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Visual Kei

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Visual Kei (ヴィジュアル系; Bijuaru 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 NameEdit

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).

HistoryEdit

Visual Kei began in the mid-1980's, with bands such as 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 punkish 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 greyL'Arc~En~Ciel, SHAZNAPENICILLINPierrot 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 metalcore, 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 labeled as "kote-kei" (コテ系, "old school").

Osare-kei (or oshare-kei) was probably the most promiment wave in the 2000's. Completely opposite to the oldschool 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 metalcore 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 labeled 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 entetainment 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 livehouses, 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 taken 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 band bands. Popular visual kei magazines like ZyFOOL'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" below)

CharacteristicsEdit

MusicEdit

While visual kei is not bound to a specific music genre, the whole movement is generally associated with several styles of music, including, but not limited to, rock, pop, electronic music, neoclassical, industrial and heavy metal. More often, bands draw influence from a number of disparate musical subgenres in order to create a distinct sound. Many bands revolve around a concept that guides their musical and visual approaches, a notable example being the vampire story themed band Versailles, with a neoclassical metal sound in line with their rococo-inspired visual style. It is rather common for long-running visual kei bands such as X Japan and Dir en grey to undergo numerous stylistic changes in terms of their sound, with the former example venturing into progressive metal and the latter eventually leaning into metalcore.

The archetypal visual kei sound, however, is more or less rooted in hard rock and heavy metal, featuring loud, distorted guitars, vigorous vocals, emphatic drumming, and melodic hooks. Guitarists would often employ melodic power riffs and palm muting, and solos are fairly common. Guitarists may play in standard tuning or in Drop D, with oshare kei and tanbi kei artists keeping a standard sound or tuning higher for guitar solos, and less mainstream acts tuning lower than Drop D or Drop C. Extreme metal acts, particularly Nagoya and angura acts, will go as far as tuning to Drop B or A, or even eschewing traditional six-string guitars for seven or eight-string guitars, resulting in a thick, hollow and heavy tone similar to djent/mathcore acts.

Visual kei singers often have moderate to high vocal ranges, with vocal lines sung clearly. A few bands, especially those in the oshare kei and nu metal subgenres, employ distorted or auto-tuned vocals. Screamed vocals are very common in the genre and can range from faint, breathy vocals to inhuman shrieking. Frequently emulated vocalists in visual kei include Kiyoharu (ex-Kuroyume), Gackt, and Kyo (Dir en grey)

It is fairly common for drummers to employ fast rhythms using double bass pedals or, as with many bands, two bass drums. Metal-influenced bands such as X JAPAN play pounding beats and rapid bass drumming similar to thrash or power metal bands. Even more uncommon, but not unheard of, are blast beats. Visual kei drummers often employ complex fills and shuffled beats to add variety and, in live performances, signal mosh pits.

As with any popular style of rock or metal music, it is common for the bass guitar to be faint. Bassists in visual kei, unlike bassists in other musical styles, are as important and noteworthy as the lead or rhythm guitarists. They would often play savage riffs with great speed and technicality, usually timed with the rhythmic patterns of the kick drum or the rhythm guitar. Some bassists employ fingerstyle techniques or in some cases, slapping.

AestheticsEdit

LUNASEA 1992

LUNA SEA. Long, spiky hair, accessories, and makeup form the basis of Visual kei fashion

Visual Kei artists are easily identified by their outward appearance, consisting of shaggy or spiky anime-esque hair, gothic or punk-inspired atttire, makeup, and accessories, traits that form the basis of the archetypal VK look. However, like the music, the style has no limits. Visual kei fashion draws influence from a wide variety of well-established fashion styles and can range from the subtle to the extreme.

