“What ? You don’t know X Japan?” Well, no, I don’t. In spite of what the genre’s bulimics say, we all discover Visual Kei at some point. No one was born into the genre. Even the greatest Visual Kei specialist ignored X Japan one day. Yet today, mentioning Visual Kei implies mentioning X Japan as well.
But maybe you don’t have a clear idea of what Visual Kei is, it is a possibility. Most musicians can’t actually define Visual Kei as well. Logically, the word used (“Visual System” in English) implies a genre where music is considered from an aesthetic point of view. The Japanese were seduced from the start.
Of course, when observing today, one can easily imagine that X Japan was the root of all Visual Kei. Reality is different: X Japan’s merit consists in popularizing a new way to link aesthetics and stage. But that was at a time when many were transvestites on stage. In the mid eighties, remember: David Bowie wore latex outfits; Kiss painted their face black and white, The Cure resembled the Adams Family, and let us not talk about Indochine.
The end of the eighties, or the beginning of Visual Kei, is actually the story of a group of kids whose country finally cleaned up the remains of Second World War. That Japan became in the lapse of a generation a country great nations had to consider seriously. That Japan’s economic stability came to be through team playing instead of individuality.
Yet, at the end of the eighties, economical progression gets slower and those kids are weary of wearing a uniform. They don’t want to live like their parents did. They want to make noise, express their inner feelings onto their skins, and project violence. In small Tokyo peripheral town Nakano streets, records sellers and pubs are the place where those youngsters meet to listen to rock, drink, hit on each other, and listen to more rock.
Specialized press is diverse and has the amateur feel of student publications: black and white pages promoting Visual Kei bands next to punks and rockabilly acts. No difference is made between the genres: all of them are playing rock. Kenzi isn’t 20 years old yet, he joins his first band as a drummer. Kamaitachi will become one of the greatest acts of Visual Kei’s first hours.
At that time, X Japan members are meeting each other, unknowing of their future superstar status. The word Visual Kei doesn’t even exist. Yet those bands – somewhat Punk, somber and messy – are slowly being categorized under the same name: Iro-mono. The “different things”. The word will be used a few years before turning into today’s “Visual Kei” and the sound slowly and surely becomes popular. And this time, the product is clearly Japanese.
At that time, Kenzi says, musicians behave closer to Kabuki actors rather than Punks: “Bands prepared for two or three hours before every show. Like Shishima (Japanese traditional character, NdT), they took great care of their appearance. In their wake, colored aesthetics became fashionable.”
Yet, rock spirit still is there. Kids empty their pockets to perform in as many venues as possible, everywhere in Japan. “Many of them toured the country. Today’s bands don’t tour, it’s too expensive. They play five times each month in the same venue. Back then, even if they were in the red, they moved around a lot.” They had to fill the venues in order to have enough money to get to the next venue, so each band member participated and brought the audience inside by turning into their own brand’s promoters.
A mandatory behavior because at the very beginning, Visualists aren’t ‘cool’. People see strange clowns in them. So without any intrusion of the professionals of music, Visual Kei develops thanks to the musicians and their audience. “Of course it was a trend, as is everything in rock’n roll. But we did it our own way. We were probably inspired by Punks: ‘I am myself, I am unique’: it was a very strong feeling.”
Like the birth of every rock genre, Visual Kei begins in dirty venues, made and seen by people who don’t want to give themselves to the community. “Musicians weren’t playing to become famous then. They only played because they wanted to.”
Today, Kenzi’s skin is covered with tattoos, his hair is bleached and his broken face would be scary if it weren’t cracked with the gentlest smile. He owns a tiny pub in Shinjuku, a few streets away from his The Dead Pop Stars band-member Aki’s own pub. When he looks at the new generation, he can’t find himself into these cosmetically exaggerating adolescents. “Since the Visual Kei concept was created, today’s kids only have to imitate. There isn’t any message anymore. Today, they play rock in its general concept. And that’s why they can’t get out of the box. Before, there was a feeling under the makeup.”
So everything begins in the eighties. Facing such passion for visual research, the Japanese are ready to fire. They only miss a leader. So when Yoshiki invents for X Japan the tagline “Psychedelic Violence Crime of Visual Shock”, he doesn’t open a path for the other musicians, but a freeway. They go down that road by the hundred. In a society where people wear the same clothes as their neighbor’s during their whole education, than in the business world, playing Visual Kei is liberating. Hence getting rid of the uniform becoming the Visualist thought process of the times.
The concept works and little by little, in the wake of X Japan, the pillars of Visual Kei become popular; Buck-Tick, Luna Sea, Malice Mizer, or Kuroyume. And each of these bands opened the gate to a different approach of the genre.