Hi Hi America!: Puffy AmiYumi are J-pop’s animated ambassadors
In the 1980s, every kid had at least one lunchbox or school supply covered with Transformers or Hello Kitty (or one of her fellow nonsensically named friends), but the young enthusiasts didn’t necessarily connect the characters with their country of origin. In the past decade, however, Japanese popular culture has gained even greater popularity among American audiences and consumers, from toys to Anime to technology. Products and entertainment that come from Japan are associated with a certain ultra-modern, esoteric quality that has a growing appeal.
Interestingly, even while little girls are begging for the Bratz Tokyo A Go-Go Sushi Lounge for Christmas, Japanese popular music has failed to go mainstream over here. But that may soon change with the rise of Puffy AmiYumi, a teenage "J-pop" duo whose franchise has tapped into the other Japanese cultural exports that already have a North American following.
Ami Onuki and Yumi Yoshimura, or “Puffy,” as they are known in Japan (adding their names for U.S. activity due to copyright issues), have been pop superstars in their home country since they were put together in 1995. In the U.S., however, they have primarily been known for performing the title song for the cartoon “Teen Titans” – a credit which, while minor, shows signs of being the perfect strategy for Japanese pop stars to break into the American mainstream.
The strongest evidence of this is that while their music is practically unknown here, Cartoon Network recently premiered a new show based on the wacky adventures of the girls’ animated incarnations, entitled “Hi Hi Puffy AmiYumi”. According to Yumi, the group was promoting their album Illustrated History on Bar None Records in the U.S. and a producer from Cartoon Network (who knew of their work on “Teen Titans”) contacted them with the idea after hearing them on the radio. The new show is animated and produced by Americans, but abounds with Japanese cultural references (including the show’s seemingly “Japanglish” title and the thick Japanese accent of the characters’ animated manager). Given the success of other American-made cartoons with Asian themes, such as “Samurai Jack” and “Jackie Chan Adventures,” “Hi Hi Puffy AmiYumi” is a perfect vehicle for introducing the girls and their music to American audiences. Strangely, however, the cartoon showcases very little of the group’s actual music—it is extremely visual and derives its energy not from musical themes, but from the havoc caused by one or more of the characters going temporarily insane.
This is curious, since Puffy AmiYumi’s music itself has potential for broad appeal. Written and produced by former Jellyfish member Andy Sturmer, Puffy’s songs cover nearly every pop genre from ska to punk to surf to country. This characteristic of their music was emphasized in the first performance of their recent U.S. tour in New York’s Webster Hall on October 8th -- I would go so far as to describe the concert as a survey course on the history of American pop, translated into Japanese (very few of the duo’s songs are in English). One song would be heavily influenced by the Beach Boys, while the next sounded straight out of Tommy by The Who. In several tunes, Sturmer’s hooks or choruses are derived almost note-for-note from existing American songs – a fact that initially turned me off until I began to appreciate it as some weird kind of genius given the cultural context. The breadth of Puffy’s music resonates not only across genres but age brackets as well. They opened the show with their first live U.S. performance of the “Teen Titans” theme, and, as Yumi says, “the response to the song was amazing. Kids and adults alike singing along and dancing.” This is not surprising, given that cartoons connected with Asian culture have a substantial adult following.
Because “Hi Hi Puffy AmiYumi” is not driven by the group’s music, and the real girls speak very little English, Ami and Yumi’s characters’ have less of their particular celebrity identity and are more like prototypes of any two young hip Japanese girls -- which could turn out to be a brilliant move in itself: tap into the general popularity of the culture and develop a stateside identity from the prototype. Truthfully, there is nothing artistically unusual about the girls themselves—they sing in unison, play no instruments, and have unremarkable stage presence— so it’s the production and marketing context that drives their appeal.
Nice, Puffy AmiYumi’s latest U.S.-release (Bar None, 2003), is a very well-produced album, with enjoyable tracks such as “Planet Tokyo” and “Your Love is a Drug.” They also have an extremely talented group of Japanese musicians in their live band. Overall, they have potential to find a place on American pop charts, if their unconventional entrée pays off. As to whether American exposure to Puffy could open doors for other J-pop artists, the girls are unconcerned: “Forget about everyone else!,” laughs Yumi, “We want people to listen to our music, come to our concerts!!” For that to happen, they’ll need to hope the cartoon is successful, and follow it up with a new U.S. release and tour. If it goes over well, they are well-placed for a lucrative cross-over career -- at least in U.S. product promotion.