History of Visual
There are many ambiguous and/or erroneous conceptions about Japanese music in the modern world. Such are the origin and use of the term J-Pop and its similes, the distinction between romantic Enka and political Enka, the almost complete oblivion of the Eleki Boom and Group Sounds era, etcetera. But I will address that in other XRD sections. Here, in order to aterrize this theme on X, I will "limit" myself to treat the topic of the so famous Visual, which is in everyone's mouth.
For that we need a little context; visiting record stores at Japan, the most conservative thing would be to find music divided in four sections: J-Pop, Enka, Classic, and International. This topic is very rich and gives us material for more discussion, but I'll just stop to clarify that this does not refer to music genres, it's more like a cultural matter on how Japanese public look at the history of their music. For example, the term J-Pop does not refer to a music genre, it was but a marketing term invented by the Japanese station J-Wave in order to sell an idea. J-Pop, Enka, Classic, and International aren't but the top of mind awareness of the Japanese consumer.
That said, some stores classify in different ways: it's not rare to see a Visual Kei section on a shopping mall. The only thing that bands under this label have in common is that the artists have an extravagant look. The same logic applies: this is not to tell apart a music genre, but merely a marketing strategy. To explain better the present let's roll back to the past, to the seventies decade, where the history of Visual begins.
| Visual and its true origin.
A relative of Glam
At the beginnings of the 1970 decade, Glam Rock (from glamorous), also known as Glitter Rock, emerged in Europe and America with artists like T.Rex, David Bowie, Queen, Twisted Sister, KISS, etc. For diverse reasons, all these bands would be great influences for the japanese musicians of the next decade. I open a parenthesis to clarify that in this text I'll use the word "aesthetic" to refer only the exterior physical aspect. This aesthetic style, the Glam, centered in the musicians' extravagant look. Mockery against Glam arose, because of its peculiarity. In Great Britain they called it Gay Rock or Queer Rock, while in America the "real metallers" acrostically called it "Gay Los Angeles Metal".
In Japan 1979, the owners of a Glam boutique decide to form a music band named Visual Scandal. Being lovers of Glam, besides being stylists, they started to dress "elegantly" (or rather strangely), and subsequently decided to use make-up to give more "elegance" and personality to their presentations; alternately, the make-up distinguished them a little from foreign Glam. They were really the first ones to impose an aesthetic trend in Japan that would unfold into one of the biggest marketing products of their national pop culture.
Visual Scandal started by promoting their fashion image calling it "beautiful elegance". The successive bands to Visual Scandal allusively wore the "Visual" nickname to identify themselves. For example, Murbas (1980) used "Visual Violence" as motto, with random comments about sex, drugs, and Rock n' Roll. Following this tendency it's easy to deduce why this Japanese parallel of Glam got the name of Visual. A few years later X would follow the tradition with their mottoes "Sexy Scandal Love Violence" and "Psychedelic Violence Crime of Visual Shock".
Quite frankly, the look of Visual was kind of weak at the beginning. The peak of Visual comes in the 1980 decade in chronological parallel to foreign Glam bands like Mötley Crüe and Bon Jovi. We can see that X and Saber Tiger almost shamelessly copied Mötley Crüe armors and outfits. But besides that they exaggerated the make-up, combining metallic armors, tight clothes, and gaudy hair. In that way, Visual was a weird mixture between an unkempt and elegant look, from the streets but haughty, that took the untidiness of Black Sabbath making it elegant, that took influences from both the local Visual Scandal and the global boom of movements like Punk and Glam.
A few other bands that first incorporated Visual were: Sh0ck!, Seikima II, Shella, and even Mohorks. From Rock or traditional Heavy Metal to the Punk of Mohorks, various bands started to use the extra element of Visual in their presentations. They wanted something to impress the audiences (back then very few), and that had relationship with their musical style (for example, Seikima II sang about demons, so they dressed like demons). The impact of Visual, without respecting or defining the bands' music genre, gave audiences something new to try. Sometime John Lennon defined Glam as "Rock n' Roll with lipstick", we could say the same about Visual. It's clear then that Visual is simply an aesthetical matter, and it's not a music genre like many ignorantly affirm.
