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Visual kei, or Visual Style, is an artistic movement among Japanese musicians that is characterised by the use of make-up, elaborate hair styles and flamboyant costumes, often, but not always, coupled with androgynous aesthetics, in the style of David Bowie. It came about in the early 1980's, spearheaded by bands such as X Japan and Buck Tick, and has existed in various forms ever since.
Visual Kei is a sub-genre of J-rock (a term referring to Japanese rock in general), with its roots in glam-rock, punk, metal and Kabuki Theater. As is usual amongst musical genres, the aesthetics are supposed to be as strong as the music in order to complement and enhance it, and although there have been many trends over the years there is no defining sound. In the current scene, for instance, the most commonly used genre is hard rock (except for within the Oshare subgenre, which favours pop-punk), but there is also horror punk, Power Metal, Gothic Metal, electronic, pop rock, nu-metal, industrial and Heavy Metal. Exactly which genres are used often depends on the time period: In the 80's rock and glam metal were popular; and in the 90's a heavy goth influence came in and many bands developed a softer or more experimental sound, with the use of synth becoming common.
Despite the highly feminine appearance of many VK musicians, the majority of band members, as with other rock genres, are male.
Visual Kei is often broken down into subgenres, the most common being:
- Angura Kei: characterised by an emphasis on traditional Japanese culture, with band members often wearing kimonos, and occasionally Geisha style makeup. Heavy Metal and Hard Rock are the most favoured genres. Example bands of this style would be Kagrra, and Heisei Isshin. Miyavi went through a phase as this and still has some elements of it.
- Kote Kei: arguably the oldest and most established form of VK after genres began to split off from Visual Shock, it is characterised by incredibly striking clothing and hair. A common theme is to have every member of the band dye their hair a different color. There are two main forms, 'Black Kei', which is faster, and 'White kei' which is more melodious. Example bands are pretty much too numerous to name any one individual band, though this is arguably what both Luna Sea and Dir En Grey began as, though they would change to other styles... and this is what Versailles is said to be now.
- Oshare Kei: Characterised by a more cheerful sound and brighter aesthetics, with softer colours and materials being favoured. Most bands play pop-punk or soft rock. Some example bands would be [SuG], some of the early works of Miyavi though he was always on the fringes.
- Lolita: As in the Elegant Gothic Lolita style of dress, not anything related to the infamous book or its subject material. This is harder to define, but the general consensus is that bands in this genre have a more goth-rock influenced sound, although soft rock and power metal also feature in. The visuals tend to focus on elegance and the costumes are often more OTT than in other subgenres. Also, Lolita musicians are far more likely to deliberately invoke Viewer Gender Confusion, going out of their way to be as feminine as they possibly can be. Anything connected to Mana (including Malice Mizer while he was in that band and Moi Dix Mois) is a good example. Versailles takes some inspiration from this but isn't entirely it.
- Eroguro Kei: Imagine Alice Cooper + Marilyn Manson + GWAR + Hotter and Sexier + Bloodier and Gorier + Fetish Fuel + Nausea Fuel + Nightmare Fuel, all turned Up to Eleven - then Crossing the Line Twice with massive Refuge in Audacity and Refuge in Vulgarity.
- Nagoya Kei: Is defined by a gloomy, dark or harsh sound, and usually grim visuals. Darker than Lolita and less in-your-face than Eroguro, black is very much a favoured colour, and growled or barked vocals are common. There tends to be less importance placed on visuals in this subgenre than in others. This is what Luna Sea became eventually, despite not being from Nagoya.
- Visual Shock (aka Veteran Kei): The arguable parent subgenre from which the others branched out, as pioneered by X Japan and the other Extasy Records bands, Buck Tick, and COLOR in the late 1980s and early 1990s. (It also includes SEIKIMA-II, though simply because SEIKIMA-II fits nowhere else). It contains and can use any and all elements from these subgenres and arguably gave birth to them all, but Viewer Gender Confusion is a near-constant as are Eighties Hair, Anime Hair, and You Gotta Have Blue Hair. Few new bands would fall into this genre, though cover bands and the occasional new band that doesn't fit elsewhere may try.
