Since most of us have never been to Japan and might not ever get the chance, we often build our perception of the country from what is available to us anime, the Pokédex, moody cinematic pastiche (from Lost in Translation to the production design of Blade Runner), manga, Hello Kitty, high-tech gadgetry and game shows ratcheted to full-tilt absurdity. It's an imperfect point of view, and represents, in part, what some might wish our already celeb-addled, reality-skewed culture looked like. But it's a fun one too, looking out over a part-fantasy landscape of light-emitting diodes that spell out F-U-N in letters you can see from outer space.
Puffy AmiYumi inhabits that landscape. Ami Onuki and Yumi Yoshimura are an entertainment force in their home country over the last decade they've vertically integrated themselves into nearly every musical and visual niche Japan's consumer culture has to offer. But in this country, despite a string of well-received albums, they're known mostly through their animated alter egos on the Cartoon Network romp Hi Hi Puffy AmiYumi Show. (Not satisfied with their own 'toon, Puffy AmiYumi also performed the manic theme song to the anime-styled series Teen Titans.) Ami and Yumi's existence as both real and imaginary actually bends the mind a little while the human girls tour America this summer, their animated selves light up Cartoon Network's Web site in a desktop time-killer called "World Tour." "Help the girls jump over rabid fans, dodge pushy photographers and avoid bothersome birds and bouncing tires," its tag line reads. The late-night programming only sealed the deal with their matchless style, unquestionable cuteness, and warehouses full of eBay-ready merch, Puffy AmiYumi's domestic cult status was already assured. That cult certainly showed up for Puffy's live dates in Chicago in 2002 and 2005. At both shows, Ami and Yumi stood center stage, surrounded by a lively band that re-created the duo's restless blend of shouty pop, raucous '60s surf rock and hooky Japanglish choruses. Naturally the crowds went bananas, knew every lyric (or at least yelled like they did), and sported wild costumes that mimicked the look and feel of what we sometimes think all of Japan looks like an instant Harajuku fueled by furious spontaneity. But while Puffy's music is instantly likable on its own, it's also possible that American fans respond more to the duo as representatives of what we imagine or idealize Japan to be, the neon myth of a land consumed by all things pop culture. The United States isn't there yet, and, despite the occasional perception, neither is Japan. But besides being tremendously entertaining, Puffy AmiYumi human, cartoon, or otherwise are a believable picture of what such a place might look like.Johnny Loftus is Metro Times music editor. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.