Harajuku, venter of Tokyo sub-cultures. Fashion Ali Baba cavern – for all types of fashions. This is where you can find the shops of the famed Visual Kei designers: Sexy Dynamite London, Alice and the Pirates, Black Peace Now, H. Naoto… They are all gathered in a gigantic mall, comparable to the Parisian Galeries Lafayette: Laforêt Harajuku.
A neophyte wouldn’t find a temple dedicated to the visual sub-culture there. Why? Well, those brands are rounded up and hidden in the mall’s basement level. If you enter Laforêt Harajuku with the strong intention to find Visual Kei mascot brands, you can fail to find them under 20 minutes.
Indeed, Visual style remains mostly unfamiliar to the average Japanese. In the streets, asking the passers-by who say they have some musical education, you may be disappointed by the answers. Most Japanese have heard about X Japan – often as the first band filling up Tokyo Dome three consecutive days – but they don’t know the music. The more knowledgeable can give you more names: Nightmare, The Gazette, or Miyavi. But don’t ask them anything technical, like about Oshare Kei: only a precisou few Visual bulimics will know what you’re referring to.
The other point of interest in Harajuku is the weekly cosplayer meeting. For those who collect information about Visual Kei through a computer screen, and who imagine it at some sort of mecca, the meeting can be frankly disappointing.
Imagine three kids sitting on the ground 100 meters from the metro station, wearing a star or anime character outfit – for the most recognizable. They keep on sitting in semi-silence, waiting for the tourists to ask them whether it’s all right that they take a picture.
Don’t ask them questions, don’t inquire why or how. They have no aim, their thought process is not something they can articulate, their look mostly hides shyness, or even aggressive behavior. Do they have problems at school because of their style or haircut? Yes, but they’re at a loss as to which ones. Can they recommend venues or artists? They fight amongst themselves to avoid answering. Are they annoyed by the tourists taking pictures of them? No, as long as they ask beforehand.
The strangest thing from those soft fringe elements of society, is the look they give to those who don’t look like them. If you aren’t physically identifiable as being one of them, they ostracize you. You don’t belong to their world, even if you are willing to listen to them. And for the most part of them too, they can’t give you many band names. In France we are so proud of our musical knowledge – turning us into full blown snobs – Visual Kei hides its scholars.
And that is why we can safely say that Visual Kei is at the core of an aesthetic culture and no musical research pole. That also explains why a huge majority of interview bring no answers: the greatest part of the musicians can’t word clearly their concept. Any evolved question brings out either embarrassment or a vague answer.
Tomonori Nagasawa is among other things a journalist; he is said to have coined the term for Visual Kei, back when the name didn’t exist. He politely says he didn’t, but he still knows inside out the genre and those who made it. He says artists aren’t used to be asked deep questions. Which would be the reason why they don’t know how to react.
Other journalists have collided with complete absence of reaction. For instance, a Zy 42 editor went for an obscure question, during an interview with Nightmare. Here is the reaction he got (translated by JAME):
Zy 42, December 2008.
I think Lost In Blue has eight beat bars and simple arranging, but the development is quite unique, right?
Ruka: you really think so?
Yes: it begins with an intro, then lead A, lead A, lead B, Lead A and then a guitar solo. Then again lead B and the main lead is completely modulated. This melody only appears once but it goes on until the end of the song. I think you created that melody so that everyone understands the song even if they don’t get the lyrics.
In other words?
Ruka: it’s funny to see you find explanations to things I hadn’t really thought about. You think too much!
Tomonori Nagasawa analyses further: “Even journalists need to bend to rules. You can’t speak negatively about an artist. You can write a bad review of an album, if you’re willing to take the risk. The next day, you’ll be fired.” It gives a whole new meaning to the principle of objectivity.
Visual Kei Observers are often parented to media destined to a very young reader. A mean vision of those media would remark that there are no articles, a lot of picture, a few legends. Therefore, it can’t be surprising that the only French media writing specials about Visual Kei is the teeny-bopper magazine Rock One. Musicians’ blood type is handled as an interesting piece of information.
It is indeed interesting to the young Japanese: sometimes they will establish compatibilities between two human beings based on their respective blood types. But to occidental youngsters, even in quest of exotics, it is artificial.
But let’s give Julius Caesar what belongs to him: you can find in this press a great number of interviews. Surprisingly, like other Asian musical spheres, artists appear in interview without a convincing reason. They promote a single more often than an album; the release of a new song is dealt with as if it were an artistic victory. Intriguing, especially we don’t make so much noise for the release of a full album in France. As a logical consequence, most of the journalists’ questions revolve around that one song: “How did you choose the song’s title?” And artists explain the lyrics, reveal why they chose such costume, or worse – disclose their favorite food.
Interviews are extremely codified in Visual Kei, which is similar in that register to Japanese Pop, and by extension, to Asian mainstream music. If the journalists is not asking the right questions, then the musician will unscrupulously give his message. Isshi, Kaggra,’s lead singer, asked me at the end of our interview if he could add a few words. Surprised, I suggested he help himself. I was astonished to hear his say: “I would like to give a message to my French fans. In August, we played our first gig in France, but there were over 500 people. Since most of them were pretty girls, I want to come back as fast as possible.”
One could wonder whether the musicians have this fan messaging manual. Masato, from The Underneath, said to the Jame team in October 2008: “It’s probably cliché, but we are honestly happy to see that Japanese music is greeted with such enthusiasm in the United States. I am really happy we belong to that movement and I hope you will keep listening to Japanese music and remain a fan.” In march 2009, Teruki from An Café told me: “Thank you for welcoming us in France a new time. We are happy to be in Paris. To ensure that the fans keep coming, we will try our best tonight!”
A French musician with a budding brilliant career in Japan may wonder how to properly thank the fans. Actually, it’s pretty simple: Start by thanking the audience for being diligent. Go on with a love declaration directed at the country where you are. Last, but not least, precise that you would be nothing without the fans. If you can add a personal or humoristic touch, it’s better – but not mandatory.
These kids are a sweetened version of what their inspiration sources lived when Visual Kei began. Between the beginning years and today’s scene, the gap widens every year.