Visual kei

Visual kei (Japanese: ヴィジュアル系 Hepburn: Vijuaru Kei, lit. "Visual Style" or "Visual System") is a movement among Japanese musicians,[1][2][3] that is characterized by the use of varying levels of make-up, elaborate hair styles and flamboyant costumes, often, but not always, coupled with androgynous aesthetics,[4][5][6] similar to Western glam rock.[7]

Some Western sources consider that visual kei refers to a music genre,[8][9] with its sound usually related to glam rock, punk rock and heavy metal.[5][10][11][12] However, second generation visual kei acts play various genres,[13][1][14][15][16] including those considered by some as unrelated to rock such as electronic, pop, etc.[2][5] Other sources, including members of the movement themselves, state that it is not a music genre and that the freedom of expression, fashion and participation in the related subculture is what exemplifies the use of the term.[17][18][19][20][21]


1980–2000: Origins and success

Visual kei emerged in the 1980s underground scene,[6] pioneered by bands such as X Japan, Dead End, D'erlanger, Buck-Tick and Color.[22][23][24][25] The term visual kei (the kanji kei meaning "system", "order", "origin") is believed to come from one of X Japan's slogans, "Psychedelic Violence-Crime of Visual Shock", written on the cover of their second studio album Blue Blood (1989).[26][23][27] The movement designated a new form of Japanese rock music influenced by Western hard rock and glam metal bands like Kiss, Twisted Sister, Hanoi Rocks, Mötley Crüe, as well punk-gothic rock influence, and it was established in the late 1980s and early 1990s.[26] The movement is roughly divided into two generations, with the first in three transitional eras,[28] of which the first lasted almost a decade.[29]

In the late 1980s and until the mid 1990s, visual kei received increasing popularity throughout Japan, when album sales from visual kei bands started to reach record numbers.[6][30] The most notable bands to achieve success during this period included X Japan, Buck-Tick and Luna Sea; however, a drastic change in their appearance accompanied their success. The first band whose recordings achieved a notable success was Dead End, whose independent album Dead Line (1986) sold over 20,000 copies,[31] while major Ghost of Romance (1987) reached No. 14 on the Oricon albums chart.[32] They even had two albums released by American label Metal Blade Records, however, Dead End and D'erlanger disbanded in 1990, and from the mid 1988s and 1989s Buck-Tick and X Japan started to gain mainstream success. In 1992, X Japan tried to launch an attempt to enter the American market, even signing with Atlantic Records for a US album, but this ultimately did not happen.[33]

Two record labels, Extasy Records (Tokyo) and Free-Will (Osaka), were instrumental in promoting the visual kei scene.[23] Extasy was created by X Japan's drummer and leader Yoshiki and signed bands, not limited to visual kei acts, that would go on to make marks on the Japanese music scene, including Zi:Kill,[34] Tokyo Yankees and Ladies Room. Luna Sea and Glay, who went on to sell millions of records, with Glay being one of Japan's best-selling musical acts, had their first albums released by Extasy in 1991 and 1994.[34] Free-Will was founded by Color vocalist and leader Dynamite Tommy, while at the time not as popular as Extasy, it had many moderately successful acts, such as By-Sexual and Kamaitachi.[23] Currently Free-Will is still going strong and has been a major contributor in spreading modern visual kei inside and outside Japan, whereas Extasy followed its owner and became based out of the US, signing and producing American acts, and has since faded away.

The second transition era began in 1993 by bands such as L'Arc-en-Ciel, Glay (although formed in 1988, their first album was released in 1994), Kuroyume, Malice Mizer and Siam Shade. They gained mainstream awareness, although they were not as commercially successful, except for L'Arc-en-Ciel and Glay whose later huge success was also accompanied by a drastic change in their appearance and were often not associated with visual kei. Around 1995 the visual kei bands experienced a booming success in the general population. It lasted four years, when began the third transition era by bands such as La'cryma Christi, Penicillin, Shazna and Dir en Grey with moderate success. During the 1990s emerged some subgenres, local Nagoya kei (with more emphasize on music rather than fashion), and several conceptual like Eroguro kei (notably band Cali Gari), Angura kei (underground style, wearing traditional kimono or Japanese uniform), and Ouji kei or Kodona kei (prince/boy style, notably Plastic Tree).[29]