- Ex-Visual Kei: These are bands that started out as visual or tried to appeal to visual fans and then left the genre, either in disgust with its tropes or in an attempt to reach a wider audience. Good examples are L'Arc-en-Ciel (started out as Visual Shock, but referring to them as visual became a near Berserk Button for them) and Dir En Grey (started out as Black Kote Kei, became Eroguro, and is now Death Metal or deathcore)
There are always exceptions to this though. Many bands straddle genres and some don't really fit into any at all. Other bands start off visual and then leave the subgenre. Also, as there are no real rules to Visual Kei besides the fact that you have to put effort into a quirky appearance, there are often debates amongst fans as to which bands count as visual in the first place.
In recent years, Visual Kei has begun to be used by non-Japanese bands.
Media inspired by or making major references to Visual Kei (Visual Kei or at the very least Visual Kei artists are anything from a plot point to making a recognizable on-screen appearance)
Anime and Manga
- Detroit Metal City: The bands in it are arguably inspired in equal parts by X and SEIKIMA-II.
- It is worth noting, however, that DMC itself is never explicitly referred to as Visual Kei, but their bassist, Jagi, joins a visual band as a side project in one story arc. The band, Karisuma, is portrayed quite differently from DMC, and appears to be based on more recent Visual Kei. Could well be an intentional comparison between Visual Shock and modern Visual Kei, in that everything from fan behavior to stagecraft has changed and morphed into a form almost unrecognizable from the beginning. 
- Gravitation: Bad Luck is arguably a Visual Kei band. Shuichi's pink hair and fashion sense (and behavior) is arguably an OTT Shout-Out to hide, and oh look there's a trans-lady manager with a hot temper named Yoshiki... *cough*
- The Legend of Black Heaven, the protagonist's band.
- Love Lucky features a character, Tsunami-san, who was once in a Visual Kei band.
- Otomen has characters that are part of a Visual Kei band called "fra-fra."
- Sayonara, Zetsubou-sensei has a teacher who is a fan of the Real Life Visual Kei band Nightmare.
- Sket Dance features Kiyoshi Date, who is voiced by Visual Kei artist Gackt, and is a huge fan of Visual Kei as an Affectionate Parody.
- A case in Detective Conan has the Visual Kei artist "Satan" Onizuka, leader of a fictional VK band named The Styx Three. He's rather friendly to Agasa and the Detective Kids when they drop by the TV station he's about to perform in... And he turns out to be the Sympathetic Murderer
- "Bus Stop," which featured a two guys at a bar scene... one of the guys being Yoshiki. Barely counts, since it was filmed during a time in his life when his style was more "cool rich guy" than specifically Visual Kei - yet he was recognizable on sight enough to make it count.
- The live-action version of Detroit Metal City, see the anime and manga example above.
- "Maebashi Visual-Kei!" A 2011 Japanese film about a young man that left his rural life to become a famous Visual Kei artist. Known best for its romanticization and sanitization of the realities of Visual Kei, as well as casting Johnnys Jimusho actors for everyone involved never mind that casting actual indies Visual Kei artists at least as extras could have easily been done.
- "Oresama," a semi-autobiographical fictional piece written by Miyavi and including him.
- "Tokyo Pop," a 1980s film that is actually the first appearance on film both of X Japan (then known as X), and of Visual Kei in any media outside itself.
- Chrono Cross: One of the characters you can pick up in your Loads and Loads of Characters journey (and one that is arguably fairly plot-important) is Nikki, a Visual Kei bandleader and guitarist who is equal parts shoutout to hide and Nikki Sixx from Motley Crue. In the Japanese version he was named Slash instead of Nikki, which made him a shoutout to the Guns N' Roses guitarist and to hide.
- In Saga Frontier, Virgil is based on Atsushi Sakurai from Buck Tick.
- Vocaloid features Gakupo (based on Gackt and voiced by him) and arguably Len.
- A main character in Persona 2, Eikichi Mishina, is a leader of a rock band whose appearance and personality are based on visual kei.
