”Well, we try to convey that we really do exist,” explains Ami Onuki, in Japanese, while steadfastly not singing karaoke in the same sixth-floor karaoke booth, in the same eight-story Tokyo karaoke complex that Bill Murray and Scarlett Johansson made famous in Lost in Translation. She looks out of the window into the glare of many, many neon signs and asks, ”Why are we here again?”
Where to begin? Nine years ago, a Japanese management company paired Ami with another aspiring singer, Yumi Yoshimura, now also not singing karaoke in the booth from Lost in Translation. The pop duo Puffy AmiYumi was born. They would sell more than 5 million albums in Japan and occupy a role in the land of the rising sun akin to that of Britney Spears in the U.S. They were teen J-pop sensations, even though they weren’t teens (both are now in their early 30s). They hosted a prime-time variety show, Pa Pa Pa Puffy. It was fun. But time passed, as time does, and eventually it seemed Japan was ready to move on. And so, it seemed as if most of us in America would live and die without ever having heard of Puffy AmiYumi.
Enter National Public Radio. Rather, enter Sam Register, an executive at Cartoon Network who often listens to NPR while driving in Los Angeles. One day he hears Puffy AmiYumi. Their music is nothing if not. . .animated (think: the Chipmunks meets the Go-Go’s). Register decides America will love Puffy AmiYumi, not so much as a pop group but as the stars of a Cartoon Network series, Hi Hi Puffy AmiYumi, that chronicles the wild adventures of two Japanese pop stars, Ami and Yumi, and their often exasperated manager, Kaz.
He is right. Hi Hi Puffy AmiYumi debuted last November and quickly became a hit. Seasons 2 and 3 were soon greenlit, and new episodes will air this month. Puffy products — clothing, bags, hats, jewelry, and bedding, among others — will arrive in stores later this summer.
”It is very strange for us,” says Yoshimura, between sips of green tea. ”When we heard they wanted to make a show in America we were like. . .it will never actually happen.”
In the show, Ami is the peppy, positive, and resourceful one, Yumi the hard-rocking cynic. ”And that is kind of true about us,” says Onuki. ”But, well, it is a cartoon,” a fact that some U.S. fans can’t quite get over, hence the need to convey their existence. ”People in America only know us as cartoon characters,” she says. ”Sometimes they don’t believe we are real people, even when we are standing right in front of them.”
Puffy toured the States as a band for the first time back in 2002. ”We’d heard that American audiences are very. . .straightforward,” says Yoshimura. ”In Texas, we played at a bar, which you don’t really do in Japan, and we were afraid they would get drunk and throw things.”
But America has grown on them, from the Red Hot Chili Peppers to reruns of Sex and the City. Though they say nothing tops ”going to big American supermarkets at night.” Yoshimura: ”That is the most fun of all, because they’re so big and have everything you can think of in them — sometimes candy right next to the medicine!” In August, they’ll have a chance to sample more of this country’s wonders as they tour the East Coast.