By the late 1990s, the mainstream popularity of visual kei was declining;[11] in 1997 Luna Sea was on a yearly hiatus, X Japan had disbanded and one year later their lead guitarist hide died, in 1999 died Malice Mizer's drummer Kami after departure of singer Gackt,[35] L'Arc-en-Ciel publicly distanced themselves from the movement (in 2012 were promoted as visual kei rock band[36]),[26] and in 2000, Luna Sea decided to disband as well. In 1998, Billboard's Steve McClure commented that "To a certain extent, hide's death means the end of an era, X were the first generation of visual kei bands, but the novelty has worn off. For the next generation of bands, it's like: That's it. The torch has been passed to us".[4] As other bands could not meet financial expectations most major companies backed out of the genre,[26] and it became an underground style often associated with rebellious generation, non-conforming to proper society.[29]

2001–present: Neo-Visual Kei

Versailles performing in 2010, wearing costumes similar to the French Rococo style.

A second generation emerged in visual kei-specific live houses managed by record companies like PS Company (Free-Will) and Maverick DC Group.[26] Notable newer visual kei bands include The Gazette, Nightmare, Alice Nine, An Cafe, Sug, Mucc, D'espairsRay, who have all performed overseas.[23] Veterans of the scene have also established new acts, such as Malice Mizer's Mana with his band Moi dix Mois, and three members of Pierrot forming Angelo.[23] In 2007, visual kei was revitalized as Luna Sea performed a one-off performance and X Japan officially reunited with a new single and a world tour. With these developments, visual kei bands enjoyed a boost in public awareness, with bands formed around 2004 having been described by some media as "Neo-Visual Kei" (ネオ・ヴィジュアル系).[29][30] From this generation emerged subgenre Oshare kei which changed the sound and look of the genre, producing pop-rock type with bright attire.[29]

The difference between the first and second generation is that the second; has no straightforward music style, ranging from metal to pop, but still seemingly focused on heavy rock genres; the fashion and gender ambiguities are of central importance; although economically not very significant for the Japanese music market, it became the first Japanese genre which succeeded on international scale.[13]

Although the first international concert was held in Taiwan by Luna Sea in 1999, only from 2002 the visual kei bands started to perform worldwide (United States, in Europe from 2004), with the initial interest coming from conventions like A-Kon.[28] In the first five years Dir en Grey was especially well received.[37] In 2007 was held first international exclusive festival, Jrock Revolution, in Los Angeles.[38] Although recently some bands like The Gazette played at Tokyo Dome (not in full capacity), the majority of acts play in much smaller venues like Shibuya O-East.[39] In 2009 at Makuhari Messe, and 2011 at Saitama Super Arena, was held V-Rock Festival which gathered over 50 visual kei rock bands.[40][41][42]

As an epilogue to their 25th anniversary, Luna Sea hosted a rock festival titled Lunatic Fest on 27 and 28 June 2015, with an estimated 60,000 fans attending.[43] Held at Makuhari Messe, there were three stages and 12 artists, with the host band performing twice both nights; once as opening act Lunacy and again as Luna Sea.[44] Other acts included X Japan, Dead End, Dir en grey, Siam Shade and Tokyo Yankees the first night,[45][46][47] and Aion, Buck-Tick, D'erlanger, Glay and Mucc the second night.[48]

A visual kei rock festival was held at Makuhari Messe in October 2016, Visual Japan Summit, which was a revival of the Extasy Summit after 24 years. It included X Japan, Luna Sea, Glay and many other music acts.[49][50]


There has been criticism directed at newer visual kei bands for having lost the spirit of their forefathers, copying each other in design and sound, becoming all the same.[29] As far back as 1998, Neil Strauss reported that to visual kei bands "after X" makeup and outrageous looks became "more important than music".[4] Several older musicians expressed their discontent; Kirito (Pierrot, Angelo) said "now it's more like people are dressing up a certain way because they want to be visual kei or look visual kei. They are doing it to look like others instead of doing it to look different. This is obviously very different from when we started out more than ten years ago.",[18] while Sugizo (Luna Sea) that "they cannot make good sounds and music is more like a hobby for them. I cannot feel their soul in the music".[51]

