Visual Kei, or Visual Style, is an artistic movement among Japanese musicians that is characterised by the use of make-up, elaborate hair styles and flamboyant costumes, often, but not always, coupled with androgynous aesthetics, in the style of David Bowie. It came about in the early 1980's, spearheaded by bands such as X Japan and Buck Tick, and has existed in various forms ever since. (You can see more of the history over on the Useful Notes page, if you like.)
It is often considered a sub-genre of J-rock (a term referring to Japanese rock in general), with its roots in glam rock, shock rock, punk, metal and Kabuki Theater, though its use outside of Japan is making this somewhat an outdated definition. As is usual amongst more theatrical musical genres, the aesthetics are supposed to be as strong as the music in order to complement and enhance it, and although there have been many trends over the years there is no defining sound.
In the current scene, for instance, the most commonly used genres are hard rock and Heavy Metal (except for within the Oshare subgenre, which favours pop-punk or electronic dance music), but there is also horror punk, Power Metal, Gothic Metal, electronic, pop rock, nu-metal, Industrial, Metalcore and even Death Metal. Even some rare Rap Metal and straight-up rap can be found. Exactly which genres are used often depends on the time period: In the 80's rock and glam metal were popular; in the 90's a heavy goth influence came in and many bands developed a softer or more experimental sound, with the use of synth becoming common; and in the early 2000s Metalcore, Alternative Metal and Pop Punk have become the norm.
Despite the highly feminine appearance of many VK musicians, the majority of band members, as with other rock genres, are male.
Visual Kei is often broken down into subgenres, the most common being:
Angura Kei: characterised by an emphasis on traditional Japanese culture, with band members often wearing kimonos, and occasionally Geisha style makeup. Heavy Metal and Hard Rock are the most favoured genres. Example bands of this style would be Kagrra and Heisei Isshin. Miyavi went through a phase as this and still has some elements of it.
Kote Kei: arguably the oldest and most established form of VK after genres began to split off from Visual Shock, it is characterised by incredibly striking clothing and hair. A common theme is to have every member of the band dye their hair a different color. There are two main forms, 'Black Kote Kei', which is faster, harder and more aggressive, and 'White Kote Kei' which is more melodious and focuses more on musicianship. Example bands are pretty much too numerous to name any one individual band, though this is arguably what both Luna Sea and Dir En Grey began as, though they would change to other styles... and this is what Versailles was said to be before it broke up, and its reformation as "Jupiter" seems to be similar.
Oshare Kei: Characterised by a more cheerful sound and brighter aesthetics, with softer colours and materials being favoured. Most bands play pop punk or soft rock, though there are a few who play straight-up Hardcore Punk. Some example bands would be An Cafe, LM.C or [SuG], some of the early works of Miyavi would qualify, though he was always on the fringes.
Nagoya Kei: Is defined by a gloomy, dark or harsh sound, and usually grim visuals. Darker than Lolita and less in-your-face than Eroguro, black is very much a favoured colour, and growled or barked vocals are common. There tends to be less importance placed on visuals in this subgenre than in others. The term has become the subject of misuse, with ignorant fans often applying the label to any dark and heavy J-metal group regardless of origin or musical style, such as the case with Luna Sea, despite not being from Nagoya (though it is somewhat acceptable nowadays to use the label for any VK band that shows the archetypal attitude, sound and image of true Nagoya kei bands, regardless of origin.) Dir En Grey also gets misclassified as this. True Nagoya kei bands, however, include acts such as Kuroyume, Deathgaze and Lynch.
Visual Shock (aka Veteran Kei): The arguable parent subgenre from which the others branched out, as pioneered by X Japan and the other Extasy Records bands, Buck Tick, and COLOR in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Thrash Metal band Sex Machineguns also belongs here. (It also includes SEIKIMA-II, though simply because SEIKIMA-II fits nowhere else). It contains and can use any and all elements from these subgenres and arguably gave birth to them all, but Viewer Gender Confusion is a near-constant as are '80s Hair, Anime Hair, and You Gotta Have Blue Hair. Few new bands would fall into this genre, though cover bands and the occasional new band that doesn't fit elsewhere may try.
