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Cartoon girls learn to be Japan’s latest pop envoys

On television around the world and even toasted by the Japanese embassy in Washington, Yumi Yoshimura and Ami Onuki, the two 30-something women who form the duo “Puffy,” are learning the unlikely role of J-pop ambassadors.

After singing bubble-gum numbers in Japan for the past decade, Puffy have suddenly succeeded where few Japanese pop artists have before — finding a fan base overseas — after the fateful decision to turn them into a cartoon.

Later this month, the two singers are scheduled to become the first Japanese artists to perform during the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade in New York.

Yoshimura said the two women didn’t know entirely what to make of their small but growing popularity in the United States, where they are known as “Puffy AmiYumi” and sing high-pitch, accented English over their sugary tunes.

“I don’t think we are clearing a path for other J-pop artists to follow, and we aren’t trying to do that,” Yoshimura said in a recent press conference for foreign journalists to showcase their new-found celebrity in North America.

“We just think it would be great if many people listened to what we enjoy doing and see our performances. We want people to also listen to other Japanese artists’ music too,” said the 30-year-old singer.

“In the US people come to see us because they don’t know us and they’re curious to see what type of performance we put on. Americans are good at keeping a beat,” she said.

Puffy’s happy-go-lucky J-pop made a spellbinding debut in 1996. With their initial boom declining, they got an international break last year when the Cartoon Network in the United States turned them into the show “Hi Hi Puffy AmiYumi.”

The cartoon narrates the adventures of the perky and clever Ami and the studiously cool Yumi as they take their “Puffy bus” on tour. The show, produced by the Cartoon Network of the United States, has been a particular hit with pre-teen American girls.

The show is now shown in more than 110 countries, including from last month in Japan.

Amid rising worldwide interest in Japanese pop culture, particularly animation, Puffy have toured a dozen US and Canadian cities and lent their voices to an American genre-mate, Cyndi Lauper, on a new rendition of her feel-good classic Girls Just Wanna Have Fun.

The pop stars even appeared at an official party hosted by the Japanese ambassador in Washington to promote Japanese culture.

Onuki (32) showed a measured cool when asked about the sudden attention.

“We can only hope the characters in the show will go on to glory so that we will be able to bask in their reflective light,” Onuki said.

Even though the cartoon is fictional, the duo said they have also had some real-life adventures taking to the road in North America as they experience the differences between East and West.

While travelling near Philadelphia at around 3am, the duo saw a group of people dancing by the roadside to music blaring from a stereo system in the trunk of a car.

“You never see that in Japan,” Yoshimura said.

They shrugged off suggestions that — like Britney Spears and other pop sensations before them — they would be turned by the industry into sex symbols once they stop pulling in young audiences.

“Going sexy? We can’t get any sexier than we are now,” Yoshimura joked.

“But in all seriousness, we have not been told to go sexy. We have been fortunate to be allowed to do whatever we want as we want,” she said.

“If we were told to be sexy… I would go home,” Yoshimura said.

“We will stay with our act because people say it’s OK for us to be the way we are,” she said. – AFP

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