HairEdit

Many VK artists have dyed hair, often colored red, brown, blonde, or even blue. VK artists also opt for straightened hair, as it allows for a wide variety of hairstyles. Layered cuts have become the norm, as it makes the hair easier to style and maintain. The hair is often flipped out, curled, shaped into tufts, or molded into spikes, and is usually backcombed/teased to ensure a soft, loose, and feathery look that would allow the hair to flow but retain it shape, even while headbanging. Visual kei artists may also opt for extensions. Punk hairstyles like mohawks, fanned hair, devilocks, and liberty spikes are also employed, especially by older bands such as X JAPAN and BUCK-TICK. Mainstream artists opt for looser, more natural styles such as side-swept emo bangs or slicked-back surfer hair. Some visual kei metal artists wear long, thick dreadlocks, a notable example being Ruki of The GazettE. In some cases, visual kei artists may not style their hair at all, instead, they may let their hair fall freely or have their hair heavily texturized for a shaggy, messy look.

Clothing and ImageEdit

Visual kei fashion is characterized by individuality, aesthetic appeal and different clothing combinations. Visual kei fashion is based around an ecletic fusion of rock, punk, metal, and contemporary fashion, however, there are very few, if no rules or limits at all, as to what visual kei artists can wear, and it is very common among the subculture for artists to experiment with different fashion styles. Common outfit choices include vests, formal suits, skinny jeans, jackets, capes, and coats. Bondage gear and leather clothes are popular choices as well. Some bands, wear anime-inspired attire, even going as far as wearing costumes.

Versailles-199316

Hizaki of Versailles, one of the better-known cross-dressing Visual Kei artists.

Visual kei puts a huge empasis on artistic freedom, shock value, and metrosexual aesthetics. It is a unisex style, and as such, many artists opt for an androgynous look, which adds shock value and fan appeal. Male artists in visual kei often have lean, slender figures to fit the demands of the style, and it is not uncommon for male artists to adopt a semi-feminine appearance, complete with long, stylish hair and feminine-looking attire. It is quite popular among visual kei artists to cross-dress or take an entirely feminine appearance, with examples like HIZAKI and the late Jasmine You of Versailles, Mana of Moi Dix Mois (ex-MALICE MIZER), Isshiki Hiyori of Kiryu and, formerly, Toshiya and Shinya of Dir en grey.
Gazette-2-1

The GazettE

On the other end of the spectrum, VK bands such as The GazettE opt for more aggressive stylings, characterized by dark, BDSM-inspired clothing, spiky hair, pale/natural-looking makeup and a more punk/metal image.

Dir-en-grey-IN-SITU-dir-en-grey-32441452-690-430

Dir en grey, an extreme metal band associated with the VK movement, showing a rugged image similar to western death metal acts.

Some bands, especially major acts and may go for a more toned-down, semi-casual visual approach. Many acts also opt for a more westernized appearance, often done through the use of minimal make-up, unstyled hair, and western outfits such as business suits, military uniforms or jackets. Extreme metal acts such as Dir en grey take it a step further, dropping most, if not all, of the flamboyant attire, heavy makeup, and androgynous aesthetics in favor of a highly distressed, shocking, and rugged look similar to western death metal or black metal bands.

Generally, the clothing choices of visual kei artists and musicians are based around, if not directly inspired, by their musical stylings. This is observable in long-running bands that undergo multiple musical changes, as they would change their appearance to match the current style of their music.

Subculture and FandomEdit

Exist trace

Attending and participating in concerts is just as important in Visual kei as it is in the rock and heavy metal subcultures, as shown by fans of the all-female VK band Exist Trace

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 (espacially male) are "visible members" of the subculture.
X japan concert

Visual kei fans making the "X" gesture during a concert by X JAPAN in 2011.

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 practiced by a few bands, most notably Dir en grey and X JAPAN.

Gazette

Visual kei fans thrust their arms and perform heavy metal gestures during a live concert by The GazettE

Fan participation in visual kei live performances are equally spetacular, 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 an
Versailles Cosplay

Fans of the Visual kei metal band Versailles cosplaying as the band's members (Cosplayed members from left to right: Teru, Masashi, Kamijo, Yuki, Hizaki)

d 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.