Although almost from the newer generation himself, Dir en grey bassist Toshiya said in 2010 "to be honest, when we first started and we were wearing a lot of makeup on stage and stuff, there were a lot of bands doing that at the time in Japan, and people thought it was cool" and added "the music was so unique, too – bands like X Japan. At that time, there weren't any two bands that sounded alike; these days everyone sounds exactly the same".[15] Kenzi (Kamaitachi, The Dead Pop Stars, Anti Feminism) commented in 2009 that "back in the day, there were bands, but people would try to do things differently. Nowadays, there's one band, and everyone copies off of them", with Free-Will founder and Color frontman Tommy concluding with "I don't think our breed of visual kei exists anymore".[52]


Visual kei has enjoyed popularity among independent underground projects, as well as artists achieving mainstream success, with influences from Western phenomena, such as glam, goth and cyberpunk.[5][53] The music performed encompasses a large variety of genres, i.e. punk, metal, pop and electronica.[2][5]

Magazines published regularly in Japan with visual kei coverage are Arena 37 °C, Cure, Fool's Mate Express, Shoxx, Shock Wave, Rock and Read among others. The popularity and awareness of visual kei groups outside Japan has seen an increase in recent years, mostly through internet and Japanese anime,[54] shown for example by German magazines Peach and Koneko, as well European record label Gan-Shin. The biggest fan communities are found in United States, Germany, Poland, Russia, France and Brazil, and to some extent Finland, Chile and Sweden.[55]

From these international youth subcultures and influence emerged bands like Cinema Bizarre, but they hesitate to consider themselves as visual kei because are not ethnically Japanese, and instead as glam rock.[55] Despite the existence of visually similar music acts, including such as Marilyn Manson, Tokio Hotel and Lady Gaga,[56] in the West the androgynous look of the visual kei bands often has repulsive effect.[57]

According to the musicologists, the Lacanist psychoanalysis of the subculture indicate that the fascination to the singer's voice (the lack of understanding amplifies the effect), as well ineffable and unfulfillable desire, are what attracts most of the (predominantly female) fans to the groups on international scale.[58] The female fans (bangyaru) show a behavioral pattern while attending the concerts, as there several furi (movements) like tesensu (arm fan), gyakudai (reversed dive), hedoban (headbang), saku (spread hands in the air).[59] The explicit fan fiction, and homoerotic acts on the stage by some musicians called fan sabisu (fan service; a sexual term borrowed from manga culture), are related to the Lacanian man's type of desire (to be recognized by the other, desire of the other), i.e. the female fans do not desire the musician himself, but his desire, kind of cultural social training ground for the inescapable process of learning how to desire.[60]

The Candy Spooky Theater with white face paint in New York City 2007. 
Dio – Distraught Overlord vocalist Mikaru wearing a costume in Paris 2007. 
Penicillin vocalist Hakuei in Paris 2008. 
Vistlip wearing matching outfits in Paris 2009. 
Vivid guitarist Ryōga in Paris 2010. 
All-female band Exist Trace in Pittsburgh 2012. 
DaizyStripper in Alberta 2012. 

See also

Wikimedia Commons has media related to Visual kei.


