It’s not easy to pin down a musical movement without referring to a genre of sound. Be it pop, rock or metal, visual kei has at one point or another been involved in all of these yet at the same time can be defined by none of them. This stems from the fact that visual kei – literally ‘visual style’ or ‘visual system’ – is as the name suggests not a musical genre but rather an aesthetic one. Even then, the style can be incredibly diverse, making it notoriously difficult to define.
Although a uniquely Japanese movement, visual kei was at least partially inspired by Western glam metal bands of the 1970s onwards such as KISS and Twisted Sister. However, what they inspired in visual kei was not any single particular sound but rather the importance of appearance as an essential element – one which is arguably even more significant than the music itself. In very broad terms, the majority of visual kei bands can therefore be best summarised in terms of the physical: ethereally dark, glamorously androgynous, and elaborately punk are all phrases that immediately spring to mind. Many artists are especially effeminate in style, and it isn’t uncommon for some to pose entirely as female, wearing dresses reminiscent of Regency, Rococo, and Victorian fashion. To the general public, visual kei bands are perhaps less known for their actual music and more for their eye-popping wardrobe and make-up. Belying their appearance, vocals tend to be anything but gender ambiguous and often lean towards the dramatically deep.
Pioneered by bands such as Buck-Tick, D’erlanger, and X Japan, visual kei emerged during the early 1980s primarily as a series of independent and underground projects. It was not until the later 1980s and early 1990s that visual kei began earning significant mainstream coverage, with album sales seeing a notable rise and stage shows receiving increasing amounts of media attention. X Japan, LUNA SEA, Malice Mizer and GLAY saw a particularly large fanbase during these years, with GLAY at one point being one of Japan’s best-selling musical acts. Malice Mizer, while not as commercially successful, became especially famous for their live performances featuring extremely lavish historical costumes and stage sets.
The mainstream popularity of visual kei was relatively short-lived, with many bands peaking in popularity in the mid to late 1990s. X Japan disbanded in 1997 followed by LUNA SEA in 2000, and in 2001 Malice Mizer announced an indefinite hiatus.
However, visual kei has also seen several new bursts of popularity over recent years. Malice Mizer co-founder Mana would go on to create his own clothing label, Moi-même-Moitié, in 1999, coining the terms ‘Elegant Gothic Lolita’ and ‘Elegant Gothic Aristocrat’. He is regularly featured modelling his own designs in the quarterly Gothic & Lolita Bible, the top publication of the lolita fashion scene, and in 2001 he founded new gothic metal and visual kei band Moi dix Mois.Gackt, who abruptly left Malice Mizer at the height of the band’s success in 1999, began pursuing a career as a solo artist and today has successfully released eight studio albums, as well as being involved in film, television, and even video games and the theatre.
In 2007, visual kei was revitalized with LUNA SEA reuniting for a concert that was sold out within five minutes of tickets going on sale. X Japan officially reunited the same year with a new single and a world tour announced for 2011. Also in 2007, music project S.K.I.N was founded by X Japan’s Yoshiki, Malice Mizer’s Gackt, LUNA SEAS’s Sugizo, and Dué le quartz’s Miyavi, with the project’s live concert in Long Beach, California being described as the “Japanese rock concert of the century.” Meanwhile, post-millennium visual kei bands such as Nightmare, the GazettE,Antic Cafe, Girugämesh, SID, Alice Nine, and Golden Bomber have all achieved moderate to high mainstream popularity, with many of these acts performing overseas.
Where visual kei will go from here is anybody’s guess. In an interview in 2010, LUNA SEA’s Sugizo expressed concern that newer visual kei bands “cannot make good sounds and music is more like a hobby … I cannot feel their soul in the music.” However, with an ever-expanding diversity of sound, be it pop punk, progressive rock, darkwave electronica or gothic metal, visual kei is undoubtedly still one of the most interesting and dynamic musical movements of contemporary Japan.
Question of the post: Do you have a favourite visual kei band, and if so, what makes them stand out more to you than others? If you don’t listen to visual kei, is it primarily the sound or the aesthetic style that makes it unappealing?
Quick note: I will be away on vacation for the next two weeks. I will still be reading and replying to all comments, but this will be my final post until September 7th/8th.