Visual Kei (ヴィジュアル系; Vijuaru Kei) is a Japanese music movement and subculture that has been popular since the 1980's. The artists wear makeup, have elaborate hairstyles and costumes, usually coupled with androgynous aesthetics.
The term "visual kei" is said to have originated from X JAPAN's slogan: "PSYCHEDELIC VIOLENCE CRIME OF VISUAL SHOCK". The first time the term has been officially used in the press is in an article by Sheiichi Hoshiko for the SHOXX magazine in 1992. The word used was "bijuaru shokku kei" (visual shock style). Other terms often used at that time was "okeshou kei" (make-up style).
Visual kei began in the mid-1980's, with bands such as Seikima-II, X JAPAN, D'ERLANGER and COLOR. Inspired by the punk, glam metal, and gothic-rock movements, the first wave of bands put emphasis on shocking visuals, often done through elaborate stage performances, eccentric hairstyles, and flamboyant attire, traits that would become staples of the entire movement.
The musical peculiarities of visual kei in 90's have been defined by popular bands LUNA SEA (initially produced by X JAPAN 's leader YOSHIKI) and Kuroyume. While LUNA SEA had a melodic and decadent approach in their music, Kuroyume were known for their aggressive and punk-like groove. In 1990 the first visual-kei only music magazine SHOXX was launched.
The mid-90's has been known as the band boom period. Indie labels (mostly FREE-WILL and its subsidiaries) and artists started receiving mainstream attention, and most prominent bands of the decade had major debuts. Visual kei television program such as Break Out (introducing indies bands) and Hot Wave gained several bands popularity, and major artists started appearing at popular variety shows and mainstream music programs. Influential bands in this period have been Dir en grey, L'Arc~En~Ciel, SHAZNA, PENICILLIN, Pierrot and MALICE MIZER.
Visual kei came back to be an underground subculture in the early 2000's after most popular bands in the movement had disbanded or toned down their trademark visuals and music. The increasing popularity of modern underground genres such as metal-core, hardcore punk and alternative metal had a major influence on new bands, leading to a bigger variety in the genre. Many bands in the new wave of visual kei perform a wide variety of music styles (including non-rock genres like dance music or hip-hop), and bands adopting LUNA SEA or Kuroyume-alike aesthetics and music started being labelled as "kote-kei" (コテ系, "old school").
Osare-kei (or oshare-kei) was probably the most prominent wave in the 2000's. Completely opposite to the old-school bands, osare-kei bands were known for their colorful and fancy aesthetics closer to the Harajuku street fashion. Their music was usually closer to pop-rock, dance-pop and sometimes hip-hop. Prominent bands were An Cafe and Ayabie.
In contrast, some visual kei bands like The GazettE and Nightmare have transitioned into heavier musical styles inspired by American nu metal and melodic metal-core bands. Their visuals also lost the gothic influences of the 90's for a style closer to the most recent fashion trends. These bands have been often labelled as "neo-visual kei".
As described by magazine SHOXX, neo visual kei was comparable in many ways to Japanese idols. A strong focus was put on the entertainment and the members' looks and personality, with many handshake and talk events, official blogs, gadgets and sometimes even regular programs and short movies. Live performances are usually intense and at the same time filled with MC's to showcase the band's character. However, most of these bands' activity is restricted to visual-kei specialist shops, programs, websites and live-houses, with little exposure to mainstream audience.
Even though CD's sales saw a rapid decrease in recent years, gadgets such as "chekis" (チェキ, instant camera polaroids) are said to be selling more than the band's music, and the members themselves started appearing at merchandise stands after concerts to help sales and gain new fans. The boom of neo-visual kei bands was mostly lead by the label PS Company (label that signed and managed popular artists such as Alice Nine and The GazettE as well as several indie acts).
In the mid 2000's visual kei gained a large international following among anime fans and people interested in Japanese culture. Many bands started touring and releasing music abroad, the most popular examples being Dir en grey (signed by the American label The End Records), Versailles and Moi dix Mois (signed to the German gothic label Trisol).
The end of the 2000's and the beginning of the 2010's has been seen as a transitional period for visual kei. While major bands kept their popularity steady, the independent scene saw a strong decrease of interest that lead to the cease of activities of many bands. Popular visual kei magazines like Zy, FOOL'S MATE and Neo genesis were also suspended.
Both Osare-kei and neo-visual gradually lost popularity due to band saturation, and air-band Golden Bomber gained most mainstream attention which however could not reinvigorate the movement.
Currently, visual kei has acquired a large international following among rock and heavy metal fans, with a handful of non-Japanese bands drawing inspiration from the movement. (see "Popularity")
Subculture and Fandom
While Visual kei is sometimes seen as a distinct musical genre, akin to shock rock and glam metal, many enthusiasts see it as a unique subculture, associated with rock music, elaborate attire, and a distinct set of aesthetics. As a direct offshoot of the heavy metal subculture, Visual kei shares a lot of traits with the metal culture, including a mostly young, white, middle-class demographic, ritualized activities such as attending concerts, collecting albums/songs, maintaining a non-mainstream image, and online activities such as contributing to websites and forums. It should be noted, however, that not all fans (especially male) are "visible members" of the subculture.
