A movement among Japanese musicians that is characterized by the use of make-up, elaborate hair styles and flamboyant costumes, often, but not always, coupled with androgynous aesthetics. Though some say that it is a music genre, it is actually a mixture of sound that I related to glam rock, punk rock and heavy metal.
Visual kei emerged in the early 1980s.
It was pioneered by bands such as X Japan (1982–97, 2007–present), D’erlanger (1983–1990, 2007–present), Buck-Tick (1983–present) and Color (1985–1995,with reunion shows in 2003 and 2008 ).
The term visual kei is believed to come from one of X Japan’s slogans, “Psychedelic violence crime of visual shock”.
There are two record labels, both founded in 1986, that were instrumental for helping the visual kei scene spread, they are Extasy Records in Tokyo and Free-Will in Osaka.
Extasy was created by X Japan’s drummer and leader Yoshiki and signed bands (not just visual kei acts).
This label would go on to make marks on the Japanese music scene, including Zi:Kill, Tokyo Yankees and Ladies Room.
Glay and Luna Sea, who went on to sell millions of records, with Glay being one of Japan’s best-selling musical acts, who had their first albums released by Extasy. Extasy would later on follow its owner and became based out of the US, signing and producing American acts, and has since faded away.
Free-Will was founded by Color vocalist and leader Dynamite Tommy, while at the time not as popular as Extasy; it had many moderately successful acts, such as By-Sexual and Kamaitachi.
Currently Free-Will is still going strong and has been a major contributor in spreading modern visual kei outside Japan.
1992, X Japan tried to launch an attempt to enter the American market, even signing with Atlantic Records for a US album.
This ultimately did not happen.
In the mid-1990s, visual kei received increasing popularity throughout Japan, when album sales from visual kei bands started to reach record numbers. The most notable bands to achieve success during this period included X Japan, Glay and Luna Sea; yet, a drastic change in their appearance accompanied their success. During the same period other bands, such as Kuroyume, Malice Mizer and Penicillin, gained mainstream awareness, while they were not as commercially successful.
By the late 1990s, the mainstream popularity of visual kei was declining; X Japan had disbanded in 1997 and one year later their lead guitarist Hide (1987–97) died. Later in 2000, Luna Sea would decide to disband as well.
In 1998, Billboard’s Steve McClure commented that “To a certain extent, hide’s death means the end of an era, X was the first generation of visual kei bands, but the novelty has worn off. For the next generation of bands, it’s like: That’s it. The torch has been passed to us.”
Notable newer visual kei bands include Dir en Grey, Alice Nine, The Gazette and D’espairsRay, who have all performed overseas.
Veterans of the scene have also established new acts, such as Malice Mizer’s Mana with his band Moi dix Mois, and several members of Pierrot forming Angelo. In 2007, visual kei was revitalized as Luna Sea performed a one-off performance and X Japan officially reunited with a new single and a world tour. With these developments, visual kei bands enjoyed a boost in public awareness, with bands formed around 2004 having been described by some media as “neo-visual kei”
There has been criticism about newer visual kei bands having lost the spirit of their forefathers, copying each other and becoming all the same. (this of course can be said about most music). As far back as 1998, Neil Strauss reported that to visual kei bands “after X” the makeup and outrageous looks became “more important than the music.”
In 2008, Kirito vocalist of Pierrot and Angelo said “Now it’s more like people are dressing up a certain way because they want to be visual kei or look visual kei. They are doing it to look like others instead of doing it to look different. This is obviously very different from when we started out more than ten years ago.”
Sugizo of Luna Sea expressed concern in 2010 that “They cannot make good sounds and music is more like a hobby for them. I cannot feel their soul in the music.”
Dir en grey bassist Toshiya said in 2010 “To be honest, when we first started and we were wearing a lot of makeup on stage and stuff, there were a lot of bands doing that at the time in Japan, and people thought it was cool. But not anymore, ha ha.” and then added “The music was so unique, too — bands like X Japan. At that time, there weren’t any two bands that sounded alike; these days everyone sounds exactly the same.”
Kenzi of Kamaitachi, The Dead Pop Stars and Anti Feminism commented in 2009 that “Back in the day, there were bands, but people would try to do things differently. Nowadays, there’s one band, and everyone copies off of them.”
Free-Will founder and Color frontman Tommy concluding with “I don’t think our breed of visual kei exists anymore.”
Visual kei has enjoyed popularity among independent underground projects, as well as artists achieving mainstream success, using influences from Western phenomena, such as glam, goth and cyberpunk.
Music performed incorporates a large variety of genres, some examples being punk, metal, pop and electronica.
Magazines published regularly in Japan with visual kei coverage are Arena 37°C, Cure, Fool’s Mate and Shoxx.
The popularity and awareness of visual kei groups outside of Japan has seen an increase in recent years.