"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 TheMonkees 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."