A shot from "Faust"
From the world of classical opera we learned that music has the potential to not only be an aural pleasure, but a visual one as well. Through lyrical theme, musical composition, costume and props, a greater theme or story can be expressed trough music. But it doesn’t stop in the opera house. Since the early 1980s Japanese rockers have taken pairing music and visuals to a whole new level. What started as an insane-seeming sub-culture movement became, by the mid 90’s, an established genre, and today, 30 years later, one of the-most-listened-to facets of Jrock.
That genre is what we refer to as “Visual Kei”.
Visual Kei band "Malice Mizer", circa 1997
Let’s start with the name. ビジュアル系[bijuaru kei]. Visual Kei is a term created by bringing together the English word ‘Visual’ and the Japanese word ‘kei’, which means ‘type’ or ‘style’. Nowadays the term refers almost solely to a genre of Japanese rock music— now that Visual Kei as a genre has become popular and more mainstream, I get the impression that a lot of Western fans want to single out the god-father bands as non-“Visual Kei”. Like how back when “punk” first began there was no “punk”, and now it’s a mainstream style full of posers. But even at the very onset of Visual Kei culture, because of the nature of the genre and the way it effects and is affected by the term Visual Kei, the label existed upon advent.
Dead End: 1984-1999
You see, we’re allowed a sort of grace period by the Japanese language. Look at it this way—alongside sometimes-creepy Visual Kei, there is another Jrock sub-culture which is eternally cheerful, and that is referred to as ‘Oshare Kei’, [en. Fashionable type]. In Japan, when you want to tell someone that they are fashionable, you say, “wow, you got some new boots! So oshare kei!” It would be silly if I got angry and said, “But I’m not the oshare-kei genre of bands and music. Ugh!” The genres happened out of the terms, in a way. Similarly, were you to remark that X Japan was “wow! So visual kei!” Would a true old-school fan scoff and say, “Ugh, Visual Kei? No they’re not. There’s nothing visual there!”?
Much the same as the early punk movement, true Visual Kei had and still has no “definition” nor set limits. It is important to understand that Visual Kei is first and foremost a means of expression not only through music, but through image as well. It is at the Visualists’s discretion how he or she chooses to express themselves. Visual Kei is an ultimatum in creativity, and one of its defining points is its lack of boundaries.
However, it is only natural that certain qualifications come into the picture… In the way of trends and obsessive-genre-ization-disorder of today, Visual Kei has found certain parameters and sub-genres exclusive to its scope. Like anything, there is the fluff and filler impossible to evict, ban, destroy, or avoid– but individual creativity and expression is still running strong among Visualists. In a way, the pre-sets and development of stereotyping has encouraged boundaries between what is Visual Kei and what is standard Jrock. Not just every Jrock band with a crazy look is Visual Kei—that’s genre abuse.
In this write-up, although I can’t tell you all the “is” and “isn’t”s of this boundless and extreme genre, I will do my best to sketch out the general idea, as well as define the boundaries that separate Visual Kei from what we know otherwise as Jrock and Jpop.
Visual Kei is a bit like genealogy in that it has generations. And as the generations became younger and younger, the look changed and developed. That’s why I, as well as many people who write about the Vis Kei movement, choose to differentiate between the generations. I’ve simplified it into a 3-category hierarchy of 1st generation, onward. We could be real jerks and break it down into the quantum level of Visual Kei Generations and Sub Movements, but for clarity’s sake, we’ll use the 3-generation rule here. If you want to get quantum with me, notice how I include release and activity dates in the artist information run-downs….
Back “before” there “was” “Visual Kei”, the pioneer band X appeared– the year…was 1982. For the purpose of disambiguation (due to the existence of the American ’70s band by the same name), they did the obvious thing and clarified who they were by a quick name change– by which they are immortalized: X Japan.
This was “the movement”, “the influx”. X Japan brought to Jrock the heavy yet melodious sound that we are so familiar with today. They brought the extremist fashion and 50% dedication to image. Yeah, they had freaking big hair. They made the glam-metal look popular (for an indie rock band, anyway) and exciting in the Japanese music scene– but they did what the Japanese do with everything they import: they, as one Japanese friend put it, took what Westerners made like monkeys and improved it. They Japanified it.
In the image to the right, you can see the powerful beginnings of what we know now as Visual Kei. The androgyny (especially in Jrock idol Yoshiki [center], the historic appeal, the extreme everything. These were the founding fathers.
They inspired everybody. X Japan brought great momentum to this sub-culture of Jrock, which steadily infected a stream of other great bands. This was Visual Kei’s foundation, when it picked up speed and accelerated into pop-culture. The bands everyone know of as “true” Visual Kei appeared at this time– between 1982 and ’87: Luna Sea, Buck -Tick, Dead End.
This was the well-spring of Jrock. It began in the ‘80s, and it was a mash-up of imagery and ideas. These bands set the foundation for the use of visual components in Japanese rock music, veering off the beaten path and forging new roads.
Although the look and sound has developed, become refined, and more focused, there was one element that has remained the core spinal column of the Visual Kei aesthetic. This element was essentially ‘beauty for beauty’s sake’. Visualists would like what they liked, would dress how they liked, would act how they liked. They appreciated things as genderless, ageless, anonymous modes of creative expression. There were no concepts such as “I can’t dress that way, I’m a man.” or “We can’t play this song, we’re too hardcore.”
This aesthetic would later become the palette upon which the 2nd Generation would paint the defining portrait of Visual Kei, and sculpt it as an actual genre.