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These girls just want to have fun

Cultural Quintessence

Japan In-depth

Kateigaho International Edition

These girls just want to have fun — does PUFFY AMIYUMI typify Tokyo?

Ever since it rose to sudden prominence on the Japanese pop-music scene back in 1996, PUFFY - or PUFFY AMIYUMI as the girls are known in the U.S. - has always set itself apart from other pop artists and cultural icons through a certain air of enviable effortlessness. The two seem unaffected despite their newfound popularity in America through the Hi Hi PUFFY AMIYUMI animated show that's currently running on the Cartoon Network, one of the leading cable television channels.

When asked about their success, the down-to-earth response is unexpectedly modest, yet typical of them. Ami says, "I see it as a matter of coincidence, really. If Sam Register, the creator of our show, hadn't caught us on the radio like he did, it would have been someone else. We've been fortunate that way." The notion of being fortunate doesn't quite do justice to their obvious potential, which caught Register's attention on the strength of a single song played on the radio and a faint memory of a promotional video he had seen some years earlier.

Their exploration of markets outside Japan began in 1998 when the girls toured Taiwan and Hong Kong. But their sudden rise to international stardom owes most to the enormous faith the Cartoon Network has placed on their potential marketability. The show was allocated the prime programming slot of Fridays at 7:30 PM, and a large-scale advertising campaign accompanied the debut last November. The cartoon show has also been given a unique twist: At the beginning and end of each show, the real Ami and Yumi make a cameo appearance.

Yumi says, "We're not out there to desperately 'do America.' We never have much vision to speak of, really. We' never consciously think about altering our approach for the Japanese or the American market as such. We simply enjoy ourselves, and I just consider us lucky if we can be accepted and appreciated by the audiences abroad the way we are."

Next to her, Ami has been nodding away. "I don't think we need to do things that we don't want to do, because I feel confident about what we have accomplished thus far," she says.

Despite, or perhaps because of, their easygoing approach to this current craze and to their fame in general, it's possible to project many ideas about PUFFY. For instance, the "cute factor," which has ensured their popularity to transcend sex and age group, can be interpreted as a new, asexual female empowerment—skipping right past the question of sexuality, gender, and the assumption of male-dominant hegemony.

"We don't really think about those things," insists Yumi. "It is often the case that those looking in from the outside can observe and 'know' a lot more about you than you know about yourself. As far as I'm concerned, anyone who's involved is part of PUFFY. The two of us just happen to front it, but behind us there is a huge team of people and we leave it to them to think about us. And I don't really think it's right to reject suggestions before trying something, so we're always open to new ideas and new directions."

Ami immediately adds to that by saying, "PUFFY originally started out as a onealbum project, and it has never felt natural to plan ahead. What we try to do is to be our best in order to keep doing these things that we enjoy doing."

Although they remain largely indifferent to the impact they have, perhaps it is precisely this unpretentious naturalness that makes them a distinctly contemporary Japanese commodity. Just as their music is a catchy pastiche of diverse but familiar elements—ranging from '60s pop to techno, punk rock, and more—PUFFY is an iconic reinterpretation of the icons before it. And yet it emerges as a pop-rock brand with credible and fascinating originality. While the girls' success is quite extraordinary, it feels correct that Japan at last has a representative figure in American mass culture that is neither belittlingly caricatured nor self-consciously exaggerated.

Unlike their cartoon-selves, the two are not exactly bouncy young things. They have reached, in Yumi's words, "that age of respectability." But the obvious feeling of solidarity between the two of them is distinctively (and somewhat startlingly) girly in its extreme closeness. "Going through things together does help a lot," Ami says. "And it's genuinely fun to be in each other's company." By this point, it's almost unnecessary for me to look toward Yumi to see that she concurs.

So will the cartoon series see them conquering even more new lands? "I think that's the plan..." answers Ami. "We have been hearing things here and there..."

I don't think I could possibly have written a more fitting line on which to end our interview with this dynamic duo.

interview by Seiji Yamagiwa

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