What the heck is “Visual Kei”?

Here I am again with another “What the heck is …” post, the first being the one about gyarus. This post is mostly me exhibiting my ignorance on a extremely interesting Japanese sub-culture and attempting to enlighten myself on the subject.

Why Visual Kei? At first glance, the image posted above may look very strange to those not acquainted with the style. While searching for new Japanese music, I have come across hardcore fans of the genre, but was mostly uninterested save for a few songs by legendary bands often labelled with the visual kei title such as “The Gazette” and “X Japan”. However, this weekend, a friend showed me a video by the group “Versailles” (pictured above) and I was very curious as to how this style originated. Some of the men in the group donned what looked like baroque-style gowns and all of them wore heavy anime-like makeup. They really do look like animated characters. So what is visual kei exactly? Is it defined by the fashion? The music? A little bit of both?

Rather than being defined as a musical genre, or confined to one or two musical styles, Visual Kei was founded as a movement by bands such as X Japan and D’erlanger back in the early 1980s. Kei blogger Zhen Yue notes that the movement may have been influenced by Western bands such as KISS and Metallica. While most bands that identify themselves as visual kei bands are concentrated in the rock genres, there are other J-Pop and electronic artists that go by the title as well. With the fashion and style, it’s all about crossing boundaries. The style is known for crazy spiked and/or multi-colored hair, heavy makeup, Victorian-era influences and an overall androgynous look.

What I found most interesting in my research on the subject was that the androgynous style is influenced by Japanese history. Yes!

It also has ties to older Japanese traditions – this androgyny resembles kabuki theater, where all parts, including the roles of female characters, are played by men.

It’s a bit shocking to me as an American who’s familiar with the term “counter-culture”. At first glance, I assumed the style was all about rejecting traditional Japanese standards. And while it may very well be the case in some aspects, the movement itself has roots in an aspect of Japanese culture that is a very well-known and respected tradition. Quite interesting.

Aside from the visual aspects, the genre is known to be aggressive and masculine, which one who is new to the scene wouldn’t expect upon first glance due to the androgynous characteristics of kei style. The musicians are predominantly male, and if you spot a woman, chances are it is a male band member dressed and made up in a feminine style.

For the most part, I’m unaware of exactly how popular the genre continues to be in Japan, although I have heard about a few of the bands who carry on the name today. But if you log on to any music site that caters to foreign fans of Japanese music, you’re sure to stumble across die hard fans of the sub-genre.  Nowadays, it’s easy to find kei makeup and fashion tutorials on Youtube. This culture has definitely become global. As an international consumer of Japanese pop culture, I wouldn’t say it was well-known, but I am still impressed by how influential subcultures like visual kei can be to people living overseas.

Just like gyarus are sub-categorized according to their look, the same goes for visual kei bands and their followers. Oshare kei bands are known for more colorful and, dare I say, “cutesy” looks. Groups like Versaille (main photo) may be classified as Kote kei and are known for basing their fashion “more in fantasy and history than street fashion”.  However, according to blogger veekay101, in the modern kei scene, it’s less helpful to categorize looks as the scene has grown to include so many different variations. They advise fans of kei fashion to learn basic fashion terminology and refer to specific band styles in order to get your point across when describing kei looks. Rather than trying to fit a certain mold, visual kei is all about being who you are, so the styles are continuously evolving. Whether donning kabuki-like makeup and wearing a baroque gown, or sporting a more toned-down style, all are welcomed to be a part of the culture.


Oshare kei band “Paradeis”

Ready to dabble in the world of visual kei? As a total outsider, I can only recommend those bands known as pioneers of the genre, but who are most likely considered mainstream by hardcore fans. There are plenty of young and modern bands and a quick search on YouTube for the top bands will likely bring you plenty of new options to explore. Any fans of the genre reading this post? Leave your recommendations in the comments!

I will leave you with a wonderful quote from Zhen Yue’s post:

Visual kei is ultimately about creating an entire world of your own and inviting your audience to take a glimpse into it…It’s about living, breathing, creating a visual and aural illusion, if only for a moment.





About L

Interested in Japanese language and culture, J-Pop, K-Pop and Asian Dramas.
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