To extend their visual appeal, visual bands and artists who perform live would often engage in headbanging and display expressive hand gestures, often involving slow arm movements and reaching out to the audience. Such gestures are commonly referred to as "furitsuke" by fans. The "metal horns" gesture is also widespread, even among some non-metal artists. Similar to non-visual rock and metal concerts, fans may sometimes hold glowsticks or other items connected to the band concept. Often, certain gestures will be associated with certain bands, a notable example being the "X" symbol associated with X JAPAN. In some cases, band members would engage in displays of affection such as hugging and in some cases, kissing each others (often referred to as "fan service"). Instrument smashing and self-mutilation are uncommon, however, it is widely practised by a few bands, most notably Dir en grey and X JAPAN.
Fan participation in visual kei live performances are equally spectacular, often involving massive groups of people performing the same actions in unison. In a typical concert, the saizen, or front row of the audience area, has the highest activity, although the back area is also a place of very high fan activity. Fans in the saizen would often show participation through violent headbanging or arm-thrusting, the latter usually observed by female fans. Jumping, shoving, and piggybacking are very common as well. It is commonly observed that the saizen is usually dominated by loyal fans who decide each fan's position and role, however, many bands discourage or outright forbid this exclusivity. Outside the saizen, fan activity involves audience members jumping in unison, spinning or running around in circles (the latter commonly referred to as a "circle pit" outside the visual kei community). Moshing is not allowed in Japanese live houses, but a similar, more guided and choreographic version of it has been found in gyaku-tai (逆タイ). Most fan movements occur simultaneously, usually in response to a signal by the performing band. Concert etiquette, as with the rock and heavy metal subcultures, is based around an unwritten code of conduct. Members of the audience may also talk to others, and at times may involve them in group activities for the band.
Fan participation in visual kei, like rock and metal, often goes on even after live shows, with some fans offering gifts to their favorite artists, meeting up with band members, and buying official merchandise from live venues. In many cases, fan participation can go as far as attending J-culture conventions, applying for official fanclub membership, forming cover bands with fellow fans or engaging in cosplay, dressing up as their favorite bands. Visual kei cosplayers have gained some popularity for their meticulous attention to replicating the image of their favorite artists, often resulting in surprisingly accurate cosplays, as well as their very active participation during conventions and live performances Commonly imitated bands among cosplayers are Versailles, early Dir en Grey, MALICE MIZER, Kagrra, Phantasmagoria and The GazettE.
Even though it started as an underground movement, visual kei received mainstream attention in the mid 90's. The platinum-selling success of visual kei pioneers X JAPAN, LUNA SEA and Kuroyume led to a general interest in the visual kei subculture, and the raise of extravagant looking bands like MALICE MIZER had a strong impact on the strict Japanese society of the late 90's.
In 1998, the death of former X JAPAN guitarist hide (Hideto Matsumoto) had a strong mediatic impact, with an attendance of over 50,000 fans at his funeral and a queue of over 3 km outside the ceremony venue. A hide museum was even opened in his hometown Yokosuka in 2000.
The mid-2000's saw the birth of a second wave of visual kei artists, fuelled by a renewed interest in the subculture, greater recognition by major rock labels, and the growing popularity of PS Company bands like The GazettE. Even though the indies scene had a minor role compared to the 90's, several bands established themselves as leading artists in the movement.
In recent years, visual kei has experienced globalization and widespread reception among the rock, underground pop, and metal communities. Visual kei has been moderately popular in Southeast Asia and Europe, with some underground bands being described as visual kei or inspired by the visual kei image. One such band, a Swedish alternative metal group called Seremedy, has gained some attention as one of the first active non-Japanese visual kei acts.
Outside Japan, there has been some confusion among rock fans between visual kei and other related subcultures such as goth, punk, glam and emo, partly due to the scene's nature of drawing inspiration from other subcultures. Visual kei, unlike the aforementioned scenes, is often met with positive reception by members of the metal community, due to its non-mainstream sensibility and shock value. X JAPAN has recently embarked on an international tour, and before their hiatus, Versailles has gained widespread international popularity, attracting audiences from places as far away as North America and Europe.
The visual kei scene has been a mostly androcentric scene, however. Despite appealing to both gender demographics through the use of eye-catching performances, many VK artists are men, and although the fandom has a large female population, a sizable portion of the subculture is male. Recently, however, visual kei has seen the rise of a few notable female artists that draw influence from or are associated with the movement, with notable examples such as Kanon Wakeshima; a baroque-pop artist produced by Mana, Yui Itsuki, the front-woman of the post visual Kei project Yousei Teikoku, and the all-female visual kei bands, DANGER GANG and Exist Trace.