Written by Chiara Mischke
Japanese Rock Music - More Than Meets The Eye
Visual kei is a type of Japanese rock music that is incredibly unique in sound and style. Enjoying great popularity worldwide, it is the reason for many people to come to Japan or learn Japanese. Since I am a big fan of this rock genre myself, let me introduce to you what visual kei is all about.
Japanese Rock Music - More than Just a Style
The author of this article and two members of rock band MAN WITH A MISSION
It is a well-known fact that manga and anime are not the only contemporary arts that make people want to know more about Japan. Visual kei, also known as visual rock, a type of Japanese rock music, also inspires many people to visit Japan and get interested in its culture and language.
I personally was first introduced to Japanese music through X Japan by my best friend in Germany. We both are heavily into '80s and '90s rock and one day, she told me she found this really crazy Japanese band on the internet. I fell in love with their uniqueness and looked into Japanese music through which I also became interested in Japan.
Japanese rock band GOTCHAROCKA represents the distinct new generation of visual kei sound and style that rose to fame in the early 2000s (picture courtesy of GOTCHAROCKA)
Visual kei can be loosely translated to "visual style," a definition that refers to the fact that most of these bands showcase an outstanding, often androgynous style.
The fact that these bands leave such a deep impression through their appearance is also the reason why they are sometimes judged as just a style. Because of this, their music is not always given a chance by hardcore rock fans due to their sheer appearance.
But if one thinks of popular '90s bands such as Kiss, Guns 'n Roses, Mörtley Crüe, and Alice Cooper, then it's obvious that Japanese bands are not the only ones covered in make-up, hairspray, and sparkly clothes while still making great music.
Vocal KAMIJO is known for turning his performances into amazing stage plays (picture courtesy of KAMIJO)
Some of the visual influences come directly from Japanese culture. In traditional theater, such as kabuki, it is a rule for male actors to play both male and female roles. Visual kei plays with this androgynous aspect very much, to the point that many of the male artists are often mistaken as female.
On the other hand, amazing artists such as David Bowie have become famous walking the thin line between male and female appearance and proudly showcased their androgyny. Actually, David Bowie himself was deeply inspired by Japan, Japanese art, and Japanese culture.
LUNA SEA's guitarist INORAN uses mainly English lyrics for his recent solo works (picture courtesy of Dino Publishers)
Just as in western rock music, the music style varies from soft rock and good old rock 'n roll all the way to metal. Something very common for Japanese rock music is that the lyrics are in Japanese with only some English words. However, nowadays some Japanese bands try to keep their lyrics mainly in English in order to appeal to a worldwide market.
Japanese music is all about feeling and uniqueness, not words. Many people who love Japanese bands started out not knowing any Japanese and some even learned Japanese through their love for the music.
Japanese rock has such a big influence on Japanese culture that there are even manga series inspired by the Japanese music scene. One of the most famous ones is "NANA". A shorter series that was very popular in Germany in the '90s was "Aishite Nights" or "Rock 'n Roll Kids" as it was known outside of Japan.
I would like to introduce you to some of the most influential Japanese bands. They are all well-known outside of Japan and even perform overseas.
X JAPAN - Japan's Biggest Rock Band
Picture courtesy of X Japan
X JAPAN is the first name to mention when talking about Japanese rock music. The leader, drummer, and pianist of the band, YOSHIKI, is famous all over the world. YOSHIKI even moved to the United States of America after becoming successful worldwide.
X JAPAN is credited with making visual kei big. When no record label wanted to take them when they had just started, YOSHIKI simply created his own record label, EXTASY RECORDS. EXTASY RECORDS also discovered and signed other bands that are still big names today, such as LUNA SEA.
Their music style is aggressive and very high speed. YOSHIKI's piano parts also play an important role in what makes their music so unique.
