Sunday, December 16, 2007

Ayumi - The real history of PUFFY

You might get the idea from this blog sometimes that I consider myself some sort of PUFFY "expert". I don't. Some of my info might occasionally be wrong, some of my opinions you might disagree with. That's fine - I'm just doing this for fun, and to support one of my favorite bands who I feel don't get the attention they deserve in this country, or even in Japan anymore. But I am doing my best to tell their story.

Two advantages I've got are having a little disposable income and being married to a native Japanese speaker (who's a fan herself - though not quite as hardcore). So I buy plenty of stuff from Japan, and if there's something I don't understand, I can get it translated pretty easily. One of the items that fits in that category is the "Ayumi" 10th Anniversary book, which has developed a reputation as kind of a "bible" of PUFFY to the band's fans.

This book was released last year and serves as a retrospective on PUFFY's career. But it is not a secondhand biography - it is a series of interviews with both Ami and Yumi along with those closest to them (Tamio Okuda, etc). So there is not much question of misinterpretation or other inaccuracies. It's all straight from the horse's mouth.

Most people in the west who know Puffy AmiYumi at all have an idea that they were artificially created in 1995 through some sort of alchemy by Sony Music executives. The story goes that Sony advertised separate talent searches that year and at some point, somebody at the record label had the bright idea to pair these two girls together. Tamio Okuda was brought in to produce and the rest is history. I myself bought into this - hell, it's on their official US web site bio, it's in the liner notes of An Illustrated History, and for a long time, it was on the US Wikipedia page for the band. (I've since fixed that.) It's been regurgitated in nearly every introduction of every US interview or review (such as this one at IGN). Who can blame anybody for believing this when it's the story told by PUFFY's own record label?

Problem is it's not true.

At best, it's a mistranslation, or a gross oversimplification. Most people in Japan know the real story, but it's rarely been told in the west. So here it is, paraphrased from Ami and Yumi themselves. I may have a detail here and there wrong; just let me know if so and I'll correct it:

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When Ami was in high school, she had a rock band named "Hanoi Sex" (a play on "Hanoi Rocks"). In her sophomore year, the band entered the Sony SD Audition. None of the members really thought they would pass (as Ami's said, she just wanted to see the rejection letter), but they did. They then passed several higher-level auditions as well and were signed to the record label.

It's no secret that Ami was born in 1973. Being a sophomore in high school would have put the year of that SD Audition at around 1988. She was probably signed to Sony sometime around 1989. In other words, she has been part of the Japanese music industry for nearly 20 years now. 1995 my ass! She put a lot more than a year's worth of blood, sweat and tears into her career before PUFFY took off.

The band kind of futzed around for a few years without doing much (and without Sony doing much for them), as Ami attended a kind of technical school to learn to sing and perform better. Meanwhile, the rest of the band dropped out one by one, either to go to college or just because they were never all that serious about the music. Eventually, only Ami was left. Sony encouraged her to stay. She was serious about music, so she accepted - though she didn't have a whole lot of faith either in herself as a solo artist or in Sony. She began taking English lessons as a fallback, hoping to land a job as a flight attendant. (She says she found out later that she was too short, or she'd probably be serving drinks at 30,000 feet right now!)

A bit later than Ami, Yumi entered the Chotto Sokomade audition being held by Sony Music Artists. She entered solo, without much of a musical background. She was a high school dropout seemingly without much of a future, so she had nothing to lose. She says she entered this audition when she was "around 18", which would make the year 1993. Like Ami, she passed the audition, and became an employee of Sony Music Artists. She moved completely on her own from Osaka to Tokyo. (For Americans, this would be like a teenager moving from Chicago to New York, without much help and with no friends or family in the new city.)

The two girls saw each other off and on at the Sony Music offices, where neither did much of anything but wait around and collect a paycheck. Ami at this point had already met Tamio Okuda at a SPARKS GO-GO concert, and he was in the process of producing her debut solo CD. Ami initiated contact with Yumi, seeing her sitting alone on a window sill with her laptop computer one day and thinking she looked cute. They didn't connect initially; Yumi wasn't very sociable, so after a terse little chat, Ami left her alone.

They saw each other again at a concert after-party (which concert I don't remember, or maybe the book doesn't say), where they finally hit it off. They realized how similar they were as people, and how similar their situations were at Sony, where they both felt alone and somewhat neglected. This time, they became good friends and they started hanging out together whenever they were in the office.

At some point - and this is probably where the 1995 date comes from - they asked Sony to pair them together as a duo. Neither were confident in their solo abilities and both thought being a duo would take some of the pressure off. As they were already signed to the label separately, they needed permission to sing together. Sony had the foresight to agree.

The one major part of the story I'm missing is when manager Kaz Harada became involved. I guess I just haven't asked my wife to translate that far :)

But it obviously was fairly early in the process, as Kaz was there when Ami and Yumi were recording their first album as a duo. At this point, they were resigned to calling themselves "Crazy Virgin", which was supposed to be a "clever" play on words when abbreviated in Japanese. ("Kureba" - also the kana way of writing "clever". Oddly enough, there's a guy named "Kreva" making hip hop music in Japan right now... when written in katakana, his name is spelled "Kureba".) Nobody seems to remember who came up with this name, but Ami thinks it was another person on the Hit & Run management team. She says that at the time, they didn't think they could say "no" to anything. This is why so much of their 2006 10th anniversary merchandise carried this name - it was a joke on what might have been.

