Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Run! Puffy! Run! Video! And! Book! Review!

Going waaaaaaaaaay back now to Puffy's first-ever long-form video release. The year is 1996, and AmiYumi (both the girls and the album of the same name) have only just taken Japan by storm. As part of a massive media blitz, Sony released the 39 minute Run! Puffy! Run! as a marketing vehicle for the girls, obviously seeing the chemistry that had already developed between them. It marked the first-ever trip to the United States for Puffy, as they transport themselves across the country through various vehicular methods. Along the way, they experience all that this great nation has to offer for the first time, along with many of its pitfalls.

I'm going to do a little something new with this review and assign some letter grades at the end. I'm not a big believer in boiling down reviews to single scores, but other people seem to like it and I'm all about giving you guys what you want. Read on...

I actually have the laserdisc version of this release, if you can believe it. Now that's hardcore! So if the screenshots you see here aren't the best, it's because the analog video's been digitized/captured and compressed once, then re-compressed to make it smaller, then compressed again into a jpg screenshot. I'm sure the DVD looks better, and of course these days, pretty much the entire thing is available on YouTube if you just want to go and watch it.

But laserdiscs are what all the old-school cool kids play. They're the vinyl records of video.

As part of the all-out push to crown Puffy the reigning queens of all media, a companion book was released in early 1997, going by the same title but with an expanded focus. It's got a lot more detail on their trip, including bios of various people they meet, whole scenes that didn't make the cut on the video, and a huge number of great photos. It's also got a few scenes of Puffy in other countries (not just the USA) as well as a few sort of collector extras in the back of the book. I'll talk a bit more about it further down the post.

The Video
The video begins with Puffy in New York City, where they visit the Statue of Liberty, ride the NYC Subway (my "1" train!), go to the top of the Empire State Building and take the Roosevelt Island Tram - no doubt annoying a whole bunch of New Yorkers with their rowdiness in the process.

I gotta just mention that there's a shot of the World Trade Center right at the beginning of the video, and I only bring it up because it's kind of strange how things eventually always seem to come full circle. In 2006, almost exactly 10 years after this video was shot, they played live (for free) just a block away from the World Trade Center as part of the River to River Festival, which was set up to help bring people back to lower Manhattan after 9/11/01. I'm sure when they made this video, they'd never in their wildest dreams have thought they'd be playing live there at all (and attracting huge crowds!)... much less for that reason.

While in New York, they also visit the home and office of Rodney Alan Greenblat, the talented US-based artist who used to paint all of their album, video and CD single covers and who's responsible for all the iconic little caricatures of Puffy that you used to see everywhere. (Side note: I contacted Rodney and asked him why he no longer does Puffy's stuff, and he explained it was Puffy's manager Kaz's decision.) While they're there, they launch into the music video for "Asia no Junshin", their first single and still one of their most popular songs.

After visiting New York, Ami and Yumi head into the depths of the hell that is Penn Station for a trip west on Amtrak.

After riding high speed shinkansen trains all their lives, I wonder what that must have been like for them, especially being greeted by a surly cafe car attendant whose first words are a barked "what kinda pizza?!" aimed at Ami. Throughout the video, Ami acts as translator for Yumi - it's pretty obvious that Ami spoke at least some English prior to joining Puffy. Yumi, probably not.

Puffy make what seem to be a quick run through Philadelphia before heading to Chicago and Cleveland, stopping at the Rock 'n Roll Hall of Fame along the way and staying in some super-cheap motels. It's pretty hilarious how bad some of the hotels they stay at are, and while I'm not fluent in Japanese, it's obvious that Ami spends a good amount of time complaining about their living arrangements.

They ditch Amtrak after Philadelphia and pick up an old Cadillac convertible to continue west. Bet you never thought you'd see Puffy pumping their own gas! Well, you do here, and this is one reason why they're popular. Think you'll ever see Ayumi Hamasaki pumping gas? Utada Hikaru? Doubt it. But Puffy are regular girls, and they want you to know it. Though it's still pretty funny watching Ami pick up the gas pump and ask, "soshite?" ("Now what?")

