First night in Tokyo. Shinjuku’s nocturnal violence welcomes a few tourists; they are overcome by packs of party-goers coming to plunge into noise, music and alcohol. Every shop vomits people and sound, neon signs blink from the asphalt to the building’s heights, the crowd drowns in graphical and auditory pollution.
Creatures emerge from this human magma, strange beings whose presence doesn’t attract a look from the Japanese anymore. They look like Visual Kei musicians. They are men but not male, most of them wearing tight black suits, polished shoes which tip exaggeratingly go up, and their hairdo was set up with a spatula. A cyclone couldn’t undo the meticulous order of those locks.
Who are they? They are called Hosts, and they are the inseparable faun of the Shinjuku nights. “I don’t see them anymore – I’ve never paid them any attention,” one of the book’s translators, Yusei, admits later on. By themselves, or by groups of two or three, they err in the Kabukichô streets, a mecca for the sex industry workers. However, Hosts aren’t exactly prostitutes. They depend on a club where they attempt to attract their female clients. Yes, women follow them, and they will push these women to spend astronomical sums in the club.
Sometimes, they have sexual intercourse with those women, but they rather aim to turn them into regulars. If they yield into the ladies’ desires, it will be counterproductive, because “it would be equivalent to giving them what they want” (The Great Happiness – Tale of an Osaka Love Thief). A satisfied patron doesn’t come back.
Next to these strange groups, another population fill the streets, a bit older, wearing less flashy suits, but still very elegant. They stand guard at every street corner, their eyes set upon their protégés: they are the Hosts’ pimps.
American film director Jake Clennell found himself fascinated with the Hosts, when he came to Japan on the occasion of a documentary about high-school baseball. Acting upon that fascination, he made the excellent movie The Great Happiness Space – Tale of an Osaka Love Thief. The movie was awarded a prize at the Edinburgh International Film Festival in 2006. Clennell’s complete and humane vision of the Hosts gives interesting leads into a better comprehension of this underworld strangely similar to Visual Kei.
Have you ever seen a Visual Kei concert?
Yes, I went because I was curious. I found it extremely beautiful; the research on colors and the musicians’ gestures is something that you don’t find back home.
I was told that Visual Kei musicians and Hosts were originally the same people – they just took a different professional orientation.
It’s true that most of the Hosts are young people coming from modest backgrounds, and they didn’t study much. However, something struck me in Japan: the educational system is much more evolved that in the United States – and I imagine, that France as well. Consequently, those kids, who didn’t have the occasion to go far academically speaking, are still extremely articulate. They are much more articulate than Occidentals would be in the same situation. The danger when you look at Japan, is looking at it through an occidental prism. The reference system is different there. You shouldn’t compare with France or the United States: the result would obviously absurd.
You seem very interested in Japanese Pop culture. Do you have an idea about where the girls’ gestures during the concerts originated?
Have you ever seen a baseball game? That sport is very popular in Japan, and belongs to high schools everyday life. Cheerleaders’ gestures during a game are very similar to the moves of the audience in Visual Kei venues. Actually, if you had seen a Besball game, you wouldn’t be asking me that question. How old are generally the girls who go to Visual Kei concerts?
I’d say about 14 to 18 years old.
There you go: here’s your answer. They reproduce the routines they learn in high school.
In the movie, Issei, charisma-seeping Host whose volubility could belong to an American car seller, say one sentence which could completely apply to the relationship of Visual Kei musicians to their audience: “You must not destroy their dreams.”
Holiday Shinjuku, September 10th 2008. The venue is on Kabukichô’s border, in a dark part of Shinjuku, stuck between Hosts’ clubs. And the entrance of the venue bears the mark of its environment. Telling that story to Hikari, kind-hearted rocker who belongs to the first Visual Kei generation: “I thought I was in…”
“In a Host club, right?” Dead right. The comparison is obvious when looking at the masculine aesthetics. You can find those gravity-defying hairdos, and this matter-of-factly misplaced femininity: numerous trinkets, graphically researched outfits, refusal of simplicity for the clothes… Even the basic black suit is tight and cut in a light-reflecting fabric. But that is not the only common ground: the Holiday Shinjuku’s organization is a lot like a Host club’s.
