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Visual Kei is both a music genre and a culture/subculture. This page exists to provide a short precis on the history and development of Visual Kei as both music genre/subgenre and culture/subculture, to educate on terminology and on different concepts present within the culture/subculture, and to help you understand just a little more about both the artists and the fans.
The beginning - from Unbuilt Trope to Visual Shock - 1960s until early 1990s
Many Visual Kei artists consider a 60s artist, Kenji Sawada, as the "Pioneer of Visual Kei," because he was known for his flamboyant nature and excess use of makeup and bright costuming. Another pre-80s rock artist, the late Kiyoshi Imamura, is also seen as one of the early local pioneers of Visual Kei. The biggest influences on the concept in general aside from these artists and Kabuki theatre, though, were Western bands. KISS was one of the very biggest influences - two of the first Visual Kei bands to exist were directly inspired by KISS. Western Heavy Metal and Hard Rock took off in Japan around the early 1980s - providing more influences upon the culture and the subculture, and on the music itself, as a local Hard Rock and Heavy Metal scene soon developed in Osaka with Loudness and then soon enough, in other major cities in Japan with other local Hard Rock and Heavy Metal acts including Anthem (a Heavy Metal band) and BOOWY (a Hard Rock act where Tomoyasu Hotei of Kill Bill fame got his start). How Visual Kei itself differentiated from Japanese Hard Rock and Heavy Metal is somewhat lost to history if one is looking for an absolute, precise band to claim as "they started it." Around the early to mid 1980s, many bands were forming or had formed in the major cities. The bands generally credited with beginning the scene, though, were the Tokyo-based X Japan (then simply called "X,"), the Tokyo-based Rosenfeld, the also Tokyo-based COLOR, the also Tokyo-based SEIKIMA-II, one more Tokyo artist, the actor and singer Rolly, and the Gunma-based Buck Tick. Fans of each and every one of these acts will claim their band was the one who started Visual Kei, when the real truth is somewhere in between - that all of these bands and acts, beginning their careers in the same time window and doing similar things and sometimes associating with each other, was what launched Visual Kei as a culture and musical scene as well as a subgenre. That said, the person generally credited as Trope Maker and Trope Namer is Yoshiki Hayashi of X Japan, because he was the first to actually name the concept which had differentiated "Visual Shock," and he was the first to create Extasy Records, the first dedicated Visual Kei label, in 1986 to release a single that no existing record label desired to publish, and in the process, began signing other artists and bands, with himself and hide as A&R seeking out acts they liked/with whom they were friends. People and money began to pour into the scene around that time, making Visual Kei an attractive place for bosozoku and other delinquents and others who were on the fringes of legitimate Japanese society at the time who sought fame and fortune as musicians, regardless of musical skill or ability or talent, which produced a wide pool of talent to draw from as some actually did have talent - but which also married the scene to, at the time, a reputation of being rough outlaws or near-outlaws, which was excaberated by the tendency of almost all of the young men involved in it toward fighting or violence in some way or another - the Bar Brawl was an extremely common event, and soon enough, bars tried to bar Visual Kei artists (from specific artists with "no Yoshiki" signs, to the markers of being Visual Kei at the time with "no blondes" or "no unusual hair" or similar) The criminal element did not, however, heavily draw actual Yakuza until a few years later - early on, the Yakuza was just as embarrassed at the freakishly dressed, overemotional, loud, wild bandmen as normal society was. The delinquent strain (out of which came, for just two examples, Taiji Sawada of X and Ume of Tokyo Yankees) also added its own fashion sensibilities (In the late 80s, Visual Kei fashion and biker and yankii fashion were almost the same thing at points) - while most of those died out as a whole with stylistic changes, a few remnants of them are ubiquitous safety pins (an item that could fix a poor bandman's clothes one minute and be used in a fight or to fix something onstage the next), often elaborate rings on each finger of the hand (originally developed as a form of Loophole Abuse to give a bandman a better chance in a fight - a fist full of rings can do almost as much damage as a brass knuckle), and surgical masks as a fashion item (which were once a yankii thing). The delinquents also tended to have more punk sensibilities than an interest in metal specifically (though some of them also definitely liked metal) so the sound took on an aggressive thrash metal type sound - unless the band forswore metal entirely and was a straight-up punk act.