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Visual Kei: One of Japan’s Most Interesting Scenes, and Everything There is To Know

Visual Kei: One of Japan’s Most Interesting Scenes, and Everything There is To Know

The Visual Kei scene is, without a doubt, interesting and possibly even strange to some, especially if you’ve never heard of it before. Here, I’ll be showing you exactly what it is!

Visual Kei, also abbreviated as V-Kei (V系) is a music scene and fashion movement which originated in Japan during the early 1980s. It’s influences are based in Glam RockGothPunk and traditional Japanese clothing, as well as kabuki theatre and shoujo (manga marketed towards young women). The fans and their aesthetic are sometimes referred to as Bangya (バンギャ).

The History

X JAPAN, the pioneers of Visual Kei
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 was used in the press was in an article by Sheiichi Hoshiko for the SHOXX magazine in 1992, using the term “bijuaru shokku kei”, meaning “visual shock style”.

Visual Kei began in the early 1980s and was inspired by the punk, glam metal and gothic rock movements. The first couple of bands put emphasis on visuals, often through hairstyles, stage performances, and attire, which would all become some of the most well-known parts of Visual Kei.

In the mid-90s, aka the “band boom” period, indie labels and artists began receiving mainstream attention, and some of the most prominent bands of the decade had their major debuts. TV shows such as Break Out and Hot Wave gave several bands popularity. However, by the 2000s it returned to being an underground subculture after most popular bands either disbanded or toned down their visuals and music. Genres such as metalcore, hardcore punk and alternative metal were growing popular, which had a major influence on new bands.

Many Visual Kei bands began selling pieces of merch known as “chekis” (チェキ), or Instax polaroids. Majority of bands still sell these to this day! Many J-Pop groups also sell chekis, whether through events or in albums.

By the mid-2000s, V-Kei gained a large international following among anime fans, as well as people interested in Japanese culture. Many bands started touring and releasing music abroad, and some bands even release music in English nowadays such as JILUKA (an example being their song “BLVCK”, which is entirely in English). Currently, Visual Kei has acquired a large international following among rock and heavy metal fans, with many non-Japanese bands drawing inspiration from the movement. For example, Swedish alternative metal band Seremedy gained attention as being one of the first non-Japanese Visual Kei inspired acts.

Seremedy, the Swedish metal band inspired by Visual Kei
Visual Kei has been met with positive reception by metal fans, allowing many bands to tour internationally and attract international popularity.

The Visual Kei Fandom, Subculture and Performances

Fans attending a NIGAI one man live
Visual Kei is often seen as a unique subculture, due to its wild fashion. It does, however, share a lot of traits with metal culture; both indulge in activities such as attending concerts, collecting albums, maintaining a non-mainstream image, and online activities.

Many artists that perform live engage in typical rock/metal activities, such as headbanging and displaying hand gestures (you can see fans headbanging and waving their hands in this video of a performance at a NIGAI live); often involving reaching out to the audience or slow arm movements. This is commonly referred to as “furitsuke” by fans. The “metal horns” gesture is also commonly used, and sometimes fans hold glowsticks or other items connected to the band’s concept. Certain gestures will often be associated with bands, such as using an “X” symbol with X JAPAN.

X JAPAN fans making the “X” gesture with their hands and penlights during a concert in 2011.
In some cases, band members would engage in “fan service”, such as hugging and in some cases kissing. Although it is quite uncommon, instrument smashing and self-mutilation have been practised by a few bands, mainly X JAPAN and DIR EN GREY.

Fans in the front row of the audience area, commonly known as the “saizen”, would engage in violent headbanging or arm-thrusting. Other common acts include jumping, shoving, and piggybacking. The saizen is usually dominated by loyal fans. Outside of this area, audience members also jump in unison, or engage in circle pits (where fans run around in circles, a good example of a circle pit is this one during System Of A Down‘s concert in Sydney, Australia in 2012 during the song “Toxicity”. A lot of SOAD’s circle pits are during this song, however, they have also been done during other songs. Another example would be this circle pit during Lamb of God‘s performance at VOA Festival 2019 in Lisboa, Portugal during their song “Redneck”). Moshing is actually not allowed in Japanese live houses, but a similar version has been made by fans. Most fan movements occur simultaneously in response to a signal made by the band.

