiYumi soundtrack makes the duo’s appeal obvious. The singing (mostly in Japanese, with a few tracks in English) is full of classic Shibuya-kei cute-pop energy: their bright voices combine to create an explosive Pop-Rocks-and-Coke sugar rush. The impeccably crafted melodies and arrangements conspicuously and unabashedly borrow from four decades of rock and pop history. "Friends Forever" is built on Ramones-style downstroke crunch. "Sunrise" adds some zippy synths to a driving Cars-meet-Cheap-Trick confection. "Forever" is a pure ’60s girl group homage with its Phil Spector wall of sound production; "V-A-C-A-T-I-O-N" explores bubbly, Esquivellian lounge pop replete with piano tinkles and violin plucks. Some swipes are so straight they might as well be samples: the Hi Hi Puffy AmiYumi theme borrows its keyboard line from Toni Basil’s "Mickey," "That’s the Way It Is" nicks some of Pete Townshend’s six-stringery from "Won’t Get Fooled Again," and a chuckle-inducing cover of Jellyfish’s "Joining a Fan Club" incorporates the staccato-guitar riff from No Doubt’s "Just a Girl."

"I’ll quote Andy Sturmer — it’s a petri dish of pop," Register laughed. "They’re pulling pop music from a lot of different places. There’s a lot of stuff that just sounds like you’ve heard it, that you know it, yet it’s different and fresh because it’s from Japan and it’s being bounced back to us through that filter."

Register’s first Puffy AmiYumi encounter was in 1999: he caught one of their videos on cable while living in NYC. A couple of years later, he recalls hearing a piece on Puffy on NPR while driving to work at the Cartoon Network in LA. That’s when he decided to ask the group to do the theme for a new show he was developing called Teen Titans. The success of that show led him to offer the duo a show of their own. For Puffy, it was an opportunity to make inroads into the US and other parts of the world where they were merely a small cult act.

"They were like, ‘Cartoon in America? Okay. We’ve done everything else, why not?’ Ami and Yumi are comfortable with what they are, and I think they’re just having fun with it. It’s sort of like if Harrison Ford does a Schlitz ad in Japan — he knows that people in the US aren’t really gonna see it. For Ami and Yumi it’s like, ‘Well, we’re still Puffy and we still have our Japanese thing: this is just something for the rest of the world.’ They realize that their animated counterparts are them and at the same time absolutely not them."

As Ami explained, "The cartoon presents a certain image of us, but I think that the differences [between the characters and us] will be figured out."

Ami and Yumi see the show as a means to an end; they want to be taken seriously as performers. "I like recording, performing, recording again, performing again — I love the cycle," Yumi said. And Register is optimistic. "I want them to be a band long after the animation has run its course. And I think they will. Above everything, they’re still a rock-and-roll band." And they also play one on TV.

Hi Hi Puffy AmiYumi airs in three-episode blocks January 12, 17, and 18 at 9 pm and January 14 and 15 at 7:30pm


Issue Date: January 13 - 19, 2006
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