- Sergei from Asura's Wrath is is reincarnated as a Visual Kei Artist in The Stinger of DLC ep 22 part Iv: Nirvana.
The Visual Kei musicians and the Visual Kei scene provides or has provided examples of the following tropes:
- Always Male: Pretty much, as in most rock genres, though there are a few exceptions: Fiction and Lucifer Luscious Violenoue from older VK, and the modern bands Exist Trace, DESTROSE, and Danger Gang are all female, as is the Youtube X Japan cover band called SOX Japan. There are some individual artists too: the drummer Hina (who works now with the late Taiji Sawada's band which was and is otherwise all male) is one; Inugami Kyouko, the vocalist from Inugami Circus-dan, is another.
- Ambiguous Gender: Many Visual Kei artists have made this their "hat," as noted above, and some seem to have chosen it as their gender presentation onstage and offstage alike. A couple of examples would be hide from X Japan for old Visual Kei, and Hizaki from Versailles for new.
- Anime Hair: More common in modern Oshare Kei. Older Visual Kei (especially Visual Shock) tended more toward Eighties Hair at its most extreme, though the two did merge at points as both anime and Visual Kei developed side by side.
- Artistic Stimulation: Very much so. Alcohol could be argued to be almost the lifeblood of Visual Kei because almost all performances are at bars, many band events center around drinking and drinking parties, and the amount of artists who are or who are close to The Alcoholic or Off the Wagon or Functional Addict are too numerous to count. Most Visual Kei artists also smoke, although many have quit or at least claim to have. While recreational drug use in general aside from alcohol and tobacco is VERY much frowned upon openly due to Japan's attitudes toward drugs in general, methamphetamine abuse is also an open secret among some artists and has figured in the burnouts and/or deaths of some.
- Atomic F-Bomb: Common in some lyrics...
- The Atoner: Many members of older bands will fall into this trope, becoming social activists or at the very least very nice people to make up for the excesses and sometimes even criminal acts of their early days.
- Audience Participation Song: Visual Kei is a genre very dependent on audience participation. Most bands will have at least one image song like this, complete with specific "furi" (hand gestures or dance moves) to go along with it.
- Ax Crazy: Some bands (generally Eroguro or Visual Shock bands, but Nagoya Kei sometimes as well) take posing as this trope Up to Eleven, at least for specific members, and many songs go around people with the theme. Occasionally someone is offstage - Wataru from the band 12012 is one famous case, and many other bandmen have had their moments...
- The various types of Badass clothing. Badass Cape, Badass Longcoat... it will be worn by someone in some band somewhere.
- Bar Brawl: Arguably somewhat less common now (though still engaged in by indies and unpopular bands and between fans), this was common for a while among Visual Shock bands in the 80s and early 90s.
- Bishonen and Biseinen: Almost all Visual Kei artists to some degree, at least onstage.
- Beethoven Was an Alien Spy: Invoked by some bands and artists. Jasmine You of Versailles made this a joke, as did hide from X Japan, and being "alien demons" was the entire hat of SEIKIMA-II.
- Careful with That Axe: Some Visual Kei vocalists are absolutely famous for this. Kyo from Dir En Grey is the most well known, though he learned from and arguably ripped off from the late Ume from Tokyo Yankees.
- Character Tics: Nearly every band member has one of these that makes him stand out. Funnily enough, for the ones that specifically don't, that itself becomes a character tic: for example, Pata of X Japan is so quiet and focused on his instrument that that IS predominant of his Character Tics.
- Cluster F-Bomb: Somewhat less common than the Atomic and Precision varieties but a lyrical device...
- Contemptible Cover: Most common among Visual Shock and Eroguro bands, though it mostly tends to be Contemptible Performance Video now. Also sometimes subverted by solid black covers or, by "grotesque cute" covers.
- Cool Shades: Rockers love their sunglasses, and Visual Kei artists are no different.
- Cover Version: Most Visual Kei bands start out by covering (or occasionally outright ripping off without credit) other Visual Kei bands. More established bands will also still do covers, usually as tributes, for cover albums, or as a belated form of credit for past plagiarism.