Some fans also offer gifts to their favourite artists, meet up with band members, and buy official merchandise from venues. Some fans even attend J-culture conventions, apply for official fan club membership, form cover bands or engage in cosplaying as their favourite bands. These cosplays are often surprisingly accurate.

Fans cosplaying as Visual Kei band Phantasmagoria members MatoiKisaki and also Matoi again, respectively

The Fashion

Sena, guitarist of JILUKA
Visual Kei fashion often includes very flamboyant and big hair, as well as heavy makeup and costumes of varying styles. Due to this, it is generally easy to tell when a band is Visual Kei. The fashion trends started a movement which saw musicians exploring boundaries of androgyny and explicitness while also providing a unique take on Western music styles.

Some general fashion traits include:

  • Flashy hairstyles
  • Pale skin/Shironuri (白塗り) [a Japanese form of makeup which is based on the traditional white face paint of geishas and stage actors]
  • Piercings
  • Spiky hair with colourful segments/streaks
  • Gloves
  • Rings
  • Platform shoes/heels
  • Highly elaborate outfits

The Music

MEJIBRAY, who are known globally for their song “Kore wo Izon to Yobu Nara”.
Despite V-Kei music generally being described as heavy rock, power metal, nu-metal etc., it actually has a vast variety of genres, with different bands making different kinds of music. Some bands make music that sounds more like J-Pop, while others go for a rock sound, others for metal, and some for electronic dance music.

Music Artists
Over the years, there have been an incredible amount of bands, with ones like Malice Mizer and X JAPAN being some of the most popular. Additionally, while majority of Vkei bands are male bands, there have been numerous female bands over the years too! Some Visual Kei bands include:

  • DADAROMA, a four-member band active from 2014 until 2020 when they disbanded after their one man tour POINT OF NO RETURN. Vocalist yoshiatsu is currently the vocalist of FUKURO, and guitarist takashi and bassist tomo are both members of THE MADNA.
  • MEJIBRAY, a four-member band formed in 2011 who have been on hiatus since 2017 following Tsuzuku and Koichi ending their contracts and later forming the duo 8P-SB. Guitarist MiA helped compose the song “PAS DE QUATRE” by PEDIOPHOBIA.
  • X JAPAN, also known simply as X, is a five-member band formed in 1982 who initially disbanded in 1997 before being reformed in 2007. They are credited as being one of the pioneers of Visual Kei. They were also one of the first Japanese acts to achieve mainstream success, even while in an independent label. They have held concerts in North America, South America, Europe and Asia. HMV Japan ranked them at no.40 on their list of the 100 most important Japanese acts, and Rolling Stone Japan ranked “Blue Blood” at no.15 on their list of the 100 Greatest Japanese Rock Albums of All Time. In 2017, American online media magazine Loudwire named X Japan as the best metal band from Japan. They have reportedly sold over 30 million records.
  • Malice Mizer, a band active from 1992 to 2001 formed by guitarists Mana and Közi. Their earlier music and themes were characterised by their strong French and classical influences, however, they later incorporated Gothic aspects instead. They were considered one of the big four of Visual Kei alongside La’cryma ChristiFanatic Crisis and Shazna. Their album “Merveilles” was included on Kerrang!‘s 2021 list of 13 essential Japanese rock and metal albums. Mana’s clothing label Moi-même-Moitié was established in 1999, and is credited with helping popularise the Gothic Lolita fashion movement. He also formed the gothic metal band Moi dix Mois. Former vocalist Gackt has sold over 10 million solo records, and has had many of his songs used in video games, anime, and TV shows.
  • NIGAI, a four-member band formed in 2021. Their guitarist Yuga is also a member of Shellmy. They are currently an independent band. Unfortunately, they announced that they will be disbanding in March 2024, but it is never too late to become a fan!
  • The GazettE, formed in 2002 currently signed to Sony Music. They have performed at Knotfest Japan and Nippon Budokan previously, as well as the Russian rock festival Kubana, and have also performed in countries such as the US, Canada, Mexico, Argentina, Chile, Brazil, France, Germany, Poland, Hungary, Belarus, the UK and Spain.
  • JILUKA, a four-member band formed in 2013. They ranked 12th in JRock News‘ top 15 Visual Kei and Japanese Rock artists of 2019. They are described as “modern metal visual kei”, but they are mostly seen as metalcore. They recently made their first performance in the United States in October 2023 at Anime Weekend Atlanta. All members have interest in other bands, with member Zyean saying he likes a lot of bands such as MetallicaBullet for My ValentineRhapsody of FireBehemoth and many more. Boogie claims he likes anything, like Korn and Luna Sea, but Slipknot got him into metal. Ricko is a fan of Linkin Park, and he says he also used to listen to L’Arc-en-CielSena mentiones some of his more specific influences like KansasRixton, and classical music. He also says he used to listen to hip hop until a friend urged him to listen to X JAPAN’s “Kurenai”.
  • JILL-PRINCE, a four-member band who have a more bright and colourful image compared to other bands. They were formed in September 2016, and are mainly active in Kansai.
  • exist†trace, a female Visual Kei band formed in 2003. They made their US debut at Sakura-Con in 2011. Their release “Virgin” reached no.84 on the Oricon album chart.
  • gulu gulu, formed in 2019, suspended activities in March 2023. Initially started as a solo project by Kuroyuri to Kage vocalist Karasuna Mei.
  • DIR EN GREY, formed in 1997 and have had numerous stylistic changes, however, they started out as a V-Kei band and continue to maintain a dramatic attire. They took their name from the band Lareine, who released a song called “Dir en gray” in 1995.

