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Japanese Visual Kei and the Blurring of American Genre Lines

18 January 2006

This is the first installment of what I hope to be an ongoing discussion of the Japanese ‘Visual Kei’ music scene. The phrase translates literally as “visual type,” which refers to the dramatic, attention grabbing costumes and imagery employed by the various bands that jumpstarted the scene in the early 1990’s. I’ll save the complete history for another time, though, because what I really want to explore is the fact that few American genre rules and stratifications translate onto this scene. It leads me to believe that the specific mini-genres Americans have divided rock into these days are not universally applicable, and might instead be somehow cultural in nature.

The three bands I’d like to use as examples are MALICE MIZER, L’ARC EN CIEL, and DIR EN GREY. They’re all considered members of the Visual Kei scene, but musically have very little to do with one another. Malice Mizer is more classical than rock, more GUSTAV MAHLER than MICK JAGGER, if you will. Their album Bara No Seidou, for example, is filled with dark soundscapes and haunting operatic vocals that you’d be hard pressed to duplicate live without a full orchestra.

L’Arc En Ciel, on the other hand, are a straight-up mix of hard rock, pop-punk, and emo. They have had more success in the States, most likely due to the popularity of that style over here.

Finally we have Dir En Grey, the weirdest of the bunch. On the album Gauze, for example, they mix cheesy pop ballads, screamo, glam, and thrash metal with dark classical bravado into a very strange yet delicious concoction.

From that abbreviated description of Malice Mizer, L’Arc En Ciel, and Dir En Grey, it is obvious that these bands have few musical similarities, even though they are all grouped into the Visual Kei scene. What I find interesting is that in Visual Kei (and perhaps in other music scenes in Japan) the ‘rules and regulations’ that bind American bands today are seemingly nonexistent. (Sorry, but there’s no way kids at Ozzfest could stomach a group that mixes cheesy pop ballads with thrash metal.) Since Japan is stereotypically thought of as very rigid, with strict behavioral norms, you’d think that such genre rules would have been born in Japan, not in freedom-obsessed America.

So perhaps genres aren’t cultural per se, but just heavily influenced by culture. Maybe Americans were too free of constrictions, so they decided to start imposing some on one of their most democratic mediums. And maybe the Japanese, when making rock n’ roll their own, found its inherent freedom refreshing, and all those rigid genre stratifications that Americans tacked on later just too damn confusing.

There is yet another possibility, found by analyzing the phrase Visual Kei itself. It’s the image of these bands that originally tied them together, along with their music, so perhaps that is the difference here. Maybe it’s more democratic (and effective) to group bands together by tangible fabrics instead of ephemeral sounds.

But no matter the reason, I find the variety of genres that merge in the Visual Kei scene refreshing, much like it must have been in the early days of punk rock, when so many disparate groups were joined together under one big moniker. The hegemony of American rock genres is obnoxious and detrimental to the health of rock n’ roll as a whole, and I’m ecstatic that many Japanese bands have completely disregarded it, even if it was an unconscious decision to do so.