- Darker and Edgier: Compared to pretty much all other output of the Japanese music industry. Averted by Oshare Kei (see Lighter and Softer below), which developed as a backlash to the domination of Heavy Metal and Goth in Visual Kei and a way to make the genre more "accessible."
- Double Entendre: Common with the earlier works or "marketable" works of Visual Shock bands, mostly done as a form of Getting Crap Past the Radar or Refuge in Audacity. Still in use by Oshare bands, for similar reasons of marketability. Averted by Eroguro bands, which generally are far more direct with sexual and violent imagery and lyrics.
- Most bandmen will use forms of Double Entendre or other wordplay to communicate being gay/bi/trans or communicate drug use, if asked about such subjects in an interview or other context without actually saying it. This plays into Japanese culture, where admitting, say, that one finds one's own gender attractive would be seen as crass and outre - so to say one is "embarrassed" by their reaction to a man flirting with them, or to vaguely mention "taking pills" to refer to drug use or to refer to a mental breakdown as "nervous exhaustion," are ways to convey the meaning without being too public.
- Dramatic Shattering: Fairly common way to do something "shocking." Pioneered primarily by X Japan whose band members liked to smash things onstage and in Performance Video (and elsewhere), picked up by pretty much everyone.
- As a matter of fact, one of the US-English sites covering Visual Kei is called "Shattered Tranquility," in a form of Hanging The Lampshade.
- Dude Looks Like a Lady: Very, very common. Occasionally inverted by female artists who will try to look male or masculine-androgynous.
- Everybody Smokes: Almost everyone, at least to a certain point in time anyway. This trope was in full effect in The Eighties and The Nineties. Some well-known artists began to quit smoking (or at least publicly claim to do so and conceal the habit as they continued on) as of The Noughties and The New Tens.
- Fan Service: Pretty much the stock in trade of Visual Kei. Started with the original Visual Shock bands (X Japan and Buck Tick are masters of fanservice of various forms, and Yoshiki Hayashi of X Japan was a worker in a host club at one point early in the band's indies days) and whatever form of fanservice you are looking for, it will generally be provided by some Visual Kei band or artist somewhere. Subverted, somewhat, by Lolita artists who do not like to be touched or touch fans, and by Eroguro artists who serve up Nightmare Fuel and Nausea Fuel in equal parts to the Fetish Fuel.
- Female Gaze AND Male Gaze: Most Visual Kei bands to some extent. The most well-endowed men will generally tend to show off, providing lots of eye candy for women and gay/bi men alike...
- Fluffy Fashion Feathers: A common part of some Visual Kei costuming.
- Fountain of Memes: Visual Kei is one of these.
- In Visual Kei, "meme" has two meanings. The first is the usual, the second is anonymous communities called "hate memes," which are basically the Western attempt at Tanuki, mentioned later.
- Genre Roulette and Genre Shift: Fairly common, especially among the older bands that have lasted. Also a fairly common reason for bands breaking up or changing members.
- Arguably makes sense due to some deep divisions in the scene, for example, a Black Kote band consisting mostly of hardcore metalheads is not going to be pleased if the singer suddenly decides he wants to go Oshare and claims Avril Lavigne as his greatest inspiration. This is why the bands that have survived Genre Roulette and Genre Shift usually either survive with different members, or when all of the band is in agreement about the change to some degree.
- Gossip Evolution: Tanuki, a splitoff from the Japanese 2Channel Image Board, originally created to discuss Visual Kei. It managed to become a discussion of Visual Kei and hard rock artists and each other by their groupies, mitsukano, assorted fantasists and haters, and eventually themselves and their competitors. Sadly, this means that much information that is not, to some degree, Blatant Lies or Astroturf has at least undergone this to some degree. Others have launched via Memetic Mutation...
- Gossipy Hens: See the above entry for Tanuki, the 2ch community for bangya, mitsukano, tsunagari, bandmen, fantasists, haters, and Trolls. Anonymous memes for the Visual Kei or jrock scene elsewhere attempt to approach its level of nuggets of truth mixed in a massive shitstorm of insane vitriol, but can barely compare.
