Head-banging in Japan

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

Angela Qian
Jun 4, 2019 · 11 min read
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 though it is easy for Western audiences to say visual kei is “like a Japanese version of” or “equivalent to” these genres, this is a disservice — the movement is uniquely, distinctively Japanese.

The movement is uniquely, distinctively Japanese.

The term “visual kei” comes from one of the movement’s pioneers, the legendary X Japan, whose album Blue Blood featured cover art with the words “PSYCHEDELIC VIOLENCE CRIME OF VISUAL SHOCK.” Visual shock-kei soon became visual-kei.

The visual kei story follows a common arc: independent bands creating their own labels, releasing small-batch albums and performing in small venues. As sales grew and albums hit the Oricon music charts, the venues got bigger and bigger. X Japan started their own label, Xtasy Records, and signed other major acts like Luna Sea and Glay. But within six years, X Japan went mainstream and signed to Sony. They performed sold-out concerts at Japan’s largest indoor concert venue, Tokyo Dome, and were preparing to move into the American market, signing with Atlantic Records, before they disbanded in 1997.

I hardly think it’s a coincidence that visual kei’s rising popularity in the late ’80s and early ’90s coincided with the burst of the Japanese bubble economy and the so-called “Lost Decade” (or sometimes, “Lost 20 Years”) that followed. Consider the refrain from the 1993 single “In My Dream (With Shiver)” from Luna Sea: “疲れ果て見た夢に /明日はなかった?” This roughly translates to “In my exhausted dream/there was no tomorrow?” Visual kei lyrics, often a mish-mash of English and Japanese, are filled with disenfranchisement and confusion — anger and sorrow for the world that you were promised, and the world you didn’t get.

This roughly translates to “In my exhausted dream/there was no tomorrow?”

In the earlier, less commercial, less regulated days, there were angsty rock musician narratives: drugs and alcohol, depression, bankruptcy, death. A New York Times article from 1998 describes the apparent suicide of hide (pronounced hee-deh), lead guitarist of X Japan: “Within a week, five teenage Japanese girls had tried to kill themselves while playing X music or wearing X merchandise…At his funeral, 50,000 young fans mobbed the streets.” A disc jockey who worked with hide reported his funeral was the most crowded of all the postwar Japanese musicians yet. The fans outside screamed with grief: “They sounded like demons. In Japan, the image that we have of the X audience is rural kids going through a rebellion phase. They put their life into being X fans: they dress like it, they breathe it.”

The dissolution of X Japan was a turning point for visual kei. In the wake of these pioneers, other bands sprung up like dandelions — some to prominence, many to obscurity. The ’90s saw the formation of major acts like L’Arc~en~Ciel, Malice Mizer, and Dir en grey. By the 2000s, visual kei had grown to encompass such a wide spectrum of looks and sounds that it was nearly impossible to generalize about. All one could say was that it was characterized by extremes — extreme makeup, extreme clothes, extreme hair, extreme androgyny, and extreme sounds, taken from sources as diverse as Bach, kabuki, and electropop. Dir en grey’s Kyo wore pure white contact lenses that sheeted his irises except for his glaring black pupils, and put out grotesque photo books with bloody makeup and dripping Noh masks. The members of Versailles dressed in French Rococo, elaborate wigs and velvet coats, corsets and floor-length flounced gowns.

The dissolution of X Japan was a turning point for visual kei.

NoNo group ever quite reached the level of renown as X Japan, but as visual kei splintered into many different styles, new record companies formed and bands started to play overseas. And it found me, a high-schooler in sunny San Diego, catching on at the tail end of an explosive movement.

In 2008, about three people in my school listened to visual kei — me, my best friend, and the Japanese girl who had introduced us to it to begin with. K-Pop was edging into the US, and most of our other Asian-American peers were listening to DBSK and memorizing dance moves from SNSD. I wanted to be different, but it felt important to me that I wasn’t listening to Green Day or Metallica. I felt like I had to listen to something rebellious from Asia.