  1. 1 2 "Visual Kei 101 – Segment 1: the GazettE". MTV. 11 November 2013. Retrieved 2013-11-13. Visual-kei is a uniquely Japanese music scene, but it doesn't have a specific sound – it's more of a movement.
  2. 1 2 3 "International Music Feed feature "J Rock"". International Music Feed. Archived from the original on 12 October 2007. Retrieved 2007-07-31.
  3. Sollee, Kristen (25 June 2006). "Japanese Rock on NPR". The Big Takeover. Retrieved 2013-06-07. It's a style of dress, there's a lot of costuming and make up and it's uniquely Japanese because it goes back to ancient Japan. Men would often wear women's clothing...
  4. 1 2 3 Strauss, Neil (18 June 1998). "The Pop Life: End of a Life, End of an Era". The New York Times. Retrieved 2007-07-31. For visual kei bands, outrageous, usually androgynous looks – gobs of makeup, hair dyed and sprayed in ways that made Mohawks look conservative, and a small fortune spent on leather and jewellery – were as important as music (or, in many cases after X, more important than music).; To a certain extent, Hide's death means the end of an era, said Steve McClure, Tokyo bureau chief for Billboard, the music-industry magazine. X were the first generation of visual kei bands, but the novelty has worn off. For the next generation of bands, it's like: That's it. The torch has been passed to us.
  5. 1 2 3 4 5 Reesman, Brian (30 November 2006). "Kabuki Rock". Archived from the original on 28 September 2007. Retrieved 2007-08-07. Josephine Yun, author of the book Jrock, Ink., explains that visual kei originated in the late 1970s and early 1980s as Japan's rock scene began cultivating its own identity. 'It was rock 'n roll, punk rock, glam and metal with a twist – a twist just as angry and rebellious as what came before it – but a poetic one, artistic, with painstaking attention to detail,' Yun explains. She points out that "visual kei" literally translates as "visual style" and spans a wide range of musical genres.; Musically, it can be anything: American rock, British punk, glam, metal, Euro pop, techno, new wave, electronica," explains Yun. "Visually, the influences are diverse as well: traditional Japanese dress, S&M outfits, costumes made of vinyl, leather, lace, name it."
  6. 1 2 3 Suzuki, Chako (January 2007). "Pretty Babies: Japan's Undying Gothic Lolita Phenomenon". Retrieved 2013-06-07. Visual Kei is exactly as it sounds: Rock music that incorporates visual effects and elaborate costumes to heighten the experience of the music and the show. Visual Kei started in the 80s and became so popular by the 90s that the nearly all-female fan base started dressing up as their favorite band members (known as 'cosplay') who were often males that wore make-up, crazy hair, and dressed androgynously or as females (usually, the more feminine the rocker, the more fans rush to emulate them).
  7. Pfeifle 2013, p. 74, 78.
  8. Heinrich, Sally (2006). Key into Japan. Curriculum Corporation. p. 80. ISBN 1-86366-772-5.
  9. Yun, Josephine (2005). Jrock, Ink.: A concise report on 40 of the biggest rock acts in Japan. Stone Bridge Press. ISBN 1-880656-95-7.
  10. Arulvarathan, Subha (15 April 2006). "For those about to J-Rock". The Carillon. Retrieved 2013-06-07. Visual kei is a branch of Japanese rock. It has its roots as an underground movement in the late '80s and early '90s and can be considered pastiche, as it aims to experiment with various established genres such as rock, punk, metal, goth and glam in an attempt to create a wholly new sound.
  11. 1 2 Minnie, Chi (15 April 2006). "X [Japan]: Reliving the Height of Japan's Superlative Visual Rock Band". Retrieved 2013-06-07. ...a fleeting genre known to fans as 'Visual Kei'. Nonetheless, this fusion of metal, punk and gothic aesthetics ignited at least two generations of followers with its shocking visual appeal...; 'Visual Kei' as a genre has more or less expired since the late '90s. The music that derived from the scene has transformed and visual bands have generally subdued their appearance.
