“What is ‘human’?”
…”Nothing but a being of malice and misery.”
Malice Mizer, Gackt era. From L-R, ba: Yu~Ki, Gu: Mana-sama, Vo: Gackt, Dr: Kami, 2nd Gu: Kozi
I know that you’re all probably itching for me to actually start talking about some Visual Kei bands, rather than just waffling on about the themes and aesthetics and whatever. Don’t worry– I will. In fact, tonight I think we can pickup with one of the most influential bands in Visual Kei history– yup, you guessed it, Malice Mizer.
Now let’s get one thing straight before we begin. When I say that MM is the godfather-band of Visual Kei, I do not mean at all that they invented Visual Kei. (In fact, MM is part of the 2nd generation Visualist bands that appeared after the other venerable bands already started the movement.) Rather I mean that MM really brought Visual Kei into popular culture and made it cool and stylish. In keeping with our last post’s topics, they also made Visual Kei a fashion movement. You may be wondering now, who is Malice Mizer? (Or maybe you’re not. MM is known to enjoy–or not as the case may be– some small fame even in the dreary West).
Again, MM is part of what I call the “second generation” of core Visualist groups. They were founded in 1992 by guitarists Mana and Kozi. One of their unique characteristics is the use of dual guitars playing different melodies. It’s a very unique sound, which I’ve noticed a lot of ‘baby bands’ picking up lately. MM is infamous for undergoing many serious changes including their image, overall style, and vocalists. From ’92-’95 they were fronted by vocalist Tetsu, about whom not a lot of fuss seems to be made. It’s a bit tricky to find a watchable Tetsu video on the net. Despite the lack of fuss, let none of us disregard Tetsu. His singing style always struck me as kind of ‘urgent’– very passionate and intense. He seemed to carry more of the style that VK was just beginning to leave behind in favor of a smoother, more modern sound– he upheld the traditions of the earlier VK bands, in a way. In ’95 Tetsu left the band to pursue a separate career (although how it all went down hints at some animosity being a factor here). His place was filled by performance-rock god Gackt. During the Gackt-era, MM changed slightly, on the same wave-length as Tetsu-era but emphasizing the opera-rock theme now. Their costumes were often VERY elaborate Rennaisance-period-esque ensembles. Occassionally Gackt would sport Phantom of the Opera masks to go with his foot-long fingernails. Their sound was heavily influenced by French and Classical music, with a hint of goth, and was very melodic and pretty. Some even go so far as to say it was “pop”. I don’t know about that, but hey. Gackt left the band due to “conflicts of interest” in ’99. He was writing the lyrics, and apparently wanted to take the lyrics and music into a different direction. The Gackt era is often dubbed MM’s “Romance era”. Around the time Gackt made his exodus, drummer Kami died of a subarachnoid hemorrhage and was never officially replaced. He was credited on every album as “eternal blood relative”. O__O In 2000 MM recruited vocalist Klaha, and their image drastically changed. Their style went from Rennaissance-opera to Victorian funerary get-up, and their style shifted from opera-rock to Visual-kei. Their sound became very dark, with heavy-metal, electronica, and more core gothic attributes. The Klaha era lasted only a year. In 2001 the band went on indefinite hiatus. Klaha went on to a solo career (critics such as myself note a strong resemblance to Gackt’s exodus. Gackt left MM and within a year released his massively successful single Mizerable. When Klaha left MM he, too, went solo and released an album with a sound very similar to Mizerable, called Marchen.) Guitarist and founder, Mana, went on to father the band Moix des Moi, which seems to have been successful. He also founded the fashion label Moi-meme-moitie.
Drag in Definition~ The mark Malice Mizer left on Visual Kei/further notes on Vis Kei as a fashion movement
Despite an apparent run of misfortune during their years, MM was indeed one of the greatest Visual Kei bands. They found huge success not only in Japan, but also in greater Asia, Europe, and the US. Their advent marked a time of transition from the 1st generation Visual bands to the 2nd generation. The genre became more settled, and MM decided a certain amount of precedence which bands do well to follow.