Ex-Visual Kei/Post-Visual Kei: These are bands that started out as visual or tried to appeal to visual fans and then dissociated themselves from the genre/took on an unorthodox approach to the style, either as a form of aversion/subversion of its tropes or in an attempt to reach a wider audience. Good examples are L'Arc-en-Ciel (started out as Visual Shock, but referring to them as visual became a near Berserk Button for them), Dir En Grey (started out as Black Kote Kei, became Eroguro, and is now Death Metal or deathcore) and Miyavi (started out as Visual Shock, but has also tried different styles and even went through a non-Visual phase). However, not all ex-Visual/post-Visual artists are devoid of any visual flair, in fact, most ex-Visual/post-Visual artists showcase visuals in varying degrees of flamboyance. Also, post-kei groups/artists are notable for undergoing periodic style changes, which makes labeling them as VK surprisingly easy or nigh-impossible, depending on who you ask.
There are always exceptions to this though. Many bands straddle genres and some don't really fit into any at all. Other bands start off visual and then leave the subgenre. Also, as there are no real rules to Visual Kei besides the fact that you have to put effort into a quirky appearance, there are often debates amongst fans as to which bands count as visual in the first place.
In recent years, Visual Kei has begun to be used by non-Japanese bands, especially bands in the underground metal scene. One such band is the Swedish Alternative Metal / Melodic Death Metal band Seremedy, which gained some mainstream success before disbanding in 2013.
Some Visual Kei labels and associated organizations:
Extasy Records - Yoshiki's label, and probably the first specific Visual Kei label. Inactive (mostly) in recent years.
Under Code: Began as a sub-label of Free Will Records but became its own label, ran by Kisaki until it went bankrupt in 2012. Notable for being the only neo-Visual Shock label (though it also had White Kote Kei bands in its roster, and one Oshare band).
Media inspired by or making major references to Visual Kei (Visual Kei or at the very least Visual Kei artists are anything from a plot point to making a recognizable on-screen appearance)
Anime and Manga
It is worth noting, however, that DMC itself is never explicitly referred to as Visual Kei, but their bassist, Jagi, joins a visual band as a side project in one story arc. The band, Karisuma, is portrayed quite differently from DMC, and appears to be based on more recent Visual Kei. Could well be an intentional comparison between Visual Shock and modern Visual Kei, in that everything from fan behavior to stagecraft has changed and morphed into a form almost unrecognizable from the beginning. *
While this isn't a place for debate on whether those changes were good or bad, just compare an 80s-early 90s video of X Japan or SEIKIMA-II to a more modern one of [SuG] or Uchuu Sentai Noiz. Also, unlike in Western genres where new generally overtakes old, the old Visual Shock bands and more modern Visual Kei bands tend to co-exist for a variety of reasons - and also tend to share from the same pool of talent.
"Bus Stop," which featured a two guys at a bar scene... one of the guys being Yoshiki. Barely counts, since it was filmed during a time in his life when his style was more "cool rich guy" than specifically Visual Kei - yet he was recognizable on sight enough to make it count.
Chrono Cross: One of the characters you can pick up in your Loads and Loads of Characters journey (and one that is arguably fairly plot-important) is Nikki, a Visual Kei bandleader and guitarist who is equal parts shoutout to hide (he's a redhead with eye makeup very much like hide's, and plays a yellow heart guitar) and Nikki Sixx from Mötley Crüe. In the Japanese version he was named Slash instead of Nikki, which made him a shoutout to the Guns N' Roses guitarist and to hide.
The Visual Kei musicians and the Visual Kei scene provides or has provided examples of the following tropes:
Always Male: Pretty much, as in most rock genres, though there are a few exceptions: Fiction and Lucifer Luscious Violenoue from older VK, and the modern bands Exist Trace, DESTROSE, and Danger Gang are all female, as is the YouTubeX Japan cover band called SOX Japan. There are some individual artists too: the drummer Hina (who works now with the late Taiji Sawada's band which was and is otherwise all male) is one; Inugami Kyouko, the vocalist from Inugami Circus-dan, is another, Yui Itsuki of Yousei Teikoku is a rather famous example, and perhaps the most well-known outside the subculture is Kanon Wakeshima.
