A Vivid Japanese Subculture: Visual Kei

With nations come cultures, with cultures, come subcultures. These subcultures appear, morph, and die out throughout the test of time. Some of them manage to hold on, despite being stuck on a trend that seemed to be hip 20 or so years ago. But just because it isn’t as trendy anymore as it was, doesn’t mean that it should be forgotten.

The 80’s brought with it an influx of unique crazes and entertainment vogues; from big hair, shoulder pads, to electronic rock beats, it was a rage that was popular across Western countries. This craze would later be labeled glam rock, with roots originating from the U.K. Who would have known that Japan would take such a liking to this development, and create a version of this on its own?

The Style That Is Visual Kei

Visual Kei is a movement; the result of Japan giving their own spin of the glam rock subculture that took the world by storm in the 80’s, making it exclusively their own. It is still very popular nowadays in Japan, particularly Tokyo. Within the idea of the visual kei subculture comes many other factors that help members of this group identify themselves. These factors include the style of which they dress, the music that they listen to, and their ideals.

Visual kei is not something that goes unnoticed – you’ll be able to spot it from a mile away, with their followers’ high-heeled boots and tight leather pants. Heavy dark makeup and big hair that gives off a gothic appeal will have your head turning. However, when some people refer to visual kei, sometimes they’re thinking about the music genre (which can be subjective, especially since there are many generations of visual kei) while others disagree. They say that visual kei isn’t just about the music; it’s a way of life.

What Is the Meaning of Visual Kei?

The words “Visual Kei” directly translate to “Visual Style”. They use the term “visual” because members of this movement literally visually stand out from the crowd with how they dress using a costume, how they keep their aesthetic, their makeup, and what kind of music they listen to. The kanji for the word “kei” represents order/system. It’s a culture that is usually taken on by the youth and is, in a way, an exhibition of nonconformity with the means of self-expression.

What usually identify visual kei as a movement are its connections to avant-garde, electronic, glam rock, punk rock, and heavy metal music. While visual kei may be used to determine a genre of music, it doesn’t really have any well-defined boundaries, as other, they mix and mingle with other subgenres; such as pop, classical, and alternative rock. It even has a hint of kabuki theater mixed into its aesthetic, as well as being a heavy influence on the themes of shojo, or manga for teenage girls.

The History of Visual Kei

Birthed from the underground scene that was attributed to glam rock, visual kei started out as early as the 1980’s, idolizing Japanese rock bands of that era. The Japanese bands that popularized the movements were prominently X Japan, Buck-Tick, Color, and so many others. According to some theorists, X Japan has a significant contribution to the name of this genre, as it may have been taken out of one of the catchphrases found on X Japan’s album, Blue Blood. The catchphrase read; “Psychedelic Violence-Crime of Visual Shock”, taking the term “visual” as a representative out of this context and labeling the entire culture as such.

Visual kei didn’t only include local artists; western artist groups were very much a part of this as well, specifically punk-gothic rock and glam metal groups. As the decades would continue to flow, visual kei would divide into different eras, creating generation gaps of the genre’s influence and interests.

The First Generation

It’s no question that Japan X spearheaded this movement, with other bands following closely behind, such as Luna Sea. Throughout the 80’s, Japan X would slowly gain popularity and rise to fame, becoming mainstream. Though they were set to debut in the West in 1992 with a deal from Atlantic Records, it couldn’t pull through. The drummer of X Japan decided to create a record label named Extasy Records, which would continue to endorse the visual kei movement.

Another record company would rise to rival Extasy Records; the Osaka-based Free Will. This time, Color’s vocalist Dynamite Tommy would lead the company, and though Extasy leads the charts during its prime, Free Will still stands today as a leading producer of visual kei music. Extasy Records, which moved out of Japan, is no longer in the visual kei scene.

The 90’s would usher in many other bands as visual kei would pick up even more in mainstream fashion and interest, peaking at 1995. The subculture would slowly descend in hype from then on out, as bands were breaking. Slowly, the genre quieted down because bands weren’t hitting sales goals. Visual kei slipped out of the mainstream and slunk back into the underground world until a newer wave of bands took over in the next generation.

The Second Generation, Neo-Visual Kei

Just as the on-and-off nature of fads is, visual kei came back with a bang around 2004-2007 with a fresh new look, being culturally relevant to the “emo” fad that was just about to take place. With new bands making hit after hit, and old bands such as X Japan and Luna Sea making comeback tours, record companies were fueling the genre again.

What attributes separates this generation from the previous one? Older visual kei groups had a much more defined, heavy rock appeal. Neo-visual kei is not as strict about this. Instead of referring to only music, they revolutionized visual kei to include androgynous fashion and lifestyles. Some say that the newer bands are incomparable to older visual kei bands, stressing that they had stopped making it about the music, and more about the looks and rebelliousness of it all. Some people think that bands were more original back then, trying to make their own music for the sake of making music, while bands now feed off each other’s styles, trying to get the latest hits – but not everyone agrees with this idea.

