Updated: May 29, 2016
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Cool And Unique Japanese Pop Culture: Visual Kei

Visual Kei is pretty popular in Japanese pop culture, even though may be weird to foreigners. Sometimes it's difficult for people from outside Japan to understand some of the cultural phenomena that gain popularity there. In fact, many people like to remark (always with a kind of fondness and humour) that Japanese pop culture is really weird and confusing!

What is Visual Kei?

In fact, there is quite a lot of confusion about what Visual Kei even is, or what it stands for. Many people around the world make the mistake of thinking that Visual Kei is a genre of music, because the people in the public eye who participate in Visual Kei tend to be bands or musicians. So, in that sense, Visual Kei is considered to be a musicians' movement. A closer investigation into these bands, however, will show you that Visual Kei is not a genre. You can find Visual Kei pop music like A9 (Alice Nine), punk style Visual Kei bands such as the GazettE, and heavier music in the Visual Kei movement, like Dir En Grey or D'espairsRay. The musical styles are all quite individual and different, but one thing remains constant: the Look.

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The look of Visual Kei

“Visual Kei” means Visual System, or Visual Style, and embraces a fashion style that seems to owe much to 1970's glam, with a bit of punk attitude thrown in, and often a darker, Gothic element. Flashy or intricate costumes, heavily expressive or stylized make-up and carefully elaborate hair styles are central to what sets a band apart as belonging to the Visual Kei movement. Very often, though not always, bands also express a certain androgyny in the style, not unlike some western performers like David Bowie, Grace Jones, Lady Gaga or Marilyn Manson. Here's a video of famous Visual Kei band, The GazettE.

How it was born

The Visual Kei movement found its start in the 1980's with the heavy/speed/symphonic metal band X Japan, among others, and it is generally believed that X Japan's slogan, “"Psychedelic Violence Crime of Visual Shock" is the origin of what is now known more generally as Visual Kei. Explaining the meaning of their slogan, X Japan band members explained that it represented a personal sense of freedom to express themselves visually, apart from the music, no matter how crazy it might seem to people outside. The fact that Visual Kei was born from the personal expressions of bands and band members whose music defied clear classification in the first place (to the point that members of another Visual Kei band, Versailles, claimed that there was probably no Japanese musician in Japan today who is not influenced by X Japan in some way) means that as newer bands found inspiration from the first generation of Visual Kei musicians, the movement as an expressive form of fashion has grown to include many different styles of music.
From its very beginnings, Visual Kei was born out of the expression of a certain spirit of self-individuation and free will, a kind of willingness to acknowledge and celebrate the fact that a person or band does not fit in to any ready-made categories, but like most movements, many people have begun to believe that the original spirit is getting watered down or dying out as newer adherents join in. Critics feel saddened that Visual Kei seems to be growing less about individual expressionism, finding instead a more rigid codification of what Visual Kei style means as bands seek to emulate the look, visual feel, or even the musical styles of other bands within the movement in order to garner a following, or greater success. In other words, the uncategorizable is becoming a category of its own, a marketing tool for bands to advertize to fans of other, similar Visual Kei music, which people fear makes it a gimmick, rather than a personal style that comes from the heart.

Used for anime song

The only way to find out for yourself and decide what you think about Visual Kei is to watch and listen! This has become easier for people outside of Japan in recent years as Visual Kei bands find exposure abroad, with some bands embarking on world tours. Many people have heard the music used in famous anime openings, such as Nightmare's “The World” (Deathnote), “Shiver” (Black Butler) by the GazettE, or SID's “V.I.P”, “Anniversary” (two openings from the Magi anime series), or “Ranbu no Melody” (Bleach). Whether you've encountered Visual Kei bands before or not, now that you know a little more about them, why not give it a try?
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