Anyway, Andy Sturmer - who was an existing friend of Tamio Okuda's - also happened to be in the studio with Kaz and the girls one night during the recording of "AmiYumi", and he threw out the name "Puffy". Supposedly, Kaz sat in a corner the rest of the night just mouthing the word "puffy" over and over, unable to get it out of his head.

The rest, as they say, really is history.

Why am I telling this story? For one thing, I think the girls themselves deserve a lot more credit for their careers than they're often given. But maybe just as importantly, PUFFY don't have a whole lot of "street cred" in the US right now. It doesn't help when people think your band was formed by a bunch of record executives sitting around looking at photos of cute girls as they play star-maker. That puts you squarely in Britney Spears/Jessica Simpson territory, which is not where any serious musician wants to be. It was not that easy for PUFFY. Ami's got a legitimate rock band background, and her band was signed to Sony the same way half the bands in either the US or Japan are. She spent literally years toiling away at Sony before catching her break. Yumi's got less of a music background, but she moved to Tokyo and entered the industry all on her own - she did all the work. The girls met completely by chance, and they decided to make music together. Not even Tamio Okuda's involvement was preordained. None of this is any different than any other band - the only difference is that as luck would have it, both girls were already signed to Sony when they paired up.

If you're wondering, Ami's solo album was released later as half of solosolo. That work wasn't wasted. But yes, her half was recorded much earlier than Yumi's - before PUFFY even existed. Ami was on her way as a solo artist. Yumi may have been too, eventually. But neither individually would have probably had the longevity of both together. One thing you can credit Sony with is recognizing their chemistry.

I may as well say a little more about the book - no point doing a separate review. It's well worth the investment even if you don't have a live-in translator. There are tons of photos, both publicity and candid. There's also a complete listing of all official PUFFY merchandise ever made, up to the book's publishing date of course. It's a definitive reference.


I was at the show pictured below - NYC 2005:

There's even a tongue-in-cheek tabloid-style photo section that contains baby pictures and other pre-PUFFY stuff. I honestly haven't been able to bring myself to rip this section open (it's sealed), but it's there.

You can see why this is considered the "PUFFY bible" - despite the fact that they say at one point, "everything in this book is a lie"! Yeah, they're a couple of comedians.

You can still order the book from YesAsia or Amazon.

9 comments:

  1. > The one major part of the story I'm missing
    > is when manager Kaz Hirada and his company
    > Hit & Run became involved.

    In order to answer the question, what should be noted is that Kaz was an employee of Sony Music Artists then.
    At that time, SMA was adopting a company organization which divided the company into several divisions, each of which, lead by a senior manager, was responsible for working for the customer musicians assigned to it.
    Kaz was one of the senior managers, and his division was called "Hit & Run Division."

    I guess his relationship with Puffy began no later than Tamio's involvement in Puffy. As the most important customer for his division was Tamio Okuda, it was natural promotion of Puffy also became his division's responsibility.

    In 2006, SMA reformed its company organization; in order to give more power to the divisions, it spinned them off to make subsidiary companies and the senior managers became presidents of them.
    That made what we see now -- Kaz is the president of his company Hit & Run, Inc., and Tamio Okuda and Puffy are his company's customers.

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  2. Vince here.
    Real nice. yours is the only P.A.Y. site i've bookmarked since you keep tabs on all the other sites. Love it. Thanks again

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  3. Vince: Thanks, I aim to please :)

    yom1970: Yeah, that makes sense. I wonder if it's the case then that Yumi brought Kaz with her to Puffy and Ami brought Tamio. Yumi started with SMA.

    Hit & Run has been around since a lot earlier than 2006, though - was it just a division of SMA before that?

    I guess I'd better read more of the book! I'm sure this is all in there.

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  4. It's "Harada," not "Hirada".

    And if you want to be even more technical, it's "Kazu" and not "Kaz," although I like "Kaz" better, so I don't blame you for using it. Actually, I think his first name might even be longer, though I can't remember. Something like "Hirokazu" or something like that... I might be thinking of someone else.

    But yes, I really enjoy your blog! It is so informative. I did not know some of this pre-PUFFY history (I knew the Ami band part from your other post earlier)!!!

    I think we really need to make it known how PUFFY really got started! I actually bought into to the "executives paired them together" tale.

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  5. Vu: He goes by "Kaz", not "Kazu". That's how he spells it himself.

    But I changed the spelling of his family name; thanks for that correction.

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  6. This is very interesting stuff - I'm glad to get the real story about how Puffy came to be. I knew that Ami had been in a group called Hanoi Sex and I've tried to find info online about it but nada. I wonder if they ever recorded?

    I wonder if you can shed light on how the "Yumi on the left, Ami on the right" came to be? It's amazing how they stick to that even in interviews.

    Thanks for your blog. I really enjoy it.

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  7. Hi Phil:

    Honestly, I do think they talk about the left/right thing in the book, but I don't know what it says. We sort of skimmed through the book together at one point, my wife and I, and I remember talking about it, but now I don't remember where in the book it was. She's not really as huge a fan as I am so she's not going to sit there reading through the whole thing looking for it.

    I do remember that there's at least one part of one of the interviews where one of the girls points out that they're on the wrong side in whatever picture they're looking at. So they're obviously totally aware of it, and they have made mistakes before. There are some well-publicized photos of them where their positions are reversed.

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  9. Nice! I didn't know about all this history... I just knew about the solosolo part and that Ami have been on Sony for a while, but not all this =D

    They could even make a movie about it huahauahuahu xD

    The phrase "everything in this book is a lie!" remembers me the end of RUN!PUFFY!RUN!...

    and I think Kaz real name is Kazuhide ^__^

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