The mark they left not only on Visual Kei but on all of Jrock is huge. Let’s look at that in a little more detail. On the subject of Mana…Where to begin! His range of influence is so wide, I’m at a loss! For example, I went as him for Halloween! Haha, I’m not kidding. I spent like half an hour on the eye makeup. Yes, you guessed it. The beautiful woman who looks like Little Miss Muffet bit by a vampiric spider on her lace tuffet is actually a….. bing bing bing! It’s a man! Earlier I mentioned the whole drag element in Visual Kei and Gothic Lolita fashion. As far as I can tell, that was set in motion by Mana, who is the king of Gothic Lolita and Elegant Gothic Lolita (EGL). I think that by the time MM became really popular, Mana had become a kind of…mascot? of a kind for the band. For the most part I think that Mana, especially with the birth of brand M-M-M, really made Gothic Lolita and EGL. I’ll talk about Gothic Lolita later, but for now I want to focus on Mana and just what exactly he did. This is based mostly on my own assumptions, but MM really set the foundation for what the “perfect Visual Kei band should look like” in a way. More so than more foundational Vis Kei bands such as X Japan and Luna: Sea, MM seemed to hone and define the aesthetic, and especially they brought the opera-rock elements to the look— the victoriana and historical themes. And drag. They brought drag. Visualists may (but probably won’t) contest that MM wasn’t the first band to do drag (I have no idea if they were or not, but as far as I can tell, they were.) But if you think about how vital to their image it was that Mana dressed as a woman, and then look at Visual Kei and Jrock bands post-Malice Mizer, we can safely assume that MM brought drag to Visual Kei. This may not seem like such a big deal, but it is– it’s huge. Visual Kei is a genre dominated by all-male groups (usually when women appear in Visual Kei it is, understandably, as all-female Visual Kei groups [and as I mentioned earlier– they are profoundly terrifying]), so when you realize that almost every Visual Kei band has one member sporting ringlets and a corseted dress, you start to get where I’m going with this. Some of them even use female stage-names, and that’s where it starts to get extremely confusing. It’s funny. Almost like they sit around and the Band Leader leans back, running black-painted fingertips along the rim of his wine-glass and goes “so, who’s going to wear the dress?” What’s really interesting, though, is that this phenomenon of gender-bending isn’t specific to Visual Kei– rather, many Visual and Jrock bands have a member in drag. For example, the awesome pop/Oshare Kei group Antic Cafe had, until 2007, guitarist Bou Minisuka, who looked and dressed typically like an adorable girl. In the Winter 2009 copy of Gothic and Lolita Bible, in fact, there is an interview with Visual Kei/Lolita-rock Ali Project‘s vocalist, Takarano Arika. At the end of the interview, they ask if she has anything else she would like to say to her fans. She says basically that she believes that “what you call ‘drag'” is a very important sub-sect of Visual Kei and Gothic Lolita, and that she really wants all the Gothic Lolita girls to be very aware of drag and it’s importance in the Lolita/VK scene. So there you go.
More perspective on aesthetic~ the importance of a pretty face
And before I leave you in a coma, I just want to make a few more notes on Visual Kei and its aesthetics. So we covered the whole drag thing. But there are other Vis Kei aesthetics, too. In fact, 50% of the importance of Visual Kei is the band’s actual image (which makes sense, considering the term used to describe it is not ‘aural kei’.), with the other 50% being their music. Jrock is the first time I’ve really encountered this utter self-consciousness around how people look. Almost every successful Jrock group is fronted by a drop-dead beautiful vocalist. I’m not sure how they manage to get people with amazing talent and amazing looks– but somehow they do. I mean, granted the Japanese have the greatest concentration of gorgeous people on EARTH. Still. Incomprehensible. Wonderful! Make no mistake. But incomprehensible. I don’t get it at all. This is prevalent in all genres of Jpop/Jrock/Visual types etc, but is most self-conscious and apparent in Visual Kei. I think this is because there is a strong theme of the vocalist being a character, the protagonist for a story, as it may be. He becomes something like a fictional hero (or anti-hero), and in this way, he must be hot-damn beautiful. Or something like that, anyway. The interesting part is that other genres (goth, emo, and punk, typically) don’t have the same pressure for a beautiful face to be part of the label. Further evidence of the specifications of Visual Kei aesthetics and image. But whatever the case may be, I think we should be aware of the importance of the “bishounen” or beautiful men in Visual-type rock and Jrock. If for no other reason than a better awareness of the Japanese beauty-ideal at large.
And on that note, I’ll leave you with a few wonderful pieces by Malice Mizer~
“Ma Cherie“, Tetsu era…
“Syunikiss“, Gackt-era…one of my all-time favorite MM pieces.
“Kioku to Sora“, Klaha-era…
Notice the image change. They have almost S&M style outfits, and along with Klaha’s deep voice, they’ve brought on the dark sound. Honestly, while I’m a fan of Klaha, I think that by that time MM had lost their verve.