When X appeared in 1982, actually they were only scholars. In 1985 they start playing in Tokyo live houses, and that's when they authentically join into Visual. Nonetheless, it was bands like X, Saber Tiger, and Seikima II who further changed the style of Visual, highly influenced by aesthetics of bands like KISS, Queen, and Mötley Crüe. Bands like KISS and Seikima II had taken inspiration in japanese Kabuki Theater, which has only male actors; but since female roles existed, men used make-up to make female "mask", different depending on the mood they wanted to represent. Alternately, bands like Saber Tiger and X were more in syntony with aesthetics like Mötley Crüe's. But some parallels could be observed, like Yoshiki (X) wearing the same make-up as Demon Kogure (Seikima II).
Since these days the most popular bands of Visual started to converge with X, as if X was an epicenter. During a certain period, X (Yoshiki's and Toshi's band), Dementia (Taiji's band) and Saber Tiger (hide's band) were known as the "Kanto three major bulky
garbage item band", it's a curious piece of information to notice who marked the popularity of Visual. There also came bands like Urgh Police!!, Belladonna, and many, many others that adopted the Visual style. Only a few bands managed to take lift from the indie stage, of course. On the middle eighties Visual already had a tremendous boom; basically any Rock or Metal band resorted to this "Glam" trend.
Even though bands like Visual Scandal and Murbas were the ones who really started to promote Visual, in reality it was Yoshiki Hayashi, the leader of X, who boosted this trend into the mainstream of consumption in Japan. If Visual Scandal took Visual to streets and live houses, X took it to television, Tokyo Dome, and the dreams of every teenage girl. Basically this was because Yoshiki acted as an excellent businessman and took clattering decisions like making X the first Visual band to appear on TV talk shows. X started to break taboos, against all advice from the critics, and against all criticism from other Visual bands.
Without limiting himself to X, Yoshiki helped to promote Visual with his record label, Extasy Records. Yoshiki organized the "Extasy Summit" concerts, where many Visual bands met up to play together. He also produced these bands under his record label, or else he simply funded them some help for things like transporting their instruments during the tours. So even if X was not the band that started Visual, they were who had the most influence on its commercialization. Visual became a massive monster; X was the first Japanese artist to have full house for three days straight in Tokyo Dome (1992).
Visual died the day X said "that's enough" around 1993-1994, and every one of their legionaries (most of famous bands in Japan, and everyone related with Extasy Records) understood that Visual couldn't give out much more, and little by little moderated their aesthetics. It seemed like Visual was settling down, or that it was maturing. Its presence longed on the environment but merely as something that was there by osmosis, as a part of pop culture.
Las fechas son del
surgimiento de la banda
Visual Scandal (1979)
Seikima II (1982)
| The change to Visual Kei.
The Frenchified asthetic
Visual had come a long way to grab the public attention: the elegance of 1981, the nazism of 1984, the violence of 1986, the colorfulness of 1988 had gradually disappeared. Dyed or stylized hair and extravagant clothes had become a secondary thing for many. For example, in X JAPAN, around 1993 we could watch Pata with a completely normal aesthetic, while hide continued with volcano hair, strange clothes, painted nails and face, etc. The point is that they and many others started to become more moderate, and some bands even abandoned it completely as from Pata's example.
In Japan pop culture the suffix "Kei" (type, style) is usually added to pop culture tendencies. For example, they call Shibuya Kei the proper style of Shibuya (a Tokyo district) musicians, or Nagoya Kei to the style of Nagoya. On other examples, Akiba Kei is the tendency of 20 or 30 year old men who live their lives on Akihabara, a popular place for anime and videogames. Iyashi Kei is a tendency that literally means of "healing type", the adjective Iyashi Kei can be applied to massage machines, movies, places, music, and anything that somehow brings comfort to people. In this same way, at some point people started to call Visual "Visual Kei". It's hard to tell the exact date when Visual got renamed to Visual Kei; it could had been on any point between 1991 and the first year of the 2000 decade.