Inverted by the fans. It is not unusual for Visual Kei bands (even in the Hard Rock and Heavy Metal genres which are usually heavily male for non Visual Kei acts) to have more female fans than male fans on average, or an almost even split of fan gender.
Anime Hair: More common in modern Oshare Kei. Older Visual Kei (especially Visual Shock) tended more toward '80s Hair at its most extreme, though the two did merge at points as both anime and Visual Kei developed side by side.
Artistic Stimulation: Very much so. Alcohol could be argued to be almost the lifeblood of Visual Kei because almost all performances are at bars, many band events center around drinking and drinking parties, and the amount of artists who are or who are close to The Alcoholic or Off The Wagon or Functional Addict are too numerous to count. Most Visual Kei artists also smoke, although many have quit. While recreational drug use in general aside from alcohol and tobacco is VERY much frowned upon openly due to Japan's attitudes toward drugs in general, methamphetamine abuse is also an open secret among some artists and has figured in the burnouts and/or deaths of some.
The Atoner: Many members of older bands will fall into this trope, becoming social activists or at the very least very nice people to make up for theexcesses and sometimes even criminal acts of their early days.
Audience Participation Song: Visual Kei is a genre very dependent on audience participation. Most bands will have at least one image song like this, complete with specific "furi" (hand gestures or dance moves) to go along with it.
Ax Crazy: Some bands (generally Eroguro or Visual Shock bands, but Nagoya Kei sometimes as well) take posing as this trope Up to Eleven, at least for specific members, and many songs go around people with the theme. Then there are the few people who are Ax CrazyJerkasses offstage - Wataru from the band 12012, who ended up in court for choking somebody after a night of heavy drinking, is one famous case.
Bar Brawl: Arguably somewhat less common now (though still engaged in by indies and unpopular bands and between fans, for variousreasons), this was common for a while among Visual Shock bands in the 80s and early 90s.
Base Breaker / Berserk Button: Almost anything that can be associated with Visual Kei can and would enrage someone somewhere in the fandom. From the usual, such as which bands, artists, or subgenres are better to more specific topics such as reasons for bands breaking up, members leaving/retiring from music/transferring to another band, or the deaths of famous artists.
Do not, ever claim to have slept with a bandperson or be dating them, even if you are or you have. This is a Berserk Button to many fans for a lot of reasons (everything from homophobia/transphobia to jealousy to their being convinced you're a liar, to anger over being invasive of privacy, to fear of the Gold Digger or Yoko Oh No). It is somewhat mitigated if you are a highly beautiful and conventionally attractive straight female and/or the artist himself or herself has announced the relationship first, but it's still very touchy for a lot of people.
Post-Visual Kei, in general, is the subject of much controversy. It is a major Base Breaker and Berserk Button for many fan circles, as a great many Visual fans express disdain for artists who go down the post-Visual route and never return, leading to accusations of some post-Visual bands "selling out" to appeal to a wider audience or a different demographic. L'Arc~en~Ciel has been the target of many VK purists for leaving the scene, then showing off visuals despite constantly denying that they are VK. A similar controversy exists within the fandom of Dir En Grey.
Oshare Kei. Bring it up on any Visual Kei or J-rock (or any rock/metal discussion for that matter), and hope to escape alive and unscathed.
As a general rule, never, ever confuse Visual Kei with Emo, Scene, or Hair Metal, or label VK bands as such.
Deaths in general are a topic for discussion in all rock subgenres, but in Visual Kei, deaths are a touchy, touchy subject; to avoid causing controversies, many bands never disclose the reasons for their bandmates' deaths (though this practice is an equally controversial move, since it would attract curious fans and cause rumors to pop out). hide's death, in particular, is probably not a good idea to discuss unless you're absolutely certain everyone around agrees with what you're going to say. The roles of alcohol and other substances, whether it was accident, intentional suicide, murder, or whatever else are all flashpoints, the roles of other people in his life even more so, and people are so used to trolls using discussions around it to start fights that saying anything even vaguely controversial, even if legitimate (e.g. mentioning his alcoholism) can start a roaring flamewar or get you called out as a rumormongering troll.
Bishōnen and Biseinen: Almost all Visual Kei artists to some degree, at least onstage.