An ocean away from the main action, I read Livejournals

An ocean away from the main action, I read Livejournals with magazine scans and translations of lyrics and interviews. I tried to streak my hair pink with Hot Topic dye, but the pink washed out in a day, leaving me with only tiger stripes of bleach. We tried to recreate songs on violin and piano (none of us could play the guitar). We listened indiscriminately to Miyavi, Plastic Tree, Sid, Alice Nine. And most of all, we loved The GazettE.

We knew each member’s style by heart: Reita, the tall bassist who always wore a decorative noseband that hid a third of his face. Kai was the drummer, the steadiest personality of the group. Uruha, with the long hair and thigh-baring PVC boots, was pretty. Dark-haired Aoi with the pale neck and an Edward Cullen vibe, if Edward Cullen had lip piercings. But most of all, I loved the vocalist, Ruki. Short (5’4”) and flamboyant, he always wore platform boots and had a signature line of inked black triangles around his neck, which fans joked was Magic Markered on. His deep, distinctive voice soared through elegiac ballads and roared gutturally out in screamo. (When I was applying to colleges, I wrote an essay about him, and my English teacher told me to write about something else.)

My interest in visual kei was complemented by the host of other related subcultures Japan was famous for — Gothic Lolita, Punk Lolita, cyber kei. My junior year, I visited Japan for the first time, a week-long tour with my Japanese teacher and a few members of our class. I made a beeline for Harajuku’s famous second-hand stores, and to Book-Off to get copies of visual kei magazines Cure and Shoxx. My eyes followed youths dressed in black leather with architectural hair. In Osaka, when I pointed out one such group of young men loitering outside a convenience store, my Japanese teacher warned me, “They put all their brains into making their hair that big.”

Integral to being a visual kei fan was participating in the “lives” — the concerts, few and far between, where we could see the musicians in real life. My best friend and I got tickets to see Miyavi in LA, a high point of our high school lives. In the screaming crowd, my best friend threw back her head and shrieked, and I, after a moment of hesitation, followed suit. Later that year, we saw VAMPS, a duo act with one of Japan’s most famous rockers, the vocalist Hyde from L’arc~en~ciel. It was in a cramped, grungy basement in San Diego, and my mother bought a ticket so she could watch over us from the back while the two of us squeezed into the mosh pit and screamed. But up close, I was shocked at how old Hyde looked. His skin was tired and wrinkled; next to him, the guitarist’s long tongue lolled pinkly in a sweaty face. Hyde was near 40, and visual kei had been around nearly 30 years.

Integral to being a visual kei fan was participating in the “lives” — the concerts, few and far between, where we could see the musicians in real life.

In 2011, Miyavi embarked on another world tour, and came to Chicago just as I started my first month of college. I went with a group of new friends, two of whom were into visual kei and four who had never heard of it. The opening act was prolonged agony, an atonal blonde musician gyrating on stage. When Miyavi played, I tried to recapture some of that magic mosh pit feeling, but I could tell my new friends weren’t enjoying the music, and I was embarrassed, afraid of what they’d think of me. I dutifully bought wristbands at the merch table afterwards, but soon I was listening to other music, moving on to other scenes.

AAfter college I moved to Japan, and spent my last year there working at an English-language culture magazine in Tokyo. By then I was pursuing an interest in something much more conservative — Japanese modern literature. I only dimly recognized, walking through the hip districts of Tokyo, that many of the outlandish fashions of old had vanished. Shoxx, one of the original visual kei magazines, released its last issue in 2016; the famous Harajuku street fashion publication Fruits shuttered in 2017, and the founding photographer said, “オシャレな子が撮れなくなった” (“There aren’t any cool kids left to photograph”).