In 1991 the famous band MALICE MIZER is born, adopting the aesthetic of an already moderated Visual. In 1994 one of its members, Mana, decided that Visual could be "rescued" from oblivion. Mana had the idea of incorporating Gothic-Victorian aesthetics to the outfits of Visual, gradually exaggerating the make-up till the point of looking like mimes. Actually Mana took advantage of an already well established Gothic-Victorian fashion, namely the Lolita
Fashion, effective between Japanese women since the seventies, covering fashions such as Gothic Lolita or Sweet Lolita, among others. Only that this time it was men who dressed up. MALICE MIZER imposed this radical aesthetic change very punctually to the popularization of the term Visual Kei. Some affirm that it was since Mana that it got called Visual Kei. It's enough to see the photos to realize the radical aesthetic change from eighties to nineties, from the Glam outfits to the Gothic-Victorian, from Visual to Visual Kei.
MALICE MIZER didn't limit itself to take French romanticism and the Gothic-Victorian to their clothes; they also set up spectacles with impressive scenarios, similar to an opera in the musical-visual relation. Even in their songs they used arrangements and inspirations from historical composers, even though they weren't so original in this, as Yoshiki had already made it in X. We would summarize the Visual Kei created by Mana as illustrating music with a scenic show almost as impressive as the ones from Cirque du Soleil. The only ones that followed this idea of Visual Kei were the ones directly related to Mana: Kamijo (Lareine, Versailles), Juka (Moi Dix Mois), Kaya (Schwarz
Stein), and projects like Node of Scherzo in 2007. Apart from them, other bands from Visual limited themselves to copy their disguise, without making interesting spectacles.
Watch out, for the scenic enchant can fool people and make them think that Visual Kei is representing a musical tendency. This is false; just like back in eighties, we are talking about a mere aesthetic fashion, not a music genre. History is condemned to repeat itself: artists from various music genres started to use the extra element of Visual Kei to get attention and sell themselves, because it almost guaranteed them to become a hit, even if their music wasn't good at all. This would lead Visual Kei into a terrible commercialization.
In philosophy, the XX century saw the loss of individuals to introduce us the masses, and in XXI century people suffer a profound crisis searching for identity, and to define oneself as different. We see this secularization in different aspects: by religion, by sexuality, by music, by appearance. And just like professions get the exactliest absurd specializations (surgeon medic specialized in the right tendon of the left knee), Visual Kei would see the same happen to it, with the secularization of different "Kei".
And so appeared divisions such as Eroguro Kei, Angura Kei, Oshare Kei, among others, that now we will explain. Wrongly called "subgenres" (as if they were music) by sites like Wikipedia, what these subcategories of Visual Kei do is rescue diverse ideologies and identities already latent in Japanese society (like the already mentioned Lolita Fashion), accentuating and exaggerating them to attract a group of people that long for identity. We don't even have to mention this is a selling strategy. Let's take as example the three already mentioned Kei, evidencing in the way some incongruences and ridicules that these etiquettes get to.
Eroguro Kei retakes a subculture that comes from the twenties with the absurd violent of prewar, with antecedents such as shunga and ukiyo-e painting. Cases like the one of Abe Sada gave it more strength. Stressing a mixture between the erotic and the grotesque, Eroguro Kei expanded itself to literature, theater, manga and hentai, and finally to the musical scene. Dir en Grey is an example of Eroguro Kei, although there are many shades and contradictions, because one can find compassive lyrics on their songs.