Character Tics: Nearly every band member has one of these that makes him stand out. Funnily enough, for the ones that specifically don't, that itself becomes a character tic: for example, Pata of X Japan is so quiet and focused on his instrument that that IS predominant of his Character Tics.
Cluster F-Bomb: Somewhat less common than the Atomic and Precision varieties but a lyrical device used by bands that have Nu Metal or Metalcore influences.
Contemptible Cover: Most common among Visual Shock and Eroguro bands, though it mostly tends to be Contemptible Performance Video now. Also sometimes subverted by solid black covers or, by "grotesque cute" covers.
Cool Shades: Rockers love their sunglasses, and Visual Kei artists are no different.
Darker and Edgier: Compared to pretty much all other output of the Japanese music industry. Averted by Oshare Kei (see Lighter and Softer below), which developed as a backlash to the domination of Heavy Metal and Goth in Visual Kei and a way to make the genre more "accessible."
Dead Artists Are Better: As with many forms of rock, it is generally agreed upon that dead artists (especially very popular or talented ones) are better than their living counterparts; consequently, many of them have achieved legendary status, even among non-rock fans. Taken Up to Eleven in Visual Kei, where bands see their members as highly important that, should one of them (typically someone very popular or with exceptional talent) pass away, it would be nigh-impossible to find someone of equal skill or influence to take his place, resulting in many bands listing them as "eternal members" and/or carrying on as if they were still alive, with a substitute musician (preferably an expy) filling in for their absence. Often, the death of one member is a valid reason for a band to break up, go on hiatus, or change into darker styles. Famous examples include hide and Taiji of X Japan for old VK, and Jasmine You of Versailles for modern VK.
Double Entendre: Common with the earlier works or "marketable" works of Visual Shock bands, mostly done as a form of Getting Crap Past the Radar or Refuge in Audacity. Still in use by Oshare bands, for similar reasons of marketability. Averted by Eroguro bands, which generally are far more direct with sexual and violent imagery and lyrics.
Most bandmen will use forms of Double Entendre or other wordplay to communicate being gay/bi/trans or communicate drug use, if asked about such subjects in an interview or other context without actually saying it. This plays into Japanese culture, where admitting, say, that one finds one's own gender attractive would be seen as crass and outre - so to say one is "embarrassed" by their reaction to a man flirting with them, or to vaguely mention "taking pills" to refer to drug use or to refer to a mental breakdown as "nervous exhaustion," are ways to convey the meaning without being too public.
Expy: It is quite common for 1990s and late 2000s-era Visual bands to have members that resemble other Visual kei artists. Frequently imitated artists include TM Revolution, Reita of The Gazette and Dir en grey vocalist Kyo (who himself was an expy of not one, but three artists: T.M. Revolution, Ume of Tokyo Yankees and Kiyoharu of Kuroyume). Of notable mention is Gackt, who has inspired legions of imitators in terms of both musical ability and visual flair. There's also a thriving industry of hide clones...
An entire band of Mana expies in Moi Dix Mois, a band founded and produced by the original Mana, who is also a member. (Watch and see for yourself.)
Visual Shock-era artists started out as expies of American Hair Metal and Punk Rock artists before establishing their own unique image. Of special mention is SEIKIMA-II, being blatant expies (and possibly a Stealth Parody) of Kiss
Arguably makes sense due to some deep divisions in the scene, for example, a Black Kote band consisting mostly of hardcore metalheads is not going to be pleased if the singer suddenly decides he wants to go Oshare and claims Avril Lavigne as his greatest inspiration. This is why the bands that have survived Genre Roulette and Genre Shift usually either survive with different members, or when all of the band is in agreement about the change to some degree.
In the Western fandom, there are the (usually LiveJournal based, but they're possible anywhere that allows anonymous commenting on a post) "hate memes" which consist of anonymous commenters (many of whom are actually sockpuppets of each other) trashing people they hate. Unlike Tanuki, these tend to target fans and fandom people as much as they do active artists, and posts are often even more grudgy than Tanuki or the like, because even the pretense of the discussion being anything but a bash-fest is gone.
