If the J-pop loving, basement-dwelling otaku stereotype has become obsolete in today’s global musical community, then someone forgot to tell audience at the Far East to East concert at New York City”s Irving Plaza. I don’t mean that as a slight. If anything, the crowd was perfectly primed for hyperactive Japanese headliner Puffy AmiYumi, with some New York Comic-Con refugees peppered throughout the audience in full cosplay regalia. Even before the music started, there were wonders all around me. Elves danced with sorceresses. Silver-maned princesses flirted openly while drinking vodka tonics from plastic cups. Deep in the center of the pit, I could barely make out four or five people engaged in a game with spinning metallic rings, their bodies flailing and gyrating as if drowning in an underwater rave. In the bathroom, three guys argued over the rightful owner of the last remaining Puffy AmiYumi shirt. I took this as a good omen.
Once the lights dimmed, the performance art made its way from the audience to the stage. Supporting bands Echostream, Boom Boom Satellites, and Zazen Boys cut no corners, bringing enough quirky rock sensibility to match the equally quirky crowd. But the night was not without a few bumpy transitions. In particular, Zazen Boys’ Primus-lite stylings felt particularly out of place when butted up against Boom Boom Satellites’ epic electronic anthems. BBS were obviously working hard up on stage, but the cynic in me winced at the lead singer’s nasal delivery. And as each song crescendoed into the next, I found myself reminded of Savage Garden, brutally flattened and stretched thin. Do they have that technology in Japan?
My mood slowly brightened when the audience started bobbing their heads in time with the guitarist and bassist. Then, from the balcony, I looked below and saw a sweaty couple engaged in an intimate but completely nonsexual slow dance completely out of sync with the music. It was a geek moment of such tenderness that it melted my icy heart. By the time the female drummer of BBS moved into her unexpectedly bad-ass extended solo, they had won me over. I was ready for Puffy AmiYumi.
In Japan, the kinetic duo Puffy is pretty much a household name, synonymous with sugar-charged good times but bolstered by the legitimized musicianship of an Avril Lavigne or a Paramore. In the US, the re-branded Puffy AmiYumi is known more for its cartoon show (“Hi Hi Puffy AmiYumi”), its theme song to its cartoon show (“Hi Hi Puffy AmiYumi Theme”) and the theme song to another cartoon show (“Teen Titans”). Given this broad pedigree I didn’t know what to expect from them as performers, but suspected some blend of Saturday morning cartoon karaoke. I was not wrong.
The girls took the stage and wasted no time, belting out a string of their well known hits. At least I assumed they were well known, as everyone around me seemed to know every lyric by heart. Their eclectic backing band did their best to keep the crowd enthusiastic and engaged, mugging for the audience or complimenting the girls’ singing with acrobatic jumps and moves. While light on harmonies, Ami and Yumi made up for it with their almost constant dancing and fan service. In fact, they only stopped when a drum kit malfunction forced them to banter with the audience in broken English, introducing the band while a technician found a replacement part. The entire performance was filled with adorable moments and the crowd seemed savage and starving, feasting on the duo’s charm like a zombie horde.
In the end, all parties were satisfied. The Cartoon Network crowd got to sing along as Puffy performed both themes from both their cartoons, while the J-pop purists got to enjoy a wide range of songs from their high profile career in Japan. And I got to play otaku for the night without any ill effects. Or so I thought. As I made my way out, passing by an exhausted but smiling wizard (or warlock?), I realized I had not escaped untainted. Rushing out the door, I caught my reflection in a pane of glass. I was smiling too.