A Brief History of Japanese Visual-Kei Music

Fumie Kikuchi is the keyboardist and vocalist of Tokyo-based psychedelic trio Kuunatic. Having recorded their debut album with Gang Gang Dance’s Tim DeWit, their heavy, tribalistic sound draws influence from psych rock and post-punk. But there’s a salient influence that might not be as obvious to listeners outside of Japan: Visual-Kei, a unique genre-hybrid that coalesced in Japan during the late 80s.

Visual-Kei fused thrash and power metal riffs, glam flash, goth histrionics, and searing guitar leads with a very involved aesthetic that amalgamated goth, metalhead, punk, and new romantic fashion – bouffant hairstyles, dramatic makeup and lots of leather.

Fumie traces the history of the genre from the nascent period in the late 80s – when X-Japan’s distinct visual and musical style formed the template for subsequent groups – through to the current day, where pioneering bands like Buck-Tick are still performing and releasing new material. The ‘90s was the genre’s heyday, with a slew of Visual-Kei artists getting signed to major labels and seeing a string of chart hits: LUNA SEA‘s “Rosier” spent half a year in the charts! 

This Brief History presents the numerous successes alongside the feverous underground, where bands often pushed a harder-edged or more experimental sound, while reflecting on how the diversity of sounds imprinted itself on Kuunatic’s psychedelic, polystylistic music.

Kuunatic’s debut album, ‘Gate of Klüna‘, will be released on Glitterbeat on 29th October.

X JAPAN –  紅 Kurenai 

It is said that the word “Visual-kei” started because of X Japan. Their advertising slogan was “Psychedelic Violence Crime of Visual Shock” and a music journalist took the word from it to describe this new genre. Their metal sound and appearance really shocked young people and created a social phenomenon; fans started dressing up like X JAPAN members and following them everywhere they played. This band has so much drama: singer Toshi got into a religious cult group that led to their breakup, then guitarist Hide died in an accident, later they reunited, but former bassist Taiji mysteriously died as well, and drummer Yoshiki was forced to stop playing drums due to his neck injury. But their fans are always waiting for their return, and this song is sort of an anthem to reconnect the band and the audience. 

L’Arc~en~Ciel – Blurry Eyes

All musicians have mixed feelings about being called Visual-kei, and this band used to hate being called it the most. Sometimes visual-kei was expressed as a discriminating term because they are all boys but have a flamboyant and feminine look. The style wasn’t taken well by the majority of people back then. In fact, none of the visual-kei rock musicians call themselves visual-kei — wearing make-up and dressing up were just their ways to emphasise their music. Later L’Arc~en~Ciel took a more rock / pop direction, and they’ve been making lots of hit songs even now. 


They are famous for making very glam, erotic and controversial songs, but this song is a love song with a political message behind. It was released in 1996 when Japan was facing a post-economic bubble burst, and it sort of helped young people to go through the anxious time. This music video was directed by the singer Kazuya Yoshii. The lyrics were reflected in a story line, it was controversial but it mirrored what was happening in the era very well. 

MALICE MIZER – 月下の夜想曲 Gekka no Yasoukyoku        

While many visual-kei rock bands were coming out in the mid 90s, L’a cryma Christi, Shazna, Malice Mizer and Fantastic◇Crisis were called  “Visual-kei Four Heavenly Kings” because of their distinctive sounds and because they brought the golden era of the visual-kei rock movement into the music scene.

MALICE MIZER were a gothic, baloc and orepa themed visual-kei band. To create their musical worldview, they wore gothic make-up and medieval European opera-style costumes, and they sometimes didn’t play instruments and just performed theatrical shows on stage. This song’s theme is “a story of dolls who used to be humans”. In this music video and in their live shows, guitar player Mana plays as a bisque doll, another guitarist Közi plays as a crown puppet, drummer Kami is a duke, bassist Yu〜ki is a servant and singer Gackt is probably a death. It is said that their style ignited Japanese girls’ gothic & lolita fashion culture too.  

Buck-Tick – Go-Go B-T Train

Even though visual-kei bands still exist, they are now called neo-visual-kei and some music journalists officially announced that the original spirit of visual-kei rock died in the mid 2000s. But here is Buck-Tick. Since they began in 1989 through to present day, they are the only band that never changed their sound, members and style. They take different approaches on every album they make, but they always have a new wave and relatively pop sound at their core. This song was released this September, and they are still rocking and continuing to influence many musicians.   

Kuunatic’s debut album, ‘Gate of Klüna‘, will be released on Glitterbeat on 29th October. Image sourced from X JAPAN ITALIAN.

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