- Bandmen themselves, as well as other fans. Never, ever, ever trust anyone to keep your secrets in Visual Kei.
- Goth Rock: Lolita and Nagoya artists, and both X Japan and Luna Sea have gone in this direction on occasion.
- Gratuitous English: Depends on the band. Some artists in the scene have incredible English (and other language) skills despite having accents: Yoshiki Hayashi from X Japan and Yama-B ex Galneryus are among those few. Others have learned English very badly if at all, and the result shows up in their lyrics, stage patter, interviews, and nearly everywhere else.
- Groupie Brigade: Visual Kei bands often have the organized version, their respective fan clubs. Outside of the fan club (and often including it) the front row/pit can become this, and if a band is popular enough, the Groupie Brigade tends to pop up anywhere the fans are...
- Harsh Vocals: Some Visual Shock bands (Tokyo Yankees became famous for the late Ume's vocals). Became primarily the province of Angura, Eroguro, and Nagoya, with the best representative being ex-Eroguro Dir En Grey vocal Kyo.
- Heavy Meta: Some songs are meta or snark on the scene itself, or even Take That directed at other artists or styles or songs.
- Ho Yay: A form of onstage "gay-for-pay" Fan Service is one of the most common kinds of fanservice, and most of the guys that engage in it are heterosexual cisgendered men, simply trying to earn the adoration of some audience members. That said, from the very first days of the Visual Shock bands, gay, bi, and transfeminine individuals had a place that was relatively more accepting than "normal" Japanese society - so the Visual Kei scene tended to attract these individuals, much as theater tends to in the US and Europe, and therefore Visual Kei and its fandom does have a higher percentage, now, of GLBTQIA individuals than some other genres.
- Improbable Hairstyle: One of the things that defines some forms of Visual Kei, specifically Visual Shock and Kote Kei.
- Indecipherable Lyrics: Often found among Eroguro and Nagoya bands, and pretty much any band that heavily uses Gratuitous English or certain substances. Also used to obscure the actual words of songs in a form of Getting Crap Past the Radar.
- Interplay of Sex and Violence: Some bands. No more shall be said.
- Japanese Delinquents: Many early Visual Kei bandmen started out as this. Note the similarities in fashion, especially for Visual Shock and Kote Kei. On the other hand, Oshare bandmen will often try to downplay this at least onstage...
- Lighter and Softer: Oshare Kei. It's also The Scrappy of Visual Kei, as in it's the genre most likely to be hated/not taken seriously by other Visual Kei artists and by fans of any other genre.
- Long-Haired Pretty Boy: Many, MANY Visual Kei artists early on. That said longer hair is out of modern fashion and is more likely to be seen now with non-Visual Kei heavy metal bands or with Visual Shock bands.
- Man in a Kilt: Skirts are a common fashion item for Visual Kei bandmen...
- Man On Fire: Visual Shock bands (and some modern bands) tend to use a lot of pyro. Combining pyro with the amounts of flammable hair products + costumes + props can occasionally result in this. One notorious incident in the 90s led to major burns on the side of hide's face during one of his solo performances, and a close brush with it occurred during X Japan's 2010 Yokohama show when a pyro went off too close to two band members, surrounding them with smoke and soot.
- A darker version is from visual kei bandmen in fights. Due to Everybody Smokes, everyone also carried lighters. It only took a short while before some bandmen discovered that the flammability of costume and hair meant they now had absolutely legal deadly weapons. There's even an urban legend (generally centered around the Visual Shock punk band Rapes) that someone went to prison for murdering someone else in this way.
- The Merch: Merch is a very large portion of the Visual Kei experience. Every band has a fairly large (and sometimes strange) range of branded merch. Sometimes, the amount of merch can lead to a band being accused of "selling out."
- Metal Scream: VERY common for the more metal-oriented bands, obviously.
- Misogyny Song: Unfortunately...
- Mohs Scale of Rock and Metal Hardness: Visual Kei bands can range anywhere from one to eleven, often with this kind of variance among a single band's discography. Generally (though this is very much a generalization), Angura, Nagoya, and Eroguro bands tend to be higher, whereas Lolita and Oshare bands tend to be softer.
