Flamboyant dress, garish make-up, elaborate hair styles and outrageously dramatic live performances define visual kei (visual style), a genre noted more for its capacity for self-expression than any particular style of music.
Pioneered in the late ‘80s by Hayashi Yoshiki’s X Japan, visual kei as a term was abbreviated down from visual shock kei, derived from a slogan on X Japan’s 1989 album Blue Blood – “Psychedelic Violence Crime of Visual Shock”.
Visual kei’s barrage of androgynous outfits and shocking lyrical themes was an affront to non-confrontational society, challenging conservative norms and offering freedom of expression, fashion and participation.
Though some visual kei artists found themselves influenced by the glam rock and glam metal of American and British acts like KISS and David Bowie, many saw their androgynous cross-dressing as rooted in ancient Japanese traditions like kabuki. Yet, strangely for a music genre, to be a visual kei artist was to partake in its subculture – to dress, dance and act differently – not, necessarily, to perform a certain style of music.
Throughout the 1990s, visual kei reached a domestic peak, evidenced by modest chart success, promotion by dedicated magazines and labels and an expanding fanbase for each of its fashion subgenres. Different scenes blossomed according to different bands and themes: Nagoya-kei for the gloomier, British punk-influenced bands of Nagoya, eroguro-kei as erotic and grotesque, angora-kei (“underground”) for those dressed in traditional uniform like kimono. Some, notably oshare-kei, were brighter and Harajuku-esque while kurofuku-kei opted to be clothed in a goth-influenced all-black.
Visual kei was more significant as a fashion movement than a musical scene but, at its peak, produced works of generational importance. Though visual kei has included wide variations of genre, even so far as hip hop and electronica, its penchant was mostly for the heavier sides of rock and metal. The genre’s most significant artists, largely from the late ‘80s through to the ‘90s, mostly stem from these styles.
X Japan’s albums are, in particular, some of the most progressive works of symphonic metal made by Japanese musicians, while other artists like Dir en Grey, BUCK-TICK and Luna Sea have enjoyed similar musical significance.
The suicide of X Japan guitarist Hide in 1998 is widely remarked as the beginning of visual kei’s popular demise. Throughout the 2000s, the genre went underground, kept alive largely through dedicated live houses and internet fanbases. This latter period of the genre, often termed “neo-visual kei”, placed ever-greater influence on fashion as bands’ musical styles diverged.
Yet, as anime and manga grew global followings throughout the 2000s, so did visual kei. When bands such as X Japan and Luna Sea regrouped near the end of the decade, they found devoted international audiences invested in the genre’s capacity for non-conformist self-expression.
Whether or not visual kei continues to produce interesting music is frequently debated among both fans and critics. Some accuse the genre of descending into a male parallel of the idol system, pressured by the industry into making stylistically-stale, mass-produced music. Others argue that visual kei has shaped so much of the fashion of modern Japanese pop that it is destined for a return to greatness beyond its current, imitative scenes.
Even if visual kei may not produce many contemporary bands of musical importance, the genre’s original unconventionality has left a considerable impact on the fashion and image of modern Japanese pop. While perhaps more sanitised and less shocking that it once was, visual kei’s place as an outlandish and unique moment in pop music history is undeniable.
Check out our Visual Kei playlist!