FEATURE: Why Visual Kei Matters

Visual Kei is a mirror turned in on itself—a kaleidoscope of discourse that defies national boundaries in how it demonstrates that individuals who live hemispheres apart can celebrate a common culture in large part due to modern civilization’s recurring missteps.

The genre’s oldest traceable ancestor, X Japan, has openly cited influences from bombastic 80’s western artists like Kiss, Sex Pistols, and David Bowie. From there, the defining aesthetic has only magnified with a particular emphasis on theatrics in the service of countering popular culture. This is especially notable because put simply, Japanese culture rarely accommodates the individual. Although separated by sea, Japan has consistently shared cultural components with its Asian mainland neighborsーthe pertinent aspect, in this case, being Confucianism which highly values ancestors and tradition. The result is a belief system that focuses on appeasing past generations and self-sacrifice if it serves the community. As such, rock music presented a nasty wrench in the cogs of classical Japanese culture.

America’s involvement in Japan’s politics following World War II had greater ramifications than just disabling military options. Schools were modeled after America’s 6634 system, family-maintained monopolies were dismantled, and democracy became the law of the land. It comes as no surprise that American ideology would pop up in places like artistic media. What’s even more interesting is how these cultural elements were adapted through a distinctly Japanese lens, thus offering new perspectives on traditional tropes.

A prominent example of this was the legendary ‘Father of Manga’ Osamu Tezuka of Astroboy fame and how his work was heavily influenced by Walt Disney. Big eyes, soft faces, and young protagonists became the foundation for Japan’s interpretation of American media. However, there was still something unmistakably ‘Japanese’ about it. Works like Tetsujin 28-go (sometimes localized as “Gigantor”) maintained a Disney-like aesthetic while nesting pre- and post-war anxieties regarding weapons of immeasurable power capable of turning the tide of a conflict within seconds.

This connection between Disney and Tezuka relevant because it is visually apparent to the degree that western companies actively try to present western-inspired Japanese work to western audiences thinking that the origin of inspiration somehow lends the work more readily to western consumption. See any number of live-action anime adaptations for proof. The tragedy with these western-inspired Japanese works adapted by western studios is that the work’s soul is often lost in translation (which is, ironically, another translation such as in the case of an American adaptation of Astro Boy).

With this in mind, the question is raised: “Why has this not been the case with visual kei?” Why not take these works originally inspired by another culture and repackage them in a way that appeals to the progenitor since they’ve already been proven to show an interest?

From a marketing standpoint, the genre should avail itself to the same exploitation. Much of visual kei’s appeal lays in the same lane as 80’s glam rock—a void that’s been virtually untouched for decades which means there’s a niche consumer base ready to dump their dollars for anyone willing to scratch a rare itch. However, an innate quality embedded in visual kei’s DNA immunizes it from this plague.

The Japanese public did not adopt Visual Kei as quickly as they did Astroboy and Tetsujin 28-go. X-Japan’s co-founder Yoshiki has gone on record saying that crowds didn’t take to them at first. At the time, X blended Glam-rock flare with Anime-aesthetic in a way that was wholly distinct. Their driving philosophy was “why can’t we combine everything?” and so their art built on the media they were fed. Just as early mangaka used western methods to express Japanese sentiment, X told their truth on a foundation built by hair metal and cartoons. But in this, there’s another layer of cultural exchange. If X drew inspiration from Anime, and Anime drew inspiration from the west, then their work can be seen as an interpretation on an interpretation—akin to a game of artistic telephone where each exchange pushes the discussion one step further where the initial message was, “freedom of spirit, or some kind of rebel against anything that can define you.”

Decades later, visual-key inspired groups have sprouted up across the globe, But unlike an actual game of telephone, each version of the message is equally valid because it’s passed on by way of discipline, integrity, and love. Korea’s Madmans Esprit, Germany’s VII ARC, and Sweden’s Kerbera are among the strain of artistry budding from visual-kei’s borderless tenants of individuality, passion, and ambiguity.

Unlike many corporate campaigns that aim to cash-in on a niche fanbase, these musicians have found success by unabashedly fueling their endeavors with authenticity. Where a group-tested script for a western adaptation of an anime may have the goal to please as many moviegoers as possible to generate maximum revenue, the seeds sown by X Japan and its contemporaries have largely been nourished by self-generated passion.

This pure, anti-establishment mentality that spits in the face of nation-based music genres and even gender norms isn’t easily bottled or sold for mass consumption. Tracing its roots all the way back to the beginnings of punk and hard rock, the soul of visual kei challenges any power-structure in such a way that is essential in order to evaluate if the norms we live by are useful or arbitrary. The genre is actually just the pure essence of the individual in conflict with the whole—a struggle stemming from the core of the human condition which is how it’s survived so long and why it resonates across time and space in an uncountable amount of forms.

X could’ve abandoned their bombastic image in favor of being more commercially viable, but they didn’t. The reason X Japan caught fire was because they essentially ‘brute force’d their way into the forefront. Venue after venue, they played the kind of music they liked while wearing the makeup and wigs they liked. They never compromised on their artistic vision despite criticism over their appearance in their early days.

Really, that may be the greatest strength visual kei has—the ability to evade definitions through sheer integrity. A belief in the self and one’s actions despite communal rejection is something that can be universally appreciated, but the beauty of visual kei is how it curates this specifically to the people who really matter. That is, people walking off the beaten path who find no shortage of critics along the way—people who can only see tall grass and thistles ahead. People who, more than anything, could find some peace in the knowledge that, despite the rough terrain, they can find their way to a clearing without compromising who they are.

Article written by:

A firefly that got stuck in that big, blue-ish black thing in the night sky. Too curious for his own good—loves wordplay, hot sauce, and hip-hop. Currently working on the sickest mixtape no one will ever hear.

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