WASHINGTON – The growing “J-pop” typhoon made landfall in Washington recently, sweeping up men and women, boys and girls, punk rockers and school girls with equal abandon.
On stage at Washington’s legendary 9:30 Club, a banner told the audience all that they needed to know, “Hi Hi Puffy AmiYumi, Rock Show from Tokyo Japan.”
As Puffy AmiYumi started singing, a tall and muscular 30-year-old man sporting tattoos and a mohawk pumped his fist and sang along with all the words. The balcony was lined with parents, young children and teenagers. Fans of all ages packed the club.
Singers Ami Onuki and Yumi Yoshimura, who inspired the hit American cartoon show “Hi Hi Puffy AmiYumi,” bantered between songs like any self-respecting rock stars would do, but also relied on crib sheets.
“Are there any Japanese in the audience,” they asked to cheers from the Japanese fans. “Could you please translate what we say?”
The crowd saved most of its energy for a rendition of the theme song to the American cartoon show “Teen Titans.” As the band raised their arms to spell out T-E-E-N T-I-T-A-N-S, the audience yelled it out, “Teen Titans, yeah!”
In the front row an American girl about 13 years old sang along in a Japanese school girl’s uniform. On the balcony, a 12-year-old fan, who is a drummer when not watching the “Hi Hi Puffy AmiYumi” show, jumped up and down with such enthusiasm his mother pulled him back from the railing.
After the song, Puffy continued chatting.
“The ‘Hi Hi Puffy AmiYumi’ show doesn’t play in Japan. So we don’t know if it’s funny,” they said to laughter. “Is it?”
The audience went crazy.
“YEAH!” they screamed.
Puffy AmiYumi, known in Japan as simply Puffy, has been around since 1996 and has sold millions of albums in Japan. Until now, the music of singers Yoshimura and Onuki has gotten very little attention in the United States. But thanks to their animated alter egos on U.S. cable television, they are making new fans every day.
The crowd at the 9:30 Club numbered only a few hundred people, but that did not reflect the growing number of viewers and the effort Puffy AmiYumi, the American Cartoon Network and Sony Music International are putting into promoting the young crooners.
Since the “Hi Hi Puffy AmiYumi” show, created by an American producer at the Cartoon Network who heard their music on the radio, debuted last December, it has proved very popular, especially with young girls. It is currently the top-rated show for 2- to 11-year-old girls on the Cartoon Network.
And according to Sony Music Japan’s Archie Meguro, this upcoming Christmas shopping season will see a Hi Hi Puffy AmiYumi marketing blitz in several of America’s largest stores.
“You will be going to your local Wal-Mart or Kmart and you will start seeing Hi Hi Puffy AmiYumi dolls, shoes, bicycles, watches. Everything will be Hi Hi Puffy AmiYumi 2006,” Meguro said.
“But it all comes back, these marketing initiatives, it all comes back to Puffy AmiYumi and their music. And these are all vehicles to make people thoughtful of their music,” he said.
But what does this offensive into the North American market mean to the artists themselves? In an interview with Kyodo News the day after they played their Washington concert, Onuki and Yoshimura answered that question in gravelly voices that revealed how much energy they put into their performance.
“We don’t do this all for the cultural bridge,” Yoshimura said. “We don’t think about the aspect of Japan and the United States. We just do this for fun.”
Whether or not Puffy AmiYumi’s motivation is to act as a cultural bridge, they are certainly becoming just that, and the Japanese government is supporting them all the way. A day after their concert, Japanese Ambassador Ryozo Kato held a reception in their honor at his residence.
Kato, speaking to television cameras and guests, was unrestrained about Puffy’s influence in the United States.
“They get such attention here in the United States that my colleagues suggest that I should change my name to Puffy Kato so more people will come to hear my speeches,” he said.
Indeed, Japanese animation and American imitation of it is big business in the United States these days. The Cartoon Network’s program lineup is made up almost exclusively of Japanese cartoons, “anime,” or American stylistic imitations.
Royalties and merchandising for Japanese animation in the U.S. are worth $4.35 billion, three times that of Japan’s steel exports to the country, Kato said.
While anime has made inroads into the American psyche, Japanese pop music has had a much harder time. Whether because of the language barrier or simple cost, J-pop is mostly absent from CD racks at American record stores. Fans in the United States are forced to get their J-pop fix through online stores such as jpopexpress.com
But anime’s popularity may allow Puffy AmiYumi to use animation to bring their music to a new audience. Aside from their popular TV show, Puffy AmiYumi appeared at the 2005 Otakon anime convention in Baltimore this year.
And despite the fact that Puffy AmiYumi CD sales have not caught fire, Sony’s Meguro is hopeful Puffy’s success can transition from anime to pop music.
“The Hi Hi Puffy AmiYumi storm is here, and is here to stay,” he said.
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