Which came first: Puffy AmiYumi the J-Pop duo? Or Puffy AmiYumi the manic cartoon characters who quibble and reconcile and surf and rock around the world?
It's a super-cute chicken-and-egg question that can be answered differently depending on whether you live in Japan or the United States.
With its catchy blend of bubble gum/surfer/punk-lite rock, the singing duo of Ami Onuki and Yumi Yoshimura has held the attention of Japan's trend-driven pop fans from their first recording, True Asia, in 1996.
Since their television debut in November, Puffy AmiYumi - the animated characters - have captivated the Saturday morning cartoon crowd in the Unites States. Meanwhile, their human counterparts have never made it big here beyond the niche of fans obsessed with all things anime.
Now, the duo hopes to parlay the popularity of their cartoon show, Hi Hi Puffy AmiYumi, into greater recognition of their infectious pop rock. Tonight, they will try to expand the fan base for their live show in a stop on their national concert tour at the 9:30 Club in Washington. (On Friday, they were in Baltimore for an appearance at Otakon, the city's annual anime convention.)
For seven years, Archie Meguro, general manager of Sony Music Japan, has tried to break through the sound barrier that has kept Puffy AmiYumi and other J-Pop groups from achieving widespread acclaim in the United States.
"I kind of consider it kind of a pioneering job for people to get to know some of our artists," says Meguro, who is based in New York.
Tokyo stylists have absorbed "every type of music from around the world" and have reinterpreted it with a "Japanese twist," Meguro says. The result is music that should sound familiar, yet intriguingly original, to American ears, he says.
By his reckoning, that should make the music of Puffy AmiYumi and other Japanese groups an easy sell, Meguro says. One reviewer described a Puffy AmiYumi concert as "a survey course on the history of American pop, translated into Japanese."
So far, though, it hasn't been an easy sell.
"Initially, we kind of tried to take Japanese music through the front door, on the radio, which really didn't work out that well for a lot of other artists," Meguro says. He came to realize that just because a group is "big in Japan, that doesn't do anything for anybody [in the U.S.]."
So Meguro tried the "back door" approach, positioning Puffy AmiYumi and several other Japanese groups as "indie" rock artists at the 2000 South by Southwest music confab in Austin.
"We just did this whole indie rock campaign, distributing free samplers of various Japanese artists at college campuses and at college radio stations," Meguro says.
It took a year or two, but somebody - a key somebody - noticed. After catching snippets of Puffy AmiYumi's "Boogie Woogie No. 5" on a music video and on NPR, Cartoon Network vice president Sam Register, charmed by what he heard, connected with Sony Japan.
Puffy AmiYumi ("AmiYumi" was added to the band's name in the United States to avoid confusion - and litigation - with Sean "Puffy" Combs) signed on to record the theme song for the Teen Titans cartoon series on the Cartoon Network. That boisterous concoction led Register to create the series Hi Hi Puffy AmiYumi for a U.S. audience. The show has been renewed for a third season.
Now, Meguro hopes that the animated rock queens will prompt audiences to turn out for the real thing. So does Onuki, who responded through an e-mail query translated into Japanese.
By seeing Puffy AmiYumi in the flesh, audiences will discover "that Ami and Yumi actually exist!" she says. "We're not the same as the anime characters. I hope that the audience sees us perform live and likes our music."
Yoshimura, whose edgy cartoon persona plays the foil to Onuki's sweet temperament, is a bit less concerned with making it in the flesh.
"Since we're not based in the U.S., nor can we spend much time working in the U.S., I understand that some people know us only from the cartoon show," she says. "Whatever the trigger is, I'm happy when people are interested in our music."
Naturally, the promotional push won't stop with cartoons and concerts. This fall, an ambitious marketing campaign will put Puffy AmiYumi's name on a slew of products, including eyewear, footwear, bedding, plush toys, dolls and intimate apparel. The duo also has released four CDs in this country.
Puffy AmiYumi, of course, is more than Ami and Yumi. They've stayed on top of their game with a supporting cast including writer and producer Andy Sturmer, former member of the group Jellyfish. Tamio Okuda, a Japanese rock musician and producer, also has contributed his pop chops to the Puffy AmiYumi package. As Meguro sees it, the duo, who often write their own lyrics but play no instruments, offers a return to "straight-ahead music" that is otherwise hard to come by these days with regular American music.
"It's kind of refreshing in a way," he says.
So there it is, playpen rock for baby headbangers and their parents: as inoffensive as the Cowsills, as hyper as Green Day. In short, the ideal crossover band.
What: Puffy AmiYumi in concert
Where: 9:30 Club, 815 V St. NW, Washington
When: 8 p.m. today (doors open at 6 p.m.)
Call: 202-265-0930, or go online to www.930.com.