Tuesday, October 6, 2009


Above: X Japan, founders of the Visual Kei genre. Their band slogan, "PSYCHEDELIC VIOLENCE CRIME OF VISUAL SHOCK" was inspiration for the title of this post.

My knowledge of Japanese pop-metal was severely limited up until recently. I was aware of shock rock bands such as X Japan and Sex Machineguns due to their modicum of international success, but little did I know that there is a teeming horde of Gwar-like, psychedelic anime rockers lurking beneath the businesslike surface of Japanese society. Which isn't much of a surprise, in retrospect.
My introduction to the term "Visual Kei" came via an interview with Megadeth guitar god and American expat/Japanese resident Marty Friedman (above, right) in Sam Dunn's recently released documentary Global Metal (HIGHLY recommended y'all check it out). In the film, Friedman gives a brief history of the VK (literally translated, "visual system") movement, from its humble beginnings in the 1980's to its enduring modern-day popularity.

Left: Another early VK band, Luna Sea (get it?).

Apart from the ridiculous costumes, liberal use of pyrotechnics, three-foot-tall hairstyles, and eye-popping band photos, Friedman pointed out a couple other interesting aspects of the VK genre: 1) Although some of the harder bands in the scene (including X Japan) crank out almost early-Metallica-esque levels of speed and riffage, the fan base is made up mostly of teenage pop fans who, for the most part, wouldn't even know who Metallica is. 2) The same bands who crank out the gnarliest tunes also play them back to back with unbearably sappy piano ballads (examples later in the post). Again, pretty weird shit. But we are talking about Japan here.

Right: Kuroyume, another pioneering VK band.

Along with a few other visually-striking bands like D'Erlanger, Glay, and Color, X Japan soldiered forth throughout the 90's, bringing the Visual Kei aesthetic to the forefront of Japanese media. But its popularity waned at the end of the millenium, due in part to the death of X Japan guitarist and founding member Hideto Matsumoto.
After several big reunion shows and a resurgence in new VK bands, the scene is alive again today, though, under the banner of "Neo-Visual Kei". So really, the scene has been alive in Japan (in varying degrees) for over 20 years. WITHOUT much recognition outside of their country.
As much as I'd like to claim that Visual Kei is a purely METAL movement, the statement simply isn't true. VK is a LOOK more than anything, with the music involved running the gamut from metal to goth to punk to pop to electronica to rackabilly and almost anything in between. The early days were similar to the glambanger/Sunset Strip thing that happened in the States, but like any form of "edgy" music, the parameters of Visual Kei have been eroded to allow for heavier commercialization.

X Japan KILLING IT live, 1993:

And now, an example of the dreaded Visual Kei Power Ballad (also X Japan):

Another awesome Visual Kei band was Sex Machineguns, although their categorization as such is debatable. In their early days, they rocked crazy costumes and played thrashing speed metal, belting out songs about food, sex, and the rock 'n' roll lifestyle. And even though their image was tamed severely later in their career (they broke up in the early 2000's but re-formed recently), their music always remained vicious and chaotic, some of the best ever written under the VK moniker.

Above: Early Sex Machineguns. Below: Later Sex Machineguns. See what I mean?

Sex Machineguns, "Aijin 28". Shot at the peak of their Visual Kei period:

Download Sex Machineguns' debut album here. It kills.

To help you all better understand the Visual Kei movement, I've devised a simple equation to explain. Observe:

(The photo above is actually an early shot of the popular metal band Dir En Grey, who abandoned their Visual Kei roots in favor of international recognition and record sales.)

Another interesting aspect of Visual Kei is the high levels of androgyny involved. Male band members purposefully dress up as females, and the chicks love it. This could be seen as another throwback to the Hollywood glam-metal days, or maybe a tribute to Prince, or maybe just another way of pissing off parents. Who knows? All I know is that they do it CONVINCINGLY. Take Ayabie (below), for example. THOSE ARE ALL DUDES. NO JOKE.

Above: One of the longest-running VK bands, Buck-Tick, formed in 1984 and still active today.
Below: Penicillin is another popular VK band, active since 1992. And again, these are all DUDES.

Right: Japanese VK fans = American "scene chicks", basically.

So that's about it. I've only been researching Visual Kei for a couple days now, so my knowledge on the subject doesn't run as deep as I'd like it to. But what I have discovered so far has been sufficiently mind-bending. This is some WEIRD shit, kids. Maybe you already knew about it, in which case I apologize for wasting your time. But it's new to ME, and I wanted to share. But before I wrap this up, a couple more things...

Here are three photos of of French Romantic/Victorian Gothic/Baroque Classical/whatever band Malice Mizer, one of the stranger and more interesting bands of the Visual Kei scene. They split up in 2001, but in the decade before they went through several distinct style changes, sort of like Madonna. These are some of my favorite band photos EVER.

10 semi-current Visual Kei hits:

And last but not least, a photo of current Visual Kei band Vanilla (I might not have their name right...?). Those dudes are HOT!

You can also check out a Wikipedia list of Visual Kei artists (94 strong!) here.


regis said...

Yesss! Thank you for reminding me that this subculture exists.

I learned about Visual Kei from Tokyo Damage Report (an American punk expat's site on living in Japan). Recommended.


Shelby Cobras said...

Awesome shit! Thanks for the head's-up.

23 Wolves said...

I think the best band pics of this style, although the music is pretty wimpy, is Psycho le Cemu...they have actual monsters in the band. Check out their song Roman Hikou, among others.

schultz said...

Visual kei! Ha! Yeah, it is an amazing phenomenon. here is the most amazing thing about it: the violence. I'm only saying this because I have been to the gigs myself. Imagine the movie "The Warriors" except instead of black and puerto rican gangs, each gang was a bunch of 14 year old japanese girls dressed in different costumes, beating the shit out of each other. That is what is so amazing about VK. Not the music or the bands. Junior-high school Rich girls with Vuitton bags punching Sailor Moon-lookin-ass chicks in the kidneys . . . to the beat! They actually do attack to the beat of the song. Violence much more ritualized than any tough-guy NYxHC moshpits. I have been to a show where the hallways outside of the main venue are packed with unconscious victims like a fuckin' M*A*S*H unit.

Shelby Cobras said...

Hot damn! That is VERY valuable information. I must now go to Japan.

Shelby Cobras said...

23 wolves - I think PLC is getting a post all to themselves. Amazing.

Nekromantis said...

Here's an insightful read about History of Visual stuff in Japan that helps you to understand better the whole thing: http://www.xradicaldreamers.net/xjapan/x_visual_e.php

Anonymous said...

great post. THere are actually many small companies in the United States that promote Japanese Visual Kei. There is company called Cure that has a 24/7 free streaming radio, and a talk show every tuesday at 7pm california time. Its pretty interesting when the main dj actually talks about the Jrock topics, they do tend to go off topic quite a bit though. But here is the link, www.curemediausa.com good enjoyment for those that are bored on tuesdays like myself doing homework.

Corzian said...

Good post, though there are some missing things and that as VK fan I do not agree with some other things. Anyway thanks for your contribution and view of the origins of this style.

Anonymous said...

Actually, when you mention the three pics of Malice Mizer, the first one's a pic of Dir en grey.