The Many Faces of Visual Kei in Japanese Metal
Visual kei has been a prominent stylistic movement in Japan for decades now, and over the years it has expanded to include musicians playing basically every musical style imaginable. Taking cues from the glam rock of the '70s and early '80s, this glam movement initially took shape among the rebellious youth of Japan who essentially wanted to look like the guys hanging out in back alleys that you didn't want to mess with. The scene grew and changed over the years to the point where many bands wanted to present themselves as attractive, scary, in the likeness of anime characters, or just plain silly. In this article, I will take you through the years, trends, and sub-genres of visual kei that have come and gone among bands playing various forms of heavy metal in Japan.
The Early Bird
Before visual kei had any real defined characteristics or its name for that matter, there were a few bands who took the aforementioned influences of glam rock attire and combined it with common heavy metal clothing (leather, make-up, and spikes for example) of the early '80s to create a more extreme look. While they were never truly part of the visual kei movement, bands like Seikima-II, Jurassic Jade, Flatbacker, Fast-Draw, and Crowley were a direct influence on the new bands forming around them, and could certainly be credited as pioneering factors in the creation of the visual kei style in Japanese metal, alongside a handful of punk bands too. These bands also came up with many of the strange props and stage antics used by several visual kei bands after them. While the scene had yet to be named in the mid-'80s, there was also a handful of influential bands who actually did become part of it. Bands like X Japan, who was known as X during that point in time, as well as Dead End, Yokosuka Saver Tiger, D'erlanger, and a few others which we will talk about below.
The earliest true form of visual kei, Kote kei was originally highly influenced by the clothing style of American greasers and bikers (the exaggerated Japanese take on the two styles which were known as Yankiis), fused with glam rock to create a truly unique and mean look. The forerunner of this early form of visual kei was none other than X Japan who would become icons in the country, as well as fellow metal acts Tokyo Yankees, Dead End, D'erlanger, and Aion among several other bands. A common trait shared between these early visual kei heavy metal bands was that most of them, though not all, played a gritty, lightning-fast speed or thrash metal. Though this sub-genre of visual kei is now thought of as the "classic" look, there are some modern bands who have adopted this old-school visual kei style, Sex -Virgin Killer- are a good example of this.
Appearing at roughly the same time as the delinquent look demonstrated above and also a part of the Kote kei scene, there were a select few bands who desired infamy and controversy instead of just going for the thug appearance that other bands were doing. Some of these bands adopted a murderous, violent appearance and others a satanic image such as Bellzlleb. The scene also included a small number of speed and thrash groups who had a Nazi image, such as Rommel, Rosenfeld, Mein Kampf, or Harkenkreuz. Of course the latter was done exclusively for shock value and their actions and lyrics were the farthest things from anti-Semitic, but even then, it was a horrible idea to set in motion for obvious reasons and it still understandably garners tons of backlash, even though many of these bands were extremely talented and could have just as easily gone with an evil look instead. While there are a few gory, violent looking bands around still, it's for the better that the Nazi dressed ones are pretty much all but gone from modern visual kei, though it certainly holds an interesting place in Japanese metal history.
In the late '80s, bands started to form with a fashion style centered around things other than rebelliousness and delinquency. One such band was the Japanese thrash metal legends Gargoyle, one of Japan's earliest Angura kei bands. This new approach brought about the use of garments that took influence from traditional Japanese wear with an artistic take, and the bands generally had a more serious look, though they could also appear quite menacing, which links Angura kei closely to another form of visual kei known as Eroguro kei. Angura kei bands however from my experience are more traditional looking and less freaky. It's about the least visually complex form of visual kei. Another very good example of Angura kei in Japanese metal is the folk/heavy metal powerhouse Onmyo-za, even though they're about as subtle as visual kei can get aesthetically. While it's not the most common form of visual kei, several bands (a handful of metal ones included) have appeared with this style at random times from the late '80s all the way to present day.
The Human Rainbow Spectrum
Oshare kei is one of the two most common forms of visual kei present today. The style has snowballed in popularity since the early 2000s, and can be described as pretty-boy bands with an emphasis on trendy fashion. These bands tend to be incredibly colorful, though this isn't always the case and the amount of color in these bands' attire can vary greatly. As you could probably expect, this style never really caught on with the visual kei bands playing metal in Japan, the closest example I can think of is NoGoD who have bounced around many visual kei styles while playing a mixture of hard rock and power metal, but even then they're not quite proper Oshare kei. There were metal bands who played a role in influencing what eventually became Oshare kei, mostly by being incredibly colorful rather than through possessing any type of a trendy fashion sense, and even then, many also lacked the happy go lucky music associated with the style. Don't expect this to be a sub-scene that takes off in Japanese metal anytime soon, though stranger things have happened.
The Scary Kid
At the end of the Oshare kei rainbow is the gloomy bundle of despair, Eroguro kei, its polar opposite. Related to Angura kei, Eroguro kei is a form of visual kei that has become quite popular among heavy bands in Japan in recent years, especially among visual kei bands playing alternative metal and metalcore or similar genres. While it can feature the traditional clothing of Angura kei, Eroguro kei acts tend to have a very dark and often terrifying appearance. Progressive/experimental metal band Dir En Grey were a band that drove this concept forward by leaps and bounds, combining a visual appearance that was every bit as freaky and oddball as the music they made. In more recent years the style has been made even more sinister and creepier as bands have delved into darker, heavier genres such as deathcore.
Dude (Looks Like a Lady)
An appearance that became quite common from the 2000s onward, Lolita kei, also known as Tanbi kei is easily the most confusing look in terms of actually knowing what gender the musicians within this style are. Drawing influence primarily from the elegant and luxurious Victorian era fashion, musicians under this banner tend to go for a beautiful appearance, often with extreme amounts of make-up, ribbons, lipstick, you name it. Interestingly enough the vast majority of these musicians are straight, and it's really more of an extreme artistic take. The metal genres this kind of visual kei dominates in Japan are overwhelmingly symphonic, Gothic and power metal. Easily the best known metal bands with this visual style are Versailles and Jupiter, though other big names such as the symphonic metal madmen D have flip-flopped between both a Lolita and Angura look several times throughout their career.
Thank you so very much for taking the time to read this latest article, I hope I was able to give you a glimpse into the strange world of visual kei in Japanese metal. If you have any questions regarding anything discussed in the article, I would be happy to answer them either over on my home site, Japanese Metal Forum, or here in the comment section below.