  12. Gibson, Dave (2 November 1998). "Rising Sun". Fort Worth Weekly. Retrieved 2007-09-10. Born of a combination of hard rock and metal, visual rock leans toward a more theatrical presentation emphasizing imagery as much as music. One only needs to watch an X-Japan video to recognize its decadent glam influences, as drummer Yoshiki is often decked out in lace stockings and torn black leather vests. However, the band's androgynous looks can be attributed as much to kayou kyoku (traditional Japanese pop) as to the eccentric costumes of '70s David Bowie and '80s hair bands. It is precisely this hodgepodge of international styles that makes visual rock such an noteworthy new genre.
  13. 1 2 Utz, Lau 2013, p. 250–251.
  14. Crawford, Allyson B. (14 August 2009). "D'espairsRay Explains Visual Kei Movement, Expressing Emotions". Noisecreep. Retrieved 2014-06-07. Musically speaking, visual kei can do anything.
  15. 1 2 Robson, Daniel (27 April 2007). "Shock-rock act Dir En Grey snub cartoons for cred". The Japan Times. Retrieved 2013-06-07. ...visual-kei, where peacockish fashion far overshadows any definitive sound.; To be honest, when we first started and we were wearing a lot of makeup on stage and stuff, there were a lot of bands doing that at the time in Japan, and people thought it was cool. But not anymore, ha ha. The music was so unique, too – bands like X Japan. At that time, there weren't any two bands that sounded alike; these days everyone sounds exactly the same
  16. "UnsraW interview". 27 April 2007. Retrieved 2013-06-07. […]Visual kei is not really categorized based on the type of music...
  17. Robson, Daniel (20 November 2011). "Interview with YOSHIKI in Brazil". Retrieved 2013-06-07. But visual kei is more like a spirit, it's not a music style or, you know… I think it is a freedom about describing myself, a freedom to express myself, that's what I believe visual kei is.
  18. 1 2 "Interview with Angelo". JRock Revolution. 24 November 2008. Retrieved 2013-06-07. Well I still don't think "visual kei" is a name for a genre; I see it as a bigger picture, as a part of rock. The visual aspect is something for a band to set themselves apart from others, at least that's what it was ten years ago. Now it's more like people are dressing up a certain way because they want to be "visual kei" or look "visual kei." They are doing it to look like others instead of doing it to look different. This is obviously very different from when we started out more than ten years ago. That's how I see it.
  19. "Interview with MUCC at RTOC". JaME World. 25 July 2008. Retrieved 2015-11-14. […]Visual kei is not a style of music, but the whole physical image of the band.
  20. "the Underneath Debuts: Interview Part 1". JRock Revolution. 29 February 2008. Retrieved 2013-06-07. Well, visual kei isn't a genre of music; it's used to categorize the bands that show their unique characteristics with their costumes and makeup, though sometimes the music doesn't necessarily fit the image. Either way, it's used to describe such bands that show their individualism through their appearance.
  21. "Visual Kei 101 – Segment 2: the GazettE". MTV. 12 November 2013. Retrieved 2013-11-13. Visual kei isn't a genre of music.
  22. Utz, Lau (quote) 2013, p. 250"In the late 1980s and during the 1990s, Japanese bands like Dead End, Buck-Tick, or Luna Sea performed... The most successful and influential of these bands certainly was X Japan."
  23. 1 2 3 4 5 6 Dejima, Kouji. "Bounce Di(s)ctionary Number 13 – Visual Kei". (in Japanese). Archived from the original on 1 March 2008. Retrieved 2007-09-12.
  24. Tiffany Godoy; Ivan Vartanian (2007). Sokstyle Deficit Disorder: Harajuku Street Fashion - Tokyo. Chronicle Books. ISBN 9780811857963. ...while Kiss is a heavy metal band, visual kei bands like X Japan, Color, Dead End, and D'erlanger are by and large a cross between metal, punk, goth, cyber, and rock. The sounds are hard, and the looks are dark and severe.
