Head-banging in Japan

Visual Kei then and now: grasping for the right to be irresponsible

Cleo Qian
Gay Mag
Published in
11 min readJun 4, 2019


Illustrations by Louisa Bertman

WeWe got to the concert three minutes late. There wasn’t a line for security outside the Playstation Theater, and the interior lobby was empty. As we rode down the escalator, we heard the strains of bass and heavily-distorted guitar warming up the audience. I worried aloud to my friend: Maybe no one had shown up. Maybe The GazettE would be playing just for the two of us and whatever handful of other nostalgia-suckers were still, in 2019, listening to them.

My friend was only coming with me so I wouldn’t have to go to the concert alone. He’d bought his ticket at the last minute. “What if there aren’t any left?” I’d chided him. “Angela,” he said, “do you really think it’s going to be sold out?”

It wasn’t.

II wasn’t a rebellious teenager. I went to a public high school known for its competitive academics, robust extracurriculars, and large proportion of Asian students, a feeder school for UC Berkeley and UCLA as well as top-ten colleges like Stanford and the Ivies. I was a devotee of the rat race, signing up for my own SAT classes, driving around from volunteer events to MUN conferences, and graduating with 14 AP classes on my transcript. When my parents protested my late nights doing homework, I went to my room, turned off the lights, and hid with my lamp, laptop, and textbooks in the closet.

But sometimes, instead of going to the closet to the study, I’d wake up to a phone call at 4 A.M. from my best friend. 4 A.M. in California was 8 P.M. in Japan, and I’d wedge myself into the closet with my laptop on my knees and her on the other end of line so we could watch, for forty-five minutes of heaven, the visual kei artist Miyavi live on stage somewhere across the Pacific Ocean, finger-slapping his guitar with his pale, tattooed arms, his pink and purple hair extensions swinging from his signature ponytail.

Visual kei (kei here means system, or style) is a musical movement that originated in Japan in the 1980s, though to characterize it this way undercuts the aesthetic aspect of it, which is at least as important as the music. As a genre, it originally had roots in British glam rock and American heavy metal, and with artists like David Bowie and KISS. And…