Visual Kei Subgenres
Eroguro Kei

A combination of the English words “erotic” and “grotesque”, the culture influencing the style stems from the 1920s-1930s. It often utilizes extreme themes like horror and erotic cinema/manganime. Cali=Gari is considered the pioneer of the genre, with other bands like MERRY, Mucc and DIR EN GREY being considered Eroguro.

Iryou Kei

Sex Android
Iryou means “medical”, and the subgenre features the use of grotesque medical themes like bloody lab coats and eye patches. Bands like Sex Android and +isolation are associated with the subgenre. Relates to the uniquely Japanese fetish with wounds, hospitals and injuries.

Kote Kei

Madeth Gray’ll
Considered the oldest and most established form. Often referred to as the “classic” look, with the dramatic hair styles and clothing. It is found in two types; “black” and “white”, meaning bands either portray a darker side or a lighter side. La’Mule, early DIR EN GREY, Lariene and Madeth Gray’ll are examples of Kote Kei.

Tanbi Kei

Translates to “Aesthetical Style”. Focuses on a European inspired style, and the outfits are usually extremely detailed and elaborate costumes, with dramatic makeup to match. Heavily influenced by the Victorian, Rococo, and Baroque periods of European fashion. It can also employ the dramatic hairstyles seen in Kote Kei, as well as accessories like bonnets and hats. Malice Mizer, Lariene, Versailles and the musician Kaya are considered Tanbi Kei.

Oshare Kei

An Café
The word “oshare” means stylish or fashionable, and Oshare Kei bands look more colourful and cute, wearing more street fashion than any other types. The music is more pop or punk, and the lyrics are positive and bright. The band Baroque is considered the subgenre’s pioneer, and bands like SuGTHE KIDDIEKra and An Café are other Oshare Kei bands.

Kurofuku Kei

Consists of just black clothing, commonly black suits. Often linked with early Visual Kei bands like BUCK-TICK and Zi:Kill.

Angura Kei

Stems from the English word “underground”. Derived from a cultural movement particularly of independent theatre in Japan from the 1960s and the political unrest. Linked to Eroguro and many bands bridge both lines, but it is considered darker and more formal. Angura Kei features the use of Japanese uniforms, kimono and other types of traditional wear. Bands include Kagrra, and Inugami Circus-Dan.

Nagoya Kei

Based in Nagoya, and tends to be darker and gloomier. It has stronger Western, usually British, punk rock influences. There is less emphasis on the looks. Many band members form bands together. Silver~Rose is considered the pioneer of the genre. Other bands include LaputalynchDeathgaze, Gullet and Kuroyume.

Visual Kei has grown a lot over the decades, and more and more bands gain fans each and every day! Hopefully this post helped you understand Vkei a bit more, maybe you even became a fan today too! Thank you for reading 🙂

If you think anything else can be added, or if anything isn’t correct, nicely leave a comment and I’ll (eventually) edit the post! ^^

made by cutieyoomei


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