  25. Taiyo Sawada (21 July 2015). "第110回:「ロックと日本の60年」第11章 バブルの喧噪に射し込んだニルヴァーナ". DrillSpin (in Japanese). Sockets. Retrieved 29 September 2016. それは、X JAPANやDEAD ENDのようなメタルの影響の強いものや、BUCK-TICKのような80sのゴス系ニュー・ウェイヴ(第10章参照)のタイプ、ハードコア・パンクからメタルに進化したGastunkに影響されたものまで雑多なものでしたが、それらはやがて外見上の傾向で括られ“ヴィジュアル系”と呼ばれるようになります。
  26. 1 2 3 4 5 Utz, Lau 2013, p. 250.
  27. Inoue, Takako (2003). Visual kei no jidai. Tokyo: Seikyūsha. ISBN 978-4-7872-3216-8.
  28. 1 2 Pfeifle 2013, p. 78.
  29. 1 2 3 4 5 6 Megan Pfeifle (4 June 2011). "Introducing Globalizing Visual Kei: A Web Series". JaME World. Japanese Music Entertainment. Retrieved 29 September 2016.
  30. 1 2 "Shinjidai ni Totsunyu! Neo Visual Kei Band Taidō no Kizashi". Oricon (in Japanese). Retrieved 2007-09-19.
  31. "短期集中連載:増田勇一のDEAD END回想録(1)『DEAD LINE』". (in Japanese). 2009-08-04. Retrieved 16 September 2011.
  32. "短期集中連載:増田勇一のDEAD END回想録(3)『SHAMBARA』". (in Japanese). 2009-08-11. Retrieved 10 September 2011.
  33. "The Jrock Legend: X Japan". JRock Revolution. 26 August 2007. Retrieved 2013-03-03.
  34. 1 2 "Visual Kei and Extasy Records". JRock Revolution. 25 August 2007. Retrieved 2013-03-03.
  35. Bunny Bissoux (11 June 2015). "The story of visual kei". TimeOut. Retrieved 29 September 2016.
  36. Rob Schwartz (23 March 2012). "L'Arc-en-Ciel, Japanese Visual Rock Band, To Play Madison Square Garden This Weekend". Billboard.
  37. Pfeifle 2013, p. 79, 86.
  38. Pfeifle 2013, p. 78–79.
  39. Pfeifle 2013, p. 81.
  40. JKlein (11 August 2009). "V-Rock Festival 2009". JRockRevolution. Retrieved 29 September 2016.
  41. Polina & Kay (22 December 2011). "V-Rock Festival 2011 - White and Rainbow Stages". JaME World. Japanese Music Entertainment. Retrieved 29 September 2016.
  42. Remy Zane (29 May 2012). "V-Rock Festival 2011 - Rose and Moon Stages". JaME World. Japanese Music Entertainment. Retrieved 29 September 2016.
  43. Daisuke Kikuchi (31 July 2015). "Luna Sea Celebrate 25th Anniversary With Star-studded Lunatic Fest.". MTV. Retrieved 27 March 2016.
  44. "Luna Seahosts Lunatic Fest. 12 artists perform on 3 stages (Moon, Shine, Fate)". 2015-04-14. Retrieved 2015-04-14.
  45. Tomo (21 July 2015). "Lunatic Fest. at Makuhari Messe: Part #1". JaME World. Japanese Music Entertainment. Retrieved 29 September 2016.
  46. Tomo (25 July 2015). "Lunatic Fest. at Makuhari Messe: Part #2". JaME World. Japanese Music Entertainment. Retrieved 29 September 2016.
  47. Tomo (2 August 2015). "Lunatic Fest. at Makuhari Messe: Part #3". JaME World. Japanese Music Entertainment. Retrieved 29 September 2016.
  48. "Luna Sea "Lunatic Fest." Lunacy was announced as the opening act for both days". 2015-06-01. Retrieved 2015-06-01.
  49. "The Legend of Visual-Kei begins here once again "Visual Japan Summit 2016 Powered by Rakuten" is officially confirmed!". Sync Music Japan. 16 August 2016. Retrieved 29 September 2016.
  50. ""Visual Japan Summit 2016 Powered by Rakuten" makes 4th release of artist lineup with 29 more groups". Japan Finder. 9 September 2016. Retrieved 29 September 2016.
  51. "Sugizo on Luna Sea". JRock Revolution. 10 February 2010. Retrieved 2013-03-03.
  52. "Interview: The Killing Red Addiction". JRock Revolution. 12 July 2009. Retrieved 2013-03-03.
  53. Mascia, Mike. "Dir en grey feature interview". Blistering. Retrieved 2007-08-07. When we were growing up around [the] late '80s and early '90s, visual kei was influenced by glam music.
  54. Pfeifle 2013, p. 78, 83.
  55. 1 2 Utz, Lau 2013, p. 251.
  56. Megan Pfeifle (30 July 2011). "Globalizing Visual Kei: Investigating the Visual Style". JaME World. Japanese Music Entertainment. Retrieved 29 September 2016.
  57. Pfeifle 2013, p. 82.
  58. Utz, Lau 2013, p. 17, 262–288.
  59. Utz, Lau 2013, p. 258.
  60. Utz, Lau 2013, p. 258–262.
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