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Japanimation Goes Pop in Cartoon Series

10/31/2004 7:00 PM Eastern

Los Angeles— Cartoon Network is feeding the younger demographic hunger for all things Japanese by adding even more Japanese-inspired programming to its already anime-rich lineup.

The latest phenomenon to cross the Pacific: the girl rock duo Ami Onuki and Yumi Yoshimura, known collectively as Puffy AmiYumi.

A household name in Japan with a cult following Stateside, the duo is the focus of Cartoon Network’s first-ever animated series based on real people, Hi Hi Puffy AmiYumi. It’s a show senior vice president of original animation Sam Register describes as “Hello Kitty meets Led Zeppelin, with a little Monkees thrown in.”

SWISH PARTY

The network helped launch the series at a VIP reception held at Hollywood’s tony Sky Bar on Oct. 10, followed by a sold-out House of Blues performance by the real live “Puffy,” as they’ve been known in Japan for years. (Although — shhhh! — don’t say that too loudly here. Sean “Puff Daddy” Combs sued, so we’re supposed to use the full American appellation: Puffy AmiYumi.)

Concert-goers from as far away as Santa Barbara and San Diego crowded onto Sunset Boulevard several hours before doors opened at the House of Blues. Luckless fans prowled the lines looking for tickets but no one was selling.

Never-say-die boomer fathers — also avid watchers of The Powerpuff Girls, they claimed — accompanied their teenage daughters. In fact, one-third of Powerpuff viewers are adults.) But it was the under 30-something young men who aggressively headed the pack, in hopes of snagging those primo stage-front positions.

Register is quick to point out that his target audience for the animated series isn’t the older crowd. He’s aiming for 7- and 8-year-olds.

But he hopes the “halo effect” — the infectious Japanese pop soundtrack, real Puffy AmiYumi concert footage intercut with animation, and witty rock references — will attract a broad demographic.

RETRO CHIC

The series is jam-packed with retro motifs — geometric stars and shapes reminiscent of The Jetsons, and big, bright hippie flowers — all set to original music, most of it recently written by Andy Sturmer, formerly with the band Jellyfish.

Hi Hi Puffy AmiYumi is produced by Glendale, California-based Renegade Animation.

“They have a real feel for that [retro] style,” said Register. “Hi Hi Puffy AmiYumi doesn’t look anything like anime. It’s influenced by UPA [the studio famous for Mr. Magoo]. I call this production UPAsian.”

GLOBAL APPEAL

Like any animation, it can appeal on multiple levels.

“We’re a global kids’ company now,” Register points out. “Markets might work where you don’t think they would. Latin America Cartoon Network is excited about Hi Hi Puffy AmiYumi because there’s such a large Japanese population in Latin America.”

Hi Hi definitely mixes it up. One episode plays on Latin/Spanish themes by featuring a bull and matador. Boomers will pick up on Sturmer’s musical references to Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass.

In another episode, animators tossed in a music video that hints of Speed Racer.

It’s all meant to be a “happy fun rock band cartoon explosion,” according to the official T-shirts.

The Sky Bar kickoff reception cued the same theme. It comes from the Japanese culture of “Kawaii” — think cute, playful designs and delicious colors. A cherry pink and lime green Puffy logo projection floated on the soft ripples of the Sky Bar pool. (Register assumed art director duties for the logo design.)

The crowd — Sony and Time Warner executives and their fleet of publicists — sprawled on chaise lounges while waiters supplied drinks and Asian-fusion hors d’oeuvres.

Dancers clad in bright Puffy mini dresses and white go-go boots bounced to disco tunes. The event planner, MJ Coveny, said she lifted designs from Cartoon Network’s stylebook, asked Kinko’s to print long canvas banners, then delivered the fabric to her seamstress who whipped up the Jackie O/kawaii style shifts worn by the dancers.

But soon the go-go dancers waved orange runway wands overhead and Pied Pipered the VIPs from their Sky Bar aerie to the adjacent House of Blues grotto, where the 16-to-30-year-old crowd dominated.

THEY ROCK OUT

When Puffy AmiYumi took to the stage it was obvious why.

Think Kill Bill’s Gogo Yubari: lethally artistic beneath a schoolgirl demeanor, a band that gleefully borrows a few riffs from The Who’s Won’t Get Fooled Again and Johnny Rivers’s Secret Agent Man and reshapes the music into Japanese pop.

Fans pumped fists in the air and screamed, “Nihon ichiban!” (Japan is No. 1!). When Puffy belted out the title song to Cartoon’s Teen Titans, everyone knew the lyrics and sang along.

From the center of the floor, an enthusiastic cluster of African-American guys pogo-ed high above the crowd like Masai tribesmen.

A young man aptly named Pierce — with blond, ponytailed hair that made me wish I’d asked for his hairdresser’s phone number — wore a Japanese antiwar T-shirt and said he usually listened to “punk and ska” but was “really a xenophile” (into anything foreign, he explained).

They’re urban, they’re relentlessly now and apparently they’re watching Cartoon Network.

“Our competitors are about kids and family,” Register said. “We’re more than that. We’re now funneling cool.”

Five years ago, Sam Register wasn’t looking to ride the cutting edge of the J-Pop wave. In 1999, he stumbled upon a Puffy AmiYumi music video while watching a Japanese cable channel and was instantly smitten. But he couldn’t read the titles, written in Japanese characters, running across the bottom of the television screen.

Three years later, while driving in Los Angeles, he finally heard the duo again while listening to NPR and recognized the music immediately.

“I couldn’t believe it,” he recalled during an interview a few days after the party, in his wood-paneled, stainless-steel Burbank offices, where incoming visitors are invited to wait at the lobby’s coffee bar and jawbreakers are dispensed from a rocket-shaped bubble gum machine.

Register tracked the duo down at Sony, and the rest, as they say, is Hollywood history.

Register says the language barrier has kept J-Pop out of the American market, but it’s influential throughout Asia and he believes “J-Pop is the next big thing.”

Cartoon has three J-Pop series in various stages of development although Register declined to provide details. But he’s on the lookout for more material: He flies to Tokyo about once a month.

REGISTER’S SHOPPING

“Japanese girls have a lot of buying power and a great fashion sense. The cool factor is very high,” observed Register.

To tap the latest trends, he swings through Shibuya, the hip teen district, and he always stops by 109 Junior, the huge department store dedicated to girls aged 6 to 11.

But as Cartoon expands its global network, Register is also internationalizing his own horizons and already, he’s set his sights beyond Japanese shores. In the next year, he’ll be globetrotting, probably to Shanghai and India — “not just to cherry-pick,” he insisted.

“Now I’m mining,” said Register. “There’s a lot going on in India production-wise. I’m looking for unique concepts and characters I haven’t seen before. Let’s put that material through an American filter and see what comes out.”

Cartoon recently launched a new network in India called Pogo, and Register said he has a new Indian-inspired series in the pipeline.

Pressed, he would disclose only that it’s a “mixed-media production.” At the heart of everything he does he said, “is hunting. I’m a global cool hunter, always searching for cool.”

Hi Hi Puffy AmiYumi debuts Friday, Nov. 19, at 7:30 p.m.

 

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