Gossipy Hens: See the above entry for Tanuki, the 2ch community for bangya, mitsukano, tsunagari, bandmen, fantasists, haters, and Trolls. Anonymous memes for the Visual Kei or jrock scene elsewhere attempt to approach its level of nuggets of truth mixed in a massive shitstorm of insane vitriol, but can barely compare.
Gratuitous English: Depends on the band. Some artists in the scene have incredible English (and other language) skills despite having accents: Demon Kogure from SEIKIMA-II, Yoshiki Hayashi from X Japan and Yama-B ex Galneryus are among those few. Others have learned English very badly if at all, and the result shows up in their lyrics, stage patter, interviews, and nearly everywhere else.
Groupie Brigade: Visual Kei bands often have the organized version, their respective fan clubs. Outside of the fan club (and often including it) the front row/pit can become this, and if a band is popular enough, the Groupie Brigade tends to pop up anywhere the fans are.
Hair Metal: Visual Kei is what happens when Hair Metal is taken to extremes, allowed to mature, and become experimental in nature, both musically and in terms of aesthetics. While some hate is directed towards the movement, due to it being the Spiritual Successor to its parent genre, many VK artists are accepted by purists as legitimate rock and metal artists.
Harsh Vocals: Some Visual Shock bands (Tokyo Yankees became famous for the late Ume's vocals). Became primarily the province of Angura, Eroguro, and Nagoya, with the best representative being ex-Eroguro Dir En Grey vocal Kyo.
Heavy Meta: Some songs are meta or snark on the scene itself, or even Take That directed at other artists or styles or songs.
Ho Yay: One of the most common forms of onstage fanservice.
Long-Haired Pretty Boy: Many, MANY Visual Kei artists early on. That said longer hair is out of modern fashion and is more likely to be seen now with non-Visual Kei heavy metal bands or with Visual Shock bands.
Long Runner Line Up: Very uncommon in the movement, as bands would often tend to break up due to Creative Differences. However, there are bands that last for years with the original lineup, with the longest-lived lineups spanning more than a decade.
Buck Tick is probably one of the longest running lineups in Visual Kei, if not the longest, if one is only counting consistently Visual Kei bands. They have had the same lineup since 1985, have only gone on long hiatus once (due to an external factor, the lead guitarist/co-founder's LSD arrest in 1989), have not broken up, no one has died or been hit with a career-ending or capability-limiting injury, and aside from that LSD arrest, they seem the beneficiaries of extreme good luck. As well as, of course, flexibility, being able to work with each other, and general apparent avoidance of major drama.
Man in a Kilt: Skirts are a common fashion item for Visual Kei bandmen.
Man on Fire: Visual Shock bands (and some modern bands) tend to use a lot of pyro. Combining pyro with the amounts of flammable hair products + costumes + props can occasionally result in this. One notorious incident in the 90s led to major burns on the side of hide's face during one of his solo performances, and a close brush with it occurred during X Japan's 2010 Yokohama show when a pyro went off too close to two band members, surrounding them with smoke and soot.
The Merch: Merch is a very large portion of the Visual Kei experience. Every band has a fairly large (and sometimes strange) range of branded merch. Sometimes, the amount of merch can lead to a band being accused of "selling out."
Metal Scream: VERY common for the more metal-oriented bands, obviously.
Mohs Scale of Rock and Metal Hardness: Visual Kei bands can range anywhere from one to eleven, often with this kind of variance among a single band's discography. Generally (though this is very much a generalization), Angura, Nagoya, and Eroguro bands tend to be higher, whereas Lolita and Oshare bands tend to be softer. Visual Shock and Kote Kei bands, on the other hand, often tend far more toward having this variance in their own discography - good examples being X Japan, a Visual Shock era band which has songs that range from one to eight or nine, Tokyo Yankees, another Visual Shock band with songs at the higher ranges of the scale, and Matenrou Opera, a New Tens Kote Kei band with songs ranging from two to eight.
The second wave of Visual Kei bands display more variance than their predecessors. Music/Versailles has songs that range from 1 to 8, with live versions played so loudly that they reach the 9-10 range. An Cafe has songs that are in the 2-5 range, with some songs reaching as high as 8 or 9. Dir En Grey did everything from a 1 to an 11.