By the end of the 2000s, critics said that visual kei bands weren’t original anymore. They sounded the same, and were copying looks of previous bands. Some of the spirit of rebellion had vanished: Rockers wrote theme songs for popular anime, and a new subgenre cropped up with bright colors and happy, poppy music. Many of the hardcore old guard were dressing more mainstream and toning down their sound, distancing themselves from the movement. Perhaps visual kei got too popular to feel cool anymore. Perhaps its mode of protest felt too dated for the super-flat, postmodern irony of the times.

“オシャレな子が撮れなくなった” (“There aren’t any cool kids left to photograph”)

Then, this April, I accidentally found out that on May 6th, 2019, The GazettE would be playing a concert in New York on world tour for their new album, Ninth. Though The GazettE was popular in Europe and Latin America, they had never toured in the U.S., and I’d thought I’d never get to see them live. I scrolled the Internet to catch up on the last eight years. The band members were now in their thirties. They’d left their old label, PS Company, and started their own. Some of the members had started their own fashion lines.

I’d thrown out all my old accessories; I had nothing to wear. No one I knew listened to Japanese rock anymore.

At Playstation Theater, when my friend and I got down the escalator, we found that the music we’d been hearing was live. The concert had started bang on time at 8:00. I rushed in to the auditorium — and saw The GazettE, already thrashing and head-banging on stage under the red and purple lights, flashing bright enough to induce a seizure.

We had arrived too late to get a very good view. I looked around the auditorium and was glad to see I’d underestimated the crowd. The mosh pit was swarming with heaving people; the seating area had waves of black T-shirts and dyed hair. I saw a middle-aged woman in a hot pink and black outfit. In front of us there was a group of girls that looked to be high-school age, wearing black hoodies and accessories, head-banging with such vigor that there was a splash zone around them, against the wind created by their swishing hair.

On stage, Reita wore an elaborate leather noseband with silver studs. Ruki, currently blonde, careened in a two-piece black suit with an ornate jeweled design. When he raised his neck I could see his signature black triangle tattoos. I wasn’t familiar with all their songs anymore, but their sound was the same. The angry, head-thumping oblivion and mournful, eerie ballads had passed the test of time. They played one oldie from 2007, which brought the audience to hysterics. I was relieved to find they were just as good live as they were from the old Youtube videos and pirated CDs. By the end of the concert, I was cheering for all I was worth and calling Ruki’s name like I was fifteen. After the encore, I got a T-shirt at the merch table that read, on the back, “PROOF OF LIFE.” Someone handed me a flyer that showed Hyde was going on world tour again too, sporting a new look with Joker-like red lips and white-blonde hair.

By the end of the concert, I was cheering for all I was worth and calling Ruki’s name like I was fifteen

WWhen I look back on my formative years in the world of Japanese rock, I suspect I was looking for a way to protest the identity of being Asian in America, the compressed circle of my narrow existence. Visual kei beckoned to a life that was more — more than good grades, good schools, good jobs and the comfortable, bleached anomie of a middle class suburb.

Since then, I have worked hard to live a life different from that expected of a model minority. What I loved about visual kei was the freedom it inferred, the options it presented for assuming alternative lifestyles and ways of being. Visual kei was my first experiment with moving out from one identity and into a different one — my first tentative grasping at the right to be irresponsible, the freedom to be free.

Gay Mag

A new magazine from Roxane Gay offering some of the most…

Angela Qian

Written by

Gay Mag

Gay Mag

A new magazine from Roxane Gay offering some of the most interesting and thoughtful cultural criticism to be found on the Web. Our first quarterly is coming in June 2019. We value deep explorations, timelessness, and challenging conventional thinking without being cheap and lazy.

Angela Qian

Written by

Gay Mag

Gay Mag

A new magazine from Roxane Gay offering some of the most interesting and thoughtful cultural criticism to be found on the Web. Our first quarterly is coming in June 2019. We value deep explorations, timelessness, and challenging conventional thinking without being cheap and lazy.

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