- Murder Ballad: A common subject for Visual Kei bands.
- Nausea Fuel: Some of the imagery produced by Visual Shock, Kote Kei, and Nagoya Kei bands handily qualifies, especially depending on what Squicks you personally, but this has become the true expertise of Eroguro bands, whose express purpose is creating a mixture of this, Fetish Fuel, and Nightmare Fuel - and which are not welcome for discussion here.
- Unintentionally created by bands or artists glorifying Imperial Japanese or Nazi imagery or atrocities.
- To a lesser degree, sometimes unintentionally created by Glamour Failure or Special Effects Failure. Good examples of this are when severely unflattering information about an artist's appearance, behavior, or fetishes leaks to fans, especially when photographs are involved.
- To a breed of YouTube commenter who shares a combination of Western Misplaced Nationalism and homophobia, Visual Kei is itself Nausea Fuel, as well as Rage Fuel.
- Nice Hat: A common fashion accessory. Use was pioneered by Toll from Buck Tick and Taiji Sawada from X Japan (at the time X), and now the Nice Hat is almost as ubiquitous as showing hair, especially for bandmen who have day jobs, are balding, or have other reasons that none of the hair tropes can be put into effect.
- Nobody Loves the Bassist: Hugely averted. Two of the most memorable figures in Visual Kei history are late bassists: Jasmine You of Versailles and Taiji Sawada (formerly of X Japan). Bassists tend to be highly noticed in general, if only that usually the person picked for bass tends to be one of the most attractive members of the band. And when he's musically capable too, as You and Sawada were, you have legends ready to be made.
- Noodle Incident: Almost every band has one somewhere in their history. Some more public than others.
- Performance Video: Almost every band has at least one, and it's almost always best to check out a few of these (especially lives) before you decide whether you like a band or not, because some bands with admittedly lackluster recordings are great live performers or have incredible videos. Other times, the videos are crappy while the music is good, and other times it is all crappy...
- Playing to The Fetishes: Some bands do this.
- Precision F-Strike: A common lyrical device for many bands, along with the aforementioned Atomic and Cluster varieties.
- Promoted Fanboy: One of the reasons Visual Kei came into existence was the amount of Kiss fanboys that decided to take their favorite band's tropes Up to Eleven. X Japan and SEIKIMA-II were such bands. As the scene developed, many fanboys (and some fangirls) developed musical acts and bands of their own, and in some cases were actually signed or even took over for the artists they admired.
- Putting on the Reich: Unfortunately common in early Visual Shock and in some other bands, though becoming less so over time as bands tour in countries where No Swastikas has the force of law, get negative feedback for Nazi-themed costuming from fans, and as some educate themselves. Some artists have been direct aversions of this: Sugizo in particular is known for his anti-fascism, left-leaning political views, and disgust with glorifying Imperial Japan or Nazi Germany.
- Refuge in Audacity: Most non-Oshare bands. Especially Visual Shock in the very early days.
- Rockstar Song: Most bands have at least one.
- Sex, Drugs and Rock and Roll: Technically, the drugs part is very much frowned upon in Japan and even marijuana possession is highly stigmatized to the point that all of a band's music and merch can be pulled from shelves and boycotted, and arrested users are often kicked out of bands or their bands go on hiatus. That said... it's definitely around to a huge degree, it's just not to be discussed except in lyrics.
- Played straight by indies bands, bands not on labels associated with major record companies, or established overseas artists, some of whom have far less fear of such societal punishment (or might even take it as a badge of honor) - and can, therefore, somewhat openly support marijuana use and legalization - therefore playing this trope straight and averting the "no drugs, really, we swear it" rule.
- Rule of Cool: Why Visual Kei exists and is popular...
- ↑ While this isn't a place for debate on whether those changes were good or bad, just compare an 80s-early 90s video of X Japan or SEIKIMA-II to a more modern one of [SuG] or Uchuu Sentai Noiz. Also, unlike in Western genres where new generally overtakes old, the old Visual Shock bands and more modern Visual Kei bands tend to co-exist for a variety of reasons - and also tend to share from the same pool of talent.