From the thrashing opening chords of NICE., Puffy AmiYumi jet-propel you straight to the heart of Planet Tokyo. As they sing on the track of the same name, it's not a geographical location, but a state of mind: "Planet Tokyo/It's a place not very far/In your stereo/It's as close as where you are." It's a mirror-ball-shaped world with no musical borders, where you can find dancefloor-friendly, all-ages-welcome, nonstop fun.
NICE. is the first Puffy AmiYumi album produced in its entirety by long-time collaborator and pal Andy Sturmer, who recorded it with singers Ami Onuki and Yumi Yoshimura in Los Angeles and Tokyo. The U.S.-based producer, former Jellyfish drummer and overall power-pop whiz had worked with Puffy AmiYumi on many previous tracks, most notably their first foray into English-language material, "Love So Pure," the giddily romantic lead-off cut from their 2002 Bar/None album, An Illustrated History.
There's definitely more English on NICE., but language has never really been a problem for the duo and their fans. As a writer for Amplifier put it last year, "Puffy AmiYumi proves that sheer fun transcends the language barrier." Just listen to "Tokyo Nights," which features Ami and Yumi quick-cutting between their native tongue and the western words they're still earnestly studying. The rapid-fire patter reflects an instrumental arrangement that morphs from Buggles-period new wave to Bee Gees-era disco, with a few seventies arena rock flourishes thrown in for good measure - all in about three minutes. You not sure if you should be thrusting your arms in the air Travolta-style or waving a cigarette lighter at your CD player. What the hell-just do both. With songs as freewheeling as these, anything goes.
Perhaps the most significant east-meets-west moment on NICE. is "Teen Titans Theme," an English-language track written for the forthcoming new Cartoon Network series, Teen Titans, based on the famous eighties-era, D.C. Comics superheroes. Ami and Yumi already have a large following among U.S. fans of Japanese anime and manga; in fact, they launched their 2002 North American tour with an appearance at the Los Angeles Anime Expo. Here they lend their voices to an eagerly awaited show that features characters created by the most venerable of American comic companies. The track itself is a hand-clapping, fist-pumping, shout-along instant classic that somehow manages to blend the spy-movie cool of Johnny Rivers' "Secret Agent Man" with the adolescent excitement of the Bay City Rollers' "Saturday Night."
The rest of NICE. is, well, just as nice. It's a delirious and delicious blend of killer hooks, playful punk, funky disco breaks, new wave-style electronics, day-glo pyschedelica and even some jangly 12-string guitar. On the brilliant "Sayonara," Puffy AmiYumi do the Byrds better than Tom Petty, and give it a terrific back beat that will coax you out of your seat to get your imitation leather fringe shaking. Puffy AmiYumi's original mentor, Tamio Okuda, who masterminded several of their Japanese hits, joins in the fun as co-writer on the bouncy ska of "K2G." With Andy and Tamio, Puffy AmiYumi have, over the years, devised many clever musical homages to all sorts of artists they love. For the North American version of NICE., they take that one step further with special cover art designed to be a timely - and tender - tribute to John Lennon and Yoko Ono's famous Bed-In For Peace. And Ami and Yumi respectfully made sure that Yoko herself got the first look.
Ever since topping the charts in the mid-nineties with their debut single, "Asia No Junshin (True Asia),"Ami and Yumi Yoshimura haven't been your average J-pop superstars. Their tee shirts-and-jeans style suited indie rock fanzines as much as teen mags and their genre-busting musical approach displayed such intelligence, wit and sheer exuberance that their material was ensured a life long past its time on the Asian charts. As personalities, Ami and Yumi were not merely manufactured icons. Although they were originally introduced to each other by a management company, they immediately hit it off more as friends than potential collaborators; their rapport lends all their work, live and on record, an easy-going, natural quality.
Ami and Yumi arrived in America, charm intact, during the summer of 2002 for a whirlwind, sold-out, debut tour of the U.S. and Canada that left a trail of new fans and dazzled critics in their wake. They won kudos from the L.A. Times, the Chicago Tribune, the New York Times, Time Out and even the New Yorker, just to name a few. A 15-minute glimpse of their live show and their bus journey across the U.S. is featured on this edition of NICE. as an exclusive video extra. As Village Voice critic Amy Phillips described the show, "They exhibited not a hint of diva behavior, as no costume changes, choreography or stage decoration cluttered the hour and 45 minute set. They just smiled, bounced around, and threw up devil-horn hand signs. Moving to Japan seems like a really good idea right about now."