They don't have much luck with their transportation, either. I personally think this was all set up to make the American auto industry look bad, but two separate classic cars break down on them. The Cadillac I can believe, as it literally goes up in smoke - though the camera was obviously in a pretty fortunate position to capture it. Ami makes probably the cutest comment on the video when she tells a passerby in English, "our car is broken."

Later, in the Mojave Desert (who the hell drives directly across the Mojave Desert?), their Corvette seemingly runs out of gas.

There's a scene of them supposedly hitchhiking (yeah, right) and actually getting picked up! Somehow I doubt the authenticity of all this. :)

As if that weren't enough, Ami gets pulled over by a cop while on a motorcycle for looking too young to ride.

Along the way, we're treated to a couple more music videos (including the excellent "Tokusuru Karada" and "Yuki ga Furumachi", a b-side that I'm actually not otherwise familiar with) and pretty much the rest of the AmiYumi album played in the background. While walking through the desert, Ami and Yumi apparently feel the time is right to decorate probably the worst Christmas tree that I've ever seen.

And once they finally reach the west coast, they sit down for what looks like a nice meal in a restaurant, only to have the camera pull back and reveal that it's all a set. Finally, the grand finale - the "Kore ga Watashi no Ikirumichi" video, which was shot all throughout their trip, as they found time to mouth the words to little bits of the song here and there.

It's kind of a strange experience watching this video for the first time as an American fan, especially so long after it was made. They were very, very different then than they are now, in both look and attitude. This was obviously intended as an introduction, so it's almost like looking back into a time capsule seeing it now, and also from the perspective of a westerner. I don't think a video like this could really exist in this country.

The Japanese music industry is obviously a lot different than ours. Pop acts like Britney Spears and Jessica Simpson can be pre-packaged, supported by a team of songwriters and producers and overtly marketed here, but rock bands generally can't - with a few big exceptions (e.g. the Sex Pistols). Rock bands need street cred. And as popular as they are (especially back then), Puffy are a rock band. But it apparently is done pretty often there - rock bands can be just as manufactured as pop bands, and no apologies are made for it. Everybody knows Puffy was basically Tamio Okuda's music with two young girl singers in front of it, and that was just fine as far as the Japanese public was concerned.

This video is an intro to the girls personally, not really their songs. The whole point is just to show how cute and funny they are. Apparently, this helps sell albums in Japan.

But hey, I'm convinced!

Final Grades (video)
Content: B-
Performance: A
Production: B-

The Book
Just a few additional words about the book and some photos to illustrate. This is really a great book to have if you're a fan of early Puffy... though the same caveats apply as they do to the video. This is not the Puffy we know today, at least in superficial terms. But as its own production, the book is really packed with some great content, and while there are some dense sections of Japanese text, most of the book is just filled with photos and graphics (along with some pretty bad English).

The book, like the video, begins by chronicling Puffy's trip across the USA, with many of the same scenes represented, but a few extra areas that aren't seen on the video:

Near the back of the book, there are some extra sections shot in Asia:

Probably my favorite part of the book is a funny section of several pages showing how apparently difficult it is for Yumi to keep her eyes open during photo shoots:

No, this is not the polished, professional, mature Puffy that they've grown into over the years. This is Puffy at their most raw, more like a couple of goofy kids that won a contest than anything else (and that's not far from the truth). It's a Puffy that probably pre-dates most of their western fans' knowledge of them, seeing how we weren't introduced to them at all until 2000, and not really nationally until 2002. Some western fans probably wouldn't see the early appeal - I didn't back then, and I probably still wouldn't if not for all that came later. I can enjoy this now in the context of their full career, but I'm not sure how I would have felt about it in 1996-97.

Final Grades (book)
Content: B+
Performance: N/A
Production: A-

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