Angura Kei retakes another "underground" subculture (the name itself is an abbreviation of underground in katakana) from the seventies, where the objective was to raise the voice against repression. Originally this was done by exalting the properly Japanese things, and many bands precisely did it by using thypical Japanese clothes such as the kimono and yukata. But underground things always end up being comical, and it seems you can raise the voice against almost anything, and so artists from Oshare Kei ended up dressed as zombies, or just like typical north americans like it happened to MUCC.
Oshare Kei reinvents, in a more moderate way, the Decora style popularized in the famous Harajuku Street from Tokyo; imitating the excessive use of accessories through all the body and clothes. It emphasizes a colorful, barroque, happy, friendly, jumpy aesthetic. Supposedly their lyrics and music also share this, but Oshare Kei groups, such as An Cafe, have more than one depressing song.
These contradictions and ridicules let us see that unlike the Visual Kei from MALICE MIZER and its successors, the new copycats of Visual Kei do nothing but dress exaggeratedly, without even having congruence between aestheticism and ideas, let's not even talk about music. The only thing that they do is take grip from already existing subcultures to try to sell themselves to people that search somewhere to belong. But Mana isn't excent from falling into the fashion business, on the contrary; while Visual had born in Japan as a social answer to international tendencies, and was an enormous social movement that auto-massified, starting from Mana, Visual Kei becomes market exploitation material, nothing more than a magazine elitist pseudoculture where the elites (Mana, Baby, The Stars Shine Bright, Sex PoT ReVeNGe, h.NAOTO) imposed the canons to follow: clothes, accessories, prices, etiquettes, who's in and who's out. And it's nothing to be surprised about; trends like Oshare Kei (where a thousand garments are worn) are the fantasy of any fashion commerce. Visual Kei bands are perfect ambulant models for designers and clothing brands.
Node of Scherzo
Recently, various bands and artists that belonged to the original Visual, such as X JAPAN and Luna Sea, have reunited after many years. A funny phenomenon happens now, because when returning to the scene, following the current of the folk voice, the very own Yoshiki Hayashi has labeled himself under Visual Kei, given the fact that the lining between Visual and Visual Kei is too thin. Nonetheless, after reading this article you can be aware that, at least originally, it's incorrect to agroup Saber Tiger and Lareine inside the same aesthetic circle, when the difference is obvious from Glam to Gothic-Victorian.
The problem is that concepts and definitions get transformed through the years (the word spirit must have re-signified itself at least twenty times), and one can't put a pin in the calendar to show the exact date when concepts and tendencies change, for all change is gradual and chronical. Why does this represent a problem? Because when things resignify, people forget their original story. Independently if you want to let language advance and not make distinctions between Visual and Visual Kei when you talk, my intention is that with this article at least you get to know in detail every change this fashion has suffered. In this article and outside of it, I prefer to make the distinction, just to know if I'm talking about the ones that imitated Glam, or the ones that imitated Mana. As simple as that.
Be careful, because the story doesn't end here. You will see new ridiculous terms come, such as Neo Visual Kei and Kabuki Rock, that won't be but the same that John Lennon said once and forever: "Glam? You mean Rock n' Roll with lipstick?", they will be pop, or punk, or metal, or ska, where the musicians decide to use similar make-up. For third and last time, musicians of the Visual Kei movement come from diverse music genres, and have never demonstrated to have a new musical purpose that unifies them, which makes Visual Kei simply that, something that is to be seen, not a music genre, not even a musical purpose.
This article was co-written by SaKeVi, Pan, and Blues, and it's protected by copyright. Many of this information has come to light directly from people who lived the history of Visual on and back stage: artists, sound technicians, staff members, managers, collectionists, and lovers of music wished to lend us their voice to let it be listened in this article. Special thanks to all of them, and to you to have the dedication to read us. Please avoid reproducing this article via copy-paste, for both respecting intelectual property, and to prevent its tergiversation. This article is subject to changes and updates; if you want people to read it, make them the favor to link them to this page. Thank you.