Pop toons

By MICHAEL ALAN GOLDBERG  |  January 13, 2006

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.

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