Forget about saving up for the air-fare or subletting the apartment. Planet Tokyo is as close as your nearest CD player. Just put on the transporting sounds of NICE. and you can go, go, go any time you want.
- Michael Hill
Update: As J-pop, anime, DC comics, manga and cartoon fans already know, Puffy AmiYumi perform the theme song for Teen Titans, the long-awaited new Cartoon Network series that premiered on July 19 and will be shown every Saturday at 9:00 p.m. "Teen Titans Theme" is a shout-along instant classic that somehow manages to blend the spy-movie cool of Johnny Rivers' "Secret Agent Man" with the adolescent excitement of the Ramones' "Blitzkreig Bop." You can listen to a snippet of it right now at: http://www.CartoonNetwork.com/titans/index.html
Another NICE. Idea: You can now take Ami and Yumi home with you - at least in the form of those ultra-cute and highly-collectible plastic, pose-able figures called SMITIS. Ami and Yumi have had the honor being immortalized alongside the Osbournes and KISS by this maker of hip, grown-up toys that have attracted collectors from around the world. Go to www.smitis.com/news.asp for more info, store locations and online ordering.
An Illustrated History
Japanese duo Puffy AmiYumi are more than just a chart topping group: much, much more. They are, quite simply, a cultural phenomenon.
Puffy AmiYumi's versatility and ability to continually surprise have given them a career longer than the average American pop idol or Japanese idoru, as they're called over there, and has allowed them to truly have a history, not just a catalogue. And that may have even surprised the members of Puffy AmiYumi themselves, who were strangers until the two were brought together by a record label and a management company.
In 1995, Tokyo-bred Ami Onuki and Osaka native Yumi Yoshimura had each learned about talent searches underway in Tokyo and decided to see how they might fare at them. Ami put together a demo for Sony, which had advertised for singers, and Yumi auditioned for a management company that was checking out a variety of performers, actors as well as musicians. After Ami sent her tape to the label, she was skeptical that anything would happen: "I just wanted to look at the rejection letter to see what they would put in the note to say sorry" she told a U.S. reporter. It turned out, however, that Ami, after being paired with Yumi, was just what they were looking for. Ami and Yumi meshed uncannily well as vocalists and they had a rapport that went beyond the merely professional: you could easily mistake the duo for siblings a la the Roches or Cowsills because of the way their voices blend. Performing in unison, they create a single, immediately identifiable sound that is very much their own.
Puffy AmiYumi's 1996 debut single, "Asia No Junshin" was a million-selling smash in Japan and launched mania for the duo there. Ami's and Yumi's predilection for well-worn tee-shirts and artfully ripped jeans became a much-copied style, and they were likely to be mobbed by fans if they set foot on Tokyo streets. Since then, they have sold millions of records in Japan alone, hosted a television variety show (Pa-Pa-Pa-Pa-Puffy), headlined arena-sized concerts, and inspired action-figure dolls and even a line of shoes. All of their singles has been licensed for high-profile commercials for such products as motor scooters, cosmetics, computers, and soft drinks. It might all seem crass if the music didn't tell a different even subversive, story about alternative culture meeting the mainest of the mainstream. As L.A. Weekly critic Jay Babcock put it, "Puffy AmiYumi is a contemporary female version of the Monkees with the popularity of 'N Sync and the homage/theft approach of '90s pop-recombinant cult heroes the Pooh Sticks"
One generally doesn't find 'N Sync and the Pooh Sticks mentioned in the same sentence, but that's the way it is in the no-rules world of Puffy AmiYumi. When they released their first stateside LP, Spike, American critics madly rummaged through their catalogue of comparisons, likening the duo to everyone from ABBA and ELO to the Cardigans and Stereolab. As you will soon discover, there is no sell-by date stamped on their material. In the world of Puffy AmiYumi, anything is possible: no style is taboo, no era goes unexplored, and no combination is too out there. All the sounds they love co-exist harmoniously in one inviting place. With a sound that appeals to young and old alike, Puffy AmiYumi are poised to achieve a level of stardom that no Japanese group has yet to reach.