Main SubgenresEdit

Chikashitu Kei (地下室系) / Angura Kei (アングラ系)Edit

"Angura kei" or "Chikashitsu-kei", (both meaning underground style) usually rejects the androgynous beauty of the mainstream visual kei bands, and mostly features scary or disturbing aesthetics and themes. Sometimes called "Eroguro kei" (エログロ系) or "Misshitsu kei" (密室系). The term is said to have been taken from the cali≠gari event 東京地下室 Tokyo Chikashitsu ("Tokyo Underground").

Many bands use to wear corpse paint alike makeup (inspired by the Japanese kabuki tradition), and their concepts are often connected to the Japanese late Taisho and early Showa imaginery (first half of the 20th century) or "eroguro nonesense" literature and cinema.

Due to their differences with traditional visual kei bands, it has been debated whethere these bands actually belong to the visual kei culture or not. Several bands described themselves as not being visual kei, but are still considered to be part of the movement by most fans.

Representative angura kei bands are cali≠gariMuccInugami Circus-dan and グルグル映畫館.

Kote Kei (コテ系)Edit

Kote kei (old school) usually refers to the original visual kei bands of the early and mid 90's and later bands emulating their styles. It is usually colorful and shocking, characterized by wild hair, exotic attire, heavy use of enamell and accessories. Even though kote kei was originally referring to the glam rock inspired style of early X JAPAN and COLOR, it is now mostly connected to the dark and decadent looks of mid-90's bands like early LUNA SEAKuroyume and Dir en grey.

Bands from the indies labels Matina and Soleil can be cited as the clearest example of kote kei sound and aesthetics. Bands inspired by Kuroyume were often called "kuro-kei" (black) or "dark kei", while bands closer to the melodic and atmospheric sound and looks of early LUNA SEA were called "shiro-kei" (white). Due to their extreme visuals, kote kei bands receive little attention by mainstream audience and rarefly get to major debut. Representative kote kei bands are La'MulePhantasmagoria and Madeth gray'll.

Tanbi kei (耽美系)Edit

Versailles-versailles-28518644-600-400

Pictured above is Versailles, a popular tanbi kei.

Drawing inspiration from classic European fashion, tanbi kei ("aesthetic school") is a subset of Kote kei that adds a more elegant, formal and neoclassical twist to the visual kei look. It is often cited as an influence to the Japanese gothic lolita fashion trend.

Even though it started as a more baroque version of the trademark old school visual kei sound, many bands started adopting a highly technical style much closer to power and symphonic metal in recent years, with symphonic arrangements, complex guitar solos and long instrumental interludes. Tanbi kei is also notable for having an abundance of male-to-female crossdressers and extravagant stage settings.

Because of its easily recognizable image and the elaborated costumes, it is one of the most popular visual kei styles among cosplayers.

Original tanbi kei bands are MALICE MIZER, Raphael and LAREINE, while modern examples can be D, Versailles and Kaya.

Nagoya kei (名古屋系)Edit

Nagoya kei refers to bands inspired by Nagoya acts such as Laputa, Kuroyume, Merry Go Round, and ROUAGE. Close to both kote kei and angura kei, these bands usually wear black clothes and dark, disturbing makeup. Songs are known for their dark and decadent atmospheres, and can be both slow and fast paced.

Kote kei and Nagoya kei are often confused, but while kote kei is known for its raw and unpolished sound, recent Nagoya kei bands feature a refined and experimental music, sometimes reminding American and European alternative rock. Another difference with kote kei is the rare use of colors: while kote kei usually features vivid hair colors and enamell outfits, Nagoya kei bands show are more mature and toned down look. Many bands use to wear black suits, and light hair colors are rare.

Modern Nagoya kei examples can be Lynch.deadman and 9GOATS BLACK OUT.

