Ami Onuki and Yumi Yoshimura are the stars of the Cartoon Network’s new show, an animated series based on their real lives as Puffy, one of Japan’s favorite pop groups.
Since we’ve already got a Puffy, they’ve added their names to their U.S. moniker.
Their new show on the Cartoon Network, Hi Hi Puffy Ami Yumi, debuts this coming Friday at 7:30 p.m. Eastern and Pacific, 6:30 p.m. Central time.
Here’s yesterday’s New York Times story by J.D. Considine.
- Big in Japan, but Made in the U.S.A.
Ami and Yumi, a pair of plucky young rock stars, are thrilled when their manager introduces them to a cute little girl named Harmony, who’s their No. 1 fan.
Their enthusiasm wanes, however, when they find Harmony hiding in their sock drawer.
Yumi tosses the sycophantic stalker out the window of their (moving) tour bus, but Harmony keeps turning up with predictably wacky results.
“Hi Hi Puffy Ami Yumi,” which has its debut on Friday on the Cartoon Network, is an animated series based on two real Japanese pop stars,
Ami Onuki and Yumi Yoshimura, a k a Puffy Ami Yumi.
In Japan they’re known simply as Puffy, but North America already has a Puffy.
They have been familiar faces since 1996, when “Ajia no Junshin” (“True Asia”) their debut single in imitation of the group E.L.O., sold more than a million copies.
Like most Japanese pop acts, the group is nearly unknown in the United States, which is what the new cartoon is intended to change.
For this is no Japanese import; their Japanese fans won’t even see it.
“Hi Hi Puffy Ami Yumi” is a made-in-the-U.S.A. cartoon intended to turn average American kids into fans of a Japanese pop group.
Not surprisingly, “Hi Hi Puffy Ami Yumi” is the work of a crazed fan.
Sam Register, the Cartoon Network vice president who created the show, had never heard of Puffy Ami Yumi until the summer of 2001, when he stumbled across the video for their single “Boogie Woogie No. 5″ on a cable access channel in New York.
“I waited until the end of the video, which I never do, to find out if I could see their name,” he said.
“But the credits were in Japanese, so I had no idea who they were.”
A year later Mr. Register happened to hear the song again, this time on National Public Radio.
“I heard the words Puffy Ami Yumi, and I heard the word Sony,” he said. “That’s all I needed in my quiver to go after it.”
Meanwhile, Sony Japan was trying to establish Puffy Ami Yumi in North America with relatively little success.
Although the duo had sold more than 14 million albums and had made a popular television variety show in Japan, the odds of making a big impact in the United States were small.
Apart from Pink Lady, who had a minor hit (“Kiss in the Dark”) and a famously bad television show in 1979, there hasn’t been a major American breakthrough by a Japanese pop act since Kyu Sakamoto topped the charts with “Sukiyaki” in 1963.
Mr. Register decided Puffy Ami Yumi would be different.
“A lot of Japanese music is horrible,” he said.
But where juggernauts like Ms. Hamasaki or the charmingly amateurish girl group Morning Musume tend to favor either impossibly upbeat dance tunes or overly sentimental ballads, Puffy Ami Yumi’s sound seemed more familiar than exotic.
It is firmly rooted in rock ‘n’ roll, and the producer, Tamio Okuda, wrapped the songs in arrangements that evoked rock acts from the Beatles and the Who to Rockpile and Elvis Costello.
Still, it wasn’t until Mr. Register got the duo to record a theme song for the “Teen Titans,” a semicomic cartoon series about adolescent superheroes, that Puffymania began to take hold at Cartoon Network.
“Everybody at the network started singing the ‘Teen Titans’ theme song,” he said. “That gave me the boost I needed.”
Given the success Cartoon Network has had with its Toonami block of Japanese animation from 7 to 11 on Saturday nights and the continuing success of syndicated series like “Yu-Gi-Oh!” and “Digimon,” it would be natural to expect “Hi Hi Puffy Ami Yumi” to resemble anime.
But its look is more “Ren & Stimpy” than “Ruroni Kenshin” (one of the channel’s current anime hits), with garish colors, simple character designs and a general lack of visual clutter.
Likewise, the plots tend toward the simple slapstick of American kidvid- no surprise, given the show’s intended audience, 6 to 11.
Some episodes touch on the backstage life of rock ‘n’ rollers, but more often their antics are nonmusical, as when they take a part-time “dream job” in a candy factory and end up unleashing a monstrous taffy ball that destroys the town.
Yet for all that, “Hi Hi Puffy Ami Yumi” does relatively little to Americanize the pop group.
True, the voices of the animated Ami and Yumi are by native English speakers, Janice Kawaye and Grey Delisle, but Ms. Onuki and Ms. Yoshimura also appear in each episode, doing live-action skits in a mixture of Japanese and strongly accented English.
And the songs, which are heavily featured, are left in the original Japanese without subtitles.
Thanks to several years of untranslated anime theme songs, hearing sung Japanese isn’t unprecedented on Cartoon Network, but the few words of untranslated Japanese in live action segments come as a surprise, reminding viewers that these are not American rock stars.
In a telephone interview in which an interpreter combined their answers, they said: “There was no pressure from the network in changing who we are and what we do. Sometimes we would wonder, ‘Is it O.K. if a song is only in Japanese,’ and they’d say, ‘That’s what’s good about it.’ ”
There has always been something essentially cartoony about Puffy Ami Yumi.
Beginning with the cover art for their second single, “Kore ga Watashi no Ikirumichi”” (“That’s My Way of Life”), Ms. Onuki and Ms. Yoshimura appeared frequently as cartoons designed by Rodney Alan Greenblat, a New York artist noted for the childlike whimsy of his work.
There were also short animated sequences in “Pa-Pa-Pa-Pa-Puffy,” their television show in Japan for four and a half years.
In creating the show, the Cartoon Network tried to capture the real-life relationship between the long-haired, sweetly girlish Ms. Onuki and the spiky-haired, sardonic Ms. Yoshimura.
There’s a strong sense of play in their interaction, reflected in the cartoon, with a laid-back wit that at times recalls the press conference drolleries of the Beatles (or would if the Beatles spoke Japanese).
When they are in front of the cameras, mugging their way through one of the live action introductory segments for “Hi Hi,” their timing is so flawless and their facial expressions so coordinated you would think they shared a single comic brain.
Even so, they recognize that conquering America will require significant effort.
“We’d like to learn more English and be able to communicate with people,” admitted Ms. Onuki.
Both hope their work will reduce cultural and language barriers.
“But,” Ms. Yoshimura said, “we’ll just work with what we have and enjoy what we do. That’s the philosophy of Puffy.”