Nausea Fuel: Some of the imagery produced by Visual Shock, Kote Kei, and Nagoya Kei bands handily qualifies, especially depending on what Squicks you personally, but this has become the true expertise of Eroguro bands, whose express purpose is creating a mixture of this, Fetish Fuel, and Nightmare Fuel - and which are not welcome for discussion here.
To a lesser degree, sometimes unintentionally created by Glamour Failure or Special Effects Failure. Good examples of this are when severely unflattering information about an artist's appearance, behavior, or fetishes leaks to fans, especially when photographs are involved.
Nice Hat: A common fashion accessory. Use was pioneered by Toll from Buck Tick and Taiji Sawada from X Japan (at the time X), and now the Nice Hat is almost as ubiquitous as showing hair, especially for bandmen who have day jobs, are balding, or have other reasons that none of the hair tropes can be put into effect.
Nobody Loves the Bassist: Almost completely averted. Two of the most memorable figures in Visual Kei history are late bassists: Jasmine You of Versailles and Taiji Sawada (formerly of X Japan). Bassists tend to be highly noticed in general, if only that usually the person picked for bass tends to be one of the most attractive members of the band. And when he's musically capable too, as You and Sawada were, you have legends ready to be made.
Noodle Incident: Almost every band has one somewhere in their history. Some more public than others.
Performance Video: Almost every band has at least one, and it's almost always best to check out a few of these (especially lives) before you decide whether you like a band or not, because some bands with admittedly lackluster recordings are great live performers or have incredible videos. Other times, the videos are crappy while the music is good, and other times it is all crappy...
Precision F-Strike: A common lyrical device for many bands, along with the aforementioned Atomic and Cluster varieties.
Putting on the Reich: Unfortunately common in early Visual Shock and in some other bands, though becoming less so over time as bands tour in countries where No Swastikas has the force of law, get negative feedback for Nazi-themed costuming from fans, and as some educate themselves. Some artists have been direct aversions of this: Sugizo in particular is known for his anti-fascism, left-leaning political views, and disgust with glorifying Imperial Japan or Nazi Germany.
Rearrange the Song: Early on, most retakes/rearrangements/remixes/demos were released with the "studio version" or "primary version" as b-sides or "special presents" or similar. Remixes/rearrangements took on a life of their own as Visual Kei grew, and many artists and bands will release entire albums consisting solely of remixed and rearranged songs.
This is also the work of the rising amount of DJ type artists within the scene, although many are original artists as well - the idea of DJ/beatmaker as solely remixing and playing others' work is not much wanted in a scene heavily dependent on live shows, so DJ s and beatmakers and the like working within Visual Keihave to be capable of their own original electronic works and/or at least some form of truly unique appearance and style.
Taken Up to Eleven by Dir En Grey, with rearranged songs being considerably harder than the originals (some even going as high as 10 or 11 in terms of hardness). They've also released The Unraveling, an entire EP of rearranged songs, save for the title track.
X Japan has translated and rearranged several of their non-English songs into English. Some that were primarily Japanese with English lyrics at points were also flipped to be mostly English but with a few Japanese lines. Among them are Kurenai (which actually had a complete English version as early as 1987) and got a new retool as of 2009, Rusty Nail (2010, complete English version), Rose of Pain (2010, half the song was redone in English). Combined with Toshi's much improved English over 2008-2011, the effect is sometimes jarring for those used to the older songs, for good or for ill.
Sex Drugs And Rock And Roll: Technically, the drugs part is very much frowned upon in Japan and even marijuana possession is highly stigmatized to the point that all of a band's music and merch can be pulled from shelves and boycotted, and arrested users are often kicked out of bands or their bands go on hiatus. That said... it's definitely around to a huge degree, it's just not to be discussed except in lyrics.
Played straight by indies bands, bands not on labels associated with major record companies, or established overseas artists, some of whom have far less fear of such societal punishment (or might even take it as a badge of honor) - and can, therefore, somewhat openly support marijuana use and legalization - therefore playing this trope straight and averting the "no drugs, really, we swear it" rule...
Spiritual Successor: Not exactly a successor of Hair Metal, as many would think. but shock rock is probably the closest to being the parent genre of Visual Kei, as it was intended to shock and awe audiences instead of acquiring mainstream appeal.