Osare kei (オサレ系)Edit

An Cafe

An Cafe, a commercially successful Oshare kei band, showing the toned-down, urban-inspired fashion typical of the Oshare kei movement.

Literally meaning "fashionable style", osare kei (or "oshare kei") is a trend focused on light, colorful and appealing aesthetics as opposed to the dark and shocking image traditionally associated with the rest of the movement. Other names for the movement include "pop kei" and "soft kei". Being a more mainstream-friendly scene, it has been the fastest-growing visual kei movement in the mid-2000's,  and probably one the most popular in recent years. Oshare kei's sound has more in common with pop and punk than hard rock and heavy metal, characterized by catchy riffs, fast drumming, which may or may not incorporate dance/jungle beats, electronic sounds and highly melodic singing, which may or may not include screaming. Some bands may incorporate nu metal and hip hop elements such as rapping, sampled sounds, raspy vocals and scratching. Lyrical themes are usually lighter and brighter, often dealing with topics such as love, happiness, positivity.
Lm C

Maya and Aiji of LM.C, showing a darker, more punk-influenced version of the Oshare kei image.

The oshare kei image is characterized by more casual-looking attire, a stripped-down, contemporary image, anime-inspired haircuts or, with some bands, unstyled hair, and the use of bright colors such as red, yellow, pink, or white. Bands with heavier punk influences may also include black and blue among their color choices. Some bands have crossed over into the kote kei or Nagoya kei in the form of the so-called "alter-ego bands", a notable example being Ayabie, whose members are involved in a Black Visual shock alter-band called Deathbie.

Some of the most popular and well-received bands in the genre are An CafeSuG and LM.C

Neo-visual / KoteosaEdit

As the name says, koteosa is a mixture of kote kei and osare kei which had its peak in the mid-to-late 2000's. Bands adopt a fashionable look usually close to the Shinjuku and Harajuku street fashion, and showcase a genre characterized by catchy and mainstream appealing tunes framed into a more aggressive, live oriented band sound. Koteosa bands usually put a strong focus on the members' look and personality, and have fans perform both furitsuke (coreographies, hand movements) and traditional headbanging/moshing at concerts. Popular koteosa bands are The GazettE, Alice Nine and Nightmare.

Soft VisualEdit

Soft visual usually refers to those visual kei bands who were originally old school or tanbi kei bands but consinstently toned down their sound and visuals after gaining popularity. Other soft visual kei bands do not look nor sound like a visual kei band, but are somehow connected to the visual kei scene (mostyle due to one of the members' past bands or the livehouses they usually play concerts at). Soft visual examples are Janne Da Arc, late LUNA SEA and Waive .

Other GenresEdit

Even though these are the main subgenres in visual kei, there are many other minor trends usually depending on each band's costume concepts and aesthetics. For example, bands who wear white gowns are called "Iryokei" (医療系 medical style), cyberpunk looking bands are called Cyber kei, etc.

PopularityEdit

Hide

hide (Hideto Matsumoto) of X JAPAN, whose death in 1998 stunned the entire VK scene, leaving some fans uncertain about the future of VK during that time.

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 JAPANLUNA 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, fueled 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.

Seremedy

Seremedy, a Swedish alternative metal band that has become notable as one of the first VK-inspired acts outside Japan.

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.
Exist trace 2012

Exist Trace, an all-female Visual kei band. Female VK musicians have gained some attention due to their convention-challenging status.

Kanon-Wakeshima

Kanon Wakeshima, a baroque pop artist, whose visually stunning image was produced by Mana of Malice Mizer.

The VK 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 sizeable 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 frontwoman of the post-Visual Kei project Yousei Teikoku, and the all-female VK bands Danger Gang and Exist Trace.

Main LabelsEdit

Free-Will GroupEdit

HOLIDAY/BURNS GroupEdit

Live-house Owned LabelsEdit

OthersEdit

Main MediasEdit

TV ProgramsEdit

Radio ProgramsEdit

MagazinesEdit


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