Bands Under the Visual Kei Culture

There are literally hundreds of visual kei bands, out there, but only a few rise to the top with success. Out of all the visual kei bands, “the GazettE” hits top charts on the Ranker list for being the best among all, with 453 upvotes. This is followed by Diaura, MEJIBRAY, and then Versailles. Although it’s a classic band and has served as the foundation of so much of visual kei, X Japan is on #10, trailing just a little bit behind Alice Nine, which sits at #9.

Each band has its own specialty. Just because they’re all filed under visual kei doesn’t lump them all into one blur of music. The GazettE, for example, has music that focuses on the heavy metal and nu metal genres. Versailles is a little more progressive metal, while Alice Nine gets a little more pop-themed with its tunes. X Japan reigns steady with being glam, thrash, and progressive metal.

Visual Kei and Fashion

The thing about visual kei is that you can be into its fashion without getting too much into its music (though you may be severely frowned upon by a hardcore fan or two). You must admit it - it’s its own fashion image. Lines are blurred when it comes to what each sex should wear, because men can wear tattered skirts, and women can sport short hair and still rock the visual kei look.

The fashion style that visual kei is known for is free-spirited and gothic. Although it is compared to glam rock a lot, it’s evolved so much since its beginnings in the 80’s that today’s sense of visual kei is pretty distinguishable from the traditional glam rock. It’s got dark themes and colors, with a very anything-goes rule; you can do what you want and look how you want, and no one’s going to stop you.

Clothing Trends That Appeal to Visual Kei

Fashion trends shift all the time, which is why it’s vital to keep up with the ever-changing styles. If you want to start dressing up in the visual kei style, you can start by looking for stores that are known for selling clothes that appeal to the visual kei fashion. If you don’t want to go to a brick and mortar store, there are thousands of stores online that are VK-themed and can give you ideas on how to build your look.

In case you must put your outfits together yourself because there aren’t any stores that cater to the visual kei look, go for monochrome or two-tone outfits, with a wildcard addition of a bright color to add a sense of flair to your outfit. For example, black and red go fantastic together – but you can brighten this get-up even more by wearing white boots. For all you know, these pieces may be laying around your closet, ripe for use.

Stripes, plaid, webs, bones, and skull patterns are also very much in-themed with visual kei. Because visual kei has statement pieces that are both grotesque, and fearsome, feel free to add this to your outfit. Trinkets that embody these attributes (piercings, chains, rags, studded bracelets) would accent your outfit perfectly, along with details on nail polish, tattoos, and other accessories. Shoes such as heels and boots (Doc Martens, platform boots) also add a nice touch.

Torn Pants and Visual Kei

For a simple yet striking visual kei look, go for the skinny jeans and tee. Your graphic t-shirt can speak volumes. You could choose one of your favorite visual kei bands, or whatever you feel represents your identity. Another piece that’s currently big in the fashion industry is torn pants. The beauty about torn pants is that it can go with almost any look, from the light boho chic to the heavy VK. Use it as your bottom with your graphic tee, add a plaid scarf, some great makeup and stylized hair, and you’re all set. It’s that simple.

Stylize Your Hair to Look Visual Kei

A common visual kei hairstyle would look dyed, spiky, and short. Often these have bangs that cover a bit of the forehead and eyes and are brightly (or deeply) colored. Hair looks very close to characters in manga or anime shows, and to achieve this look, you can add a lot of hairspray or mousse, or go to a hair salon to have your hair styled for you.

You don’t have to be too extreme with your hairdo, just do whatever fits your style or works for you. People can have short, normal hairstyles and still look chic in VK.

Find Tutorials To Get The Best Visual Kei Makeup Look

Looking around YouTube is a great way to find different looks you can try out for VK. There, certain channels have systematic procedures on the kind of makeup they use, and where they apply it. In many VK looks, the person usually adds contact lenses to change or enhance his/her pupils. He/she also tends to cover their eyebrows with concealer (to later draw over more dramatically or exaggeratedly) and put a lot of thick eyeliner and mascara.

There really are no rules when it comes to how you want to design your face. You can run do anything from smudge tints of red around your eyes or paint black stripes down your neck – all art forms that fit into the gothic theme work. You just may want to prepare by having an arsenal of rich, dark-colored hues in your makeup set – as well as all the trinkets needed to rock your VK look.

The Latest News on Visual Kei

For the newest buzz this year on everything visual kei, you can check out the online website of JROCK News. Another reliable site for VK news is shattered-tranquility. They give exclusive band interviews and photos. Keep them bookmarked for easy access.

Visual kei has come a long way. Making a name for itself that separates it from its glam-rock roots has taken it into a cultural level, even as much as 36 years after the trend was conceptualized. Going for a daring, new look? Or maybe you just want to see a visual kei concert in September or April. Either way, go for it.