Music or Fashion?Visual Kei has often been called a musical genre. However, Visual Kei bands have a variety of styles that include JRock, metal, punk, JPop or electronic music.
Fashion is the most identifiable feature of the Visual Kei subculture.
Cosplay versus Street FashionWith its dramatic fashion — Visual Kei lends itself to cosplay. It's also possible to see Visual Kei street fashions in many areas of Tokyo.
X Japan (1980s)X Japan (1982~) is often cited as the first Visual Kei band. Others quickly followed (e.g. D'erlanger, Buck-Tick). Most early Visual Kei artists were metal bands.
The Japanese music industry is driven by a handful of industry insiders who manufacture bands for mass consumption. Historically, very few commercially successful Japanese artists had indie roots. X Japan is often credited as the first.
In the early years, X Japan's style was way out there. They were best known for their excessively large punk-like hairdos. Today, their style has become almost ordinary.
Visual Kei bands who achieve commercial success tend to tame their style with time. Many say they want to be known for their music instead of their fashion. It's also a natural function of time. The members of X Japan are now in their late 40s.
Second Wave (1990s)The Visual Kei innovators of the 1980s were followed by a bigger, more popular wave of Visual Kei in the mid to late 1990s.
The second wave of Visual Kei included Dir En Grey, Glay, Luna Sea and Malice Mizer. Each band had its own style. For example, Dir En Grey often sported a Gothic look. This led to a number of sub-genres of Visual Kei with names like Neo Visual Kei, Oshare Kei, Nagoya Kei and Kurafu Kei.
International SuccessX Japan tried and failed to penetrate the American music scene in the 1980s.
Visual Kei peaked (in Japan) in the mid-1990s. This went largely unnoticed outside Japan.
The first Visual Kei artist to be embraced internationally was Dir En Grey in the mid-2000s. At the time, Japanese pop culture was beginning to take off on a global scale (Anime and Manga in particular). In 2005, Dir En Grey was the first Visual Kei artist to chart in Europe with two singles on the Finnish charts that peaked at #31 and #15.
Dir En Grey has performed sold out shows at large venues in Asia, Europe, North America and South America.
Dir En Grey paved the way for other Visual Kei artists to make it in the West. After almost 30 years of trying — X Japan finally broke through abroad with successful World tours (2010 & 2011).
InfluencesWidely cited influences on Visual Kei include David Bowie, Kiss, Alice Cooper and Guns and Roses.
What Makes Visual Kei Different?Flashy fashions are nothing new in the world of music. What made Visual Kei different was pure costume obsession.
If bands such as Kiss looked like they were always stuck in the same Halloween costume. Visual Kei artists experimented with a wide range of shocking fashions. They were good at it — costumes looked more like something you'd see in a movie than on Halloween. Visual Kei costumes and street fashions were immediately identifiable without being a repetitive.
More than a uniform — Visual Kei is the union of music and cosplay.