When Puffy AmiYumi debuted in 1996, they surely never dreamed that they’d become international icons, work with some of the world’s top artists and still be releasing creative, exciting pop music over a decade later. And yet they have done all this and more.

Having conquered the charts in Japan with their very first single – the million-selling disco-stomper ‘Asia no Junshin’ (‘True Asia’) – Ami Onuki, of Tokyo, and Yumi Yoshimura, from Osaka, went on to become one of the very few Japanese groups to find lasting success abroad. Working with artists as diverse as Avril Lavigne, her producer Butch Walker, Andy Sturmer of Jellyfish, Cyndi Lauper and Jon Spencer, not to mention Tamio Okuda and Guitar Wolf back home, Puffy AmiYumi have established themselves as much more than throwaway pop idols.

With their eclectic mix of genre-jumping pop tunes and an understated girl-next-door style, Puffy AmiYumi’s debut was a breath of fresh air among Japan’s heavily airbrushed pop charts, giving them not only longevity at home but also a stab at world domination. In 2000 they played at the South By Southwest convention in Austin, Texas, which led in 2002 to the Stateside release of the Bar/None Records compilation ‘ Illustrated History’, collecting the duo’s Japanese hits and two exclusive English-language tracks. Also that year, their song ‘Friends Forever’ was used in the soundtrack to the movie ‘Scooby-Doo’, which was shown in 63 countries.

Ami and Yumi quickly got to grips with singing in English, and started sprinkling releases with more and more English-language tracks. In 2003, the album ‘Nice.’ offered their American audience tales of ‘Planet Tokyo’; also included was ‘Teen Titans’, used as the theme tune for the popular Cartoon Network series. Then in 2004, the girls provided the inspiration for ‘Hi Hi Puffy AmiYumi’, Cartoon Network’s most successful kids’ animation launch ever, which has been aired in 110 countries; its soundtrack was soon released in the US and Japan.

Album releases were supported by tours that offered North American fans a taste of the live frenzy that packs out venues back home. Puffy AmiYumi’s thrilling live show eschews the carefully choreographed dance routines and mimed vocals that pervade most modern pop concerts; instead, their long-standing band members blast out solid rhythms, loud guitar hooks and sharp synth lines while Ami and Yumi prowl the stage, singing their lungs out as the audience scream along. With regular trips Stateside, Puffy AmiYumi cemented their reputation as entertainers with substance.

Around 2003/2004, Japanese culture experienced something of a groundswell in the West. Aided by Hayao Miyazaki’s ‘Spirited Away’ (the first Japanese animated movie to win an Oscar), Quentin Tarantino’s ‘Kill Bill’ movies, and Gwen Stefani and her ‘Harajuku girls’, Japanese youth culture had become cooler than ever, and Puffy AmiYumi were center-stage.

In 2005, the duo rode their own larger-than-life float in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade; duetted with Cyndi Lauper on her self-covers album ‘The Body Acoustic’ (they also contribute a version of ‘Girls Just Wanna Have Fun’ on the Japan-only covers collection ‘We Love Cyndi’, released July 2008); were interviewed on ‘Jimmy Kimmel Live’; and featured in Interview magazine in an article written by actress Selma Blair, with photos by Chanel’s Karl Lagerfeld. In 2006, they became goodwill ambassadors to the US, fronting the Visit Japan campaign. And in 2007, Ami and Yumi appeared on GAP billboards in the States, with a photo shot by Annie Leibovitz, who has photographed everyone from John and Yoko to the Queen of England.

And through all of this, the music continued to flow. ‘Splurge’ was released Stateside in 2006, featuring songs written by Butch Walker (producer of Avril Lavigne, Pink and Fall Out Boy) and Jon Spencer (of Blues Explosion), among others. The album featured a ton of sass, as the girls skipped gleefully between new wave, indie-rock, ska-punk, ’60s pop and more, fusing genre after genre and making it their own. The line “We ain’t no Harajuku girls” seemed to echo Puffy AmiYumi’s reluctance to be pinned down, an approach that has helped sustain their appeal at home and abroad.

‘Hit & Fun’, a round-up of Puffy AmiYumi’s first trendsetting decade, followed the album in Japan in early 2007. Featuring tracks in English and Japanese, it serves both as a reminder of the many highs of the duo’s recorded output and as an introduction to the uninitiated.

And to this day, they continue to play with the boundaries of pop music. Their 2007 album ‘honeycreeper’, as yet unreleased in the US, sees them flirting with heavier styles and textures to create another energized release. Opener ‘Oriental Diamond’ is a beefy rock track steeped in Chinese mystique, written by Tamio Okuda and Yosui Inoue, the same pair who penned Puffy AmiYumi’s first ever single; Yusuke Chiba of The Birthday (and formerly Thee Michelle Gun Elephant) lends a heavyweight hand on ‘Kimi To Ohtobai’ (‘LA MOTOCYCLETTE’), all kinetic bluster and squalling guitars that push the girls’ voices hard; and ‘Hayai Kuruma’ (‘Fast Car’), penned by Masatoshi Mashima of The Cro-Magnons, throws new-wave riffs over a tough beat and bassline, with the duo singing a playful melody.

On the sloganeering ‘Boom Boom Beat’, Ami and Yumi sing in Japanese and English of how they “still rock the shows,” over a track written by Swedish duo The Merrymakers. And on ‘YOHKAI Puffy’ (‘Ghost Puffy’) they spin a spooky Halloween yarn over a barn-burning rock’n’roll number.

It’s not all full-on rock-outs though. ‘Closet Full Of Love’, by Butch Walker and Kara DioGuardi (Britney Spears, Gwen Stefani, Christina Aguilera), throws together a bittersweet vocal melody, deep bass groove, angular guitar line, sweeping strings and a touch of Spanish guitar to deliver a satisfying piece of grown-up pop. ‘Sayonara Summer’ is a soulful, sensitive ballad whose plucked guitar line and subtle piano backing create a palate for Ami and Yumi’s plaintive vocals. And ‘O Edo Nagareboshi IV’ (‘OH! EDO SHOOTING STAR IV’) is a jaunty ska paean to the skies of ancient Tokyo.

Puffy AmiYumi’s most recent single is ‘All Because Of You’, released in May 2008 and written by Avril Lavigne and Butch Walker. A warm electronic verse gives way to a chorus heavy on synths and compressed guitars, with Ami and Yumi singing in perfect English such smartly considered lyrics as “You’ve got me spinning like a record that’s already worn out”. It opens up yet another side to Puffy AmiYumi: Its understated charm shows a maturity that suits them just fine. The single has yet to be released outside of Japan, but it holds the potential to win them ever more followers in the West.

Puffy AmiYumi have made so many significant achievements – don’t forget the Mattel toys, the videogames, the Rodney Alan Greenblat illustrations, the girls’ Japanese variety TV show and all the rest. It would be easy to go on and on about it, or about the duo’s diverse and exciting music. But perhaps simplest would be for you to take a listen to Puffy AmiYumi and see for yourself what it is that makes them so truly special.