That would be the place where a lot of Visual Kei bands begin their careers nowadays. The level isn’t so qualitative; the programming is visibly more set on the quantitative. The more vigorous young men are exposing, the better. Later, when they have gathered a more important audience, they will play in better equipped venues: Ikebukuro Cyber, Shibuya O-WEST, O-EAST, etc. In Holiday Shinjuku, they learn the stage, and they learn how to gather an audience, which consists in gathering a minimum number of persons for each concerts, every time the same people- those who will also buy the goodies. This is a step that every single band – from every genre – in every country must take.
For the most part, the Holiday bands have never recorded professionally, but their intention doesn’t exactly lie in music production, as the venue’s structure shows without shame. The aimless wanderer can be very meanly greeted. In the entrance, a “prison-door amiable” receptionist grudgingly gives the accreditations. Those pieces of paper guarantee that journalists don’t pay in order to work. That’s not exactly how it works there: you don’t kid when money is concerned at the Shinjuku; even with a professional invitation, even if you’re not thirsty, you need to pay to get a free drink. This is the first example of music’s extreme monetization, and it is but the beginning.
Next to the venue’s entrance, a shop sells – amongst others – the Shinjuku Holiday artists’ productions. The most devoted fans need just to reach out. The venue interior resembles most of the other Visual Kei venues. The stage is oversized – considering the bands’ popularity and proficiency – the audience stands in well-behaved rows, and sometimes participate using those strange gestures.
At the back of the venue, where is the VIP area (big word for a small thing) you can see a row of tables, separating normal people from those-who-have-a-pass. The slightly fete atmosphere suddenly grows when one notices the different goodies sold by the bands themselves laid out on those make do stands. Welcome to Shinjuku yard sale. Behind: light sound consoles. Before: the stage, full of good dozen of bouncing musicians – they are from different bands, if one trusts the disparity in their outfits.
They jump around and sweat, creating an annoying result, immature, chaotic, and saturated with high sounds: they obviously need to practice a lot more. Good thing their main activity isn’t doing music.
At the end of their show – often a short 20 minutes – the real work begins. A fascinating dance launches. The boys get to their bands’ stand. Timidly, the girls start turning to them. A shy, but resolute approach. And the boys show the extent of their greatest talent: promotion. The yard sale is over, we are now facing a particularly excited huckster in front of the Galeries Lafayette just before Christmas.
Those young men are wordy, without scruples, no matter what they sell. Backstage fast Polaroid seems to be popular. The musicians tell the fans to blindly pick the picture they’re buying: astute. That’s the best way to make sure they will buy another one if the photo they got doesn’t represent the musician their heart is set on. They can also buy badges, official poster, or even singles – because they’re actually selling music.
If those girls are fooled, it’s only because they allow it. Some of them lay out the cash before even walking up to the stands. The boys are quite accessible and open to conversation – as long as the proposition has figures. The relationship between the Misses and their idols is a financial vector, and it only shocks foreigners.
So in the Holiday Shinjuku, even though the boys’ career begins there, even though some of them may be talented, the word ‘prostitution’ floats all around in the air.
Jojo’s career just began, and he is already walking around like he owns the place. His garb is full black, no gel in his hair, and from the height of his twenties, he looks nothing like the ideal son-in-law. I face is pierced all over, and his eyes betray the incommensurable self-assurance he constantly sports. He is hard to recognize without the makeup: there is a huge gap between his scenic character and reality. He introduces himself, and opens the door leading backstage.
A Visual Kei venue’s backstage reminds the back rooms of a strip joint, but dirtier, and without any feminine presence. Sitting on the bare floor in the corridors, boys seem to be busy waiting. Some of them are fully made up and costumed; others wear their everyday clothes. And they’re all over the three floors. Ghetto ambiance, or junkie squat.
Jojo and his band, The Skull Fuck Revolvers, share their small dressing room with another band. In the room lays a smothering cigarette smell mixed with that of the spray they inflict to their hair. The atmosphere is so heavy that Jojo gathers his stuff and suggests getting out to a café. As they leave, they are greeted with morose “otsukaresama deshita”. In other words: good job.