X JAPAN was the first and until now the only Japanese rock band to play at the Coachella. Their story is told in the official documentary "We are X".
hide - There's Nobody like Him
Picture courtesy of HEADWAX ORGANIZATION
hide was X JAPAN's guitarist. He was famous for his crazy character, stunning outfits, and pink hair. hide looked just like a colorful comic book character come to life but he was also a genius when it came to music.
hide started his solo career and also his own label called HEADWAX ORGANIZATION in the early 90s. Through his own label he offered a platform for the bands that he personally wanted to support. His solo music and style is to this day indescribable and unique.
LUNA SEA's SUGIZO performing one of hide's songs (Picture from LUNATIC FEST. 2018 - Join An Exciting Celebration of Japanese Music!)
The reason why I write of hide in the past is that he passed away in 1998 of an alleged suicide. To this day, fans in Japan still gather on his birthday and death anniversary to celebrate his music. His memorial concerts still draw many famous artists who celebrate his life and songs. He will always be loved and respected by fans and fellow artists alike.
hide's documentary "JUNK STORY," which is available on NETFLIX, offers glimpses of this irreplaceable artist's life. It even shows how his band coped touring without him one last time after his passing.
LUNA SEA - Explosive Power and Talent
Picture courtesy of LUNA SEA
LUNA SEA was discovered by hide and signed to EXTASY RECORDS. This band is an explosion of amazing talent! Each member has their own solo career and the vocalist, RYUICHI KAWAMURA, is often referred to as "the voice" due to his astonishing vocal abilities.
Since their beginnings, every LUNA SEA member takes part in creating their songs. As every member has their own favorite genre of music, this co-writing style makes their albums and songs very versatile.
Picture courtesy of LUNA SEA
If they are lesser-known than X JAPAN outside Japan, it's because they tend to be quieter in their promotional appearance. This is very unfortunate as LUNA SEA are amazing live performers and should be witnessed live at least once! The combined power and unity of these five amazing artists is unmatched in Japan.
Picture courtesy of SUGIZO
LUNA SEA's most famous member is guitarist SUGIZO. He is one of Japan's biggest guitarists as well as an amazing violinist, and also an outspoken activist for refugees and against nuclear power. SUGIZO is in charge of playing lead guitar in X JAPAN in hide's place, which makes him the lead guitarist of Japan's two biggest rock bands.
HYDE - Unapologetic Rock
Picture courtesy of HYDE
At first, he introduced his new style through his solo activity as HYDE. Then he formed the rock 'n roll band VAMPS with guitarist K.A.Z, who is a member of hide's band hide with Spread Beaver (still active). Currently, VAMPS is not active.
HYDE is known for performing overseas solo and with his bands. He is also one of the rare Japanese artists who collaborates with rock bands from abroad. A couple of years ago, he recorded a song for VAMPS with Finnish cello rock band Apocalyptica called "SIN IN JUSTICE" and had the band play as the opening act for VAMPS concerts in Japan.
MIYAVI - Japan's Samurai Guitarist
MIYAVI belongs to a younger generation of influential Japanese rock musicians. After becoming famous in Japan with his outstanding guitar playing style and performances, he went solo and began an international career. MIYAVI is also known as the "Samurai Guitarist."
MIYAVI has made a name for himself overseas as an actor. He played alongside famous Hollywood actors in the movie "UNBROKEN". He also had roles in Japanese movies such as the manga live-action movie "BLEACH" while also still being active as a musician.
DIR EN GREY - Shock Rock in Japanese
DIR EN GREY opened the way for a whole new generation of visual kei artists in the late '90s. They started out as a very typical visual kei band. One of their first albums, "Gauze," was even co-produced by X JAPAN's YOSHIKI.
DIR EN GREY truly found their own musical identity when they turned into one of Japan's first shock rock bands. They have kept this style ever since. Although I would only recommend them to people who like hard rock and who can deal with bloody stage performances, they are an amazing band to see live. Their raw emotion is incredibly captivating and real.
MAN WITH A MISSION - A Rocking Wolf Pack
Picture courtesy of MAN WITH A MISSION
MAN WITH A MISION is known as the "wolf band" because the members perform wearing wolf masks and their real faces have never been revealed. Each wolf head is carefully crafted by a special effects team and everyone has a unique expression so that they can be told apart.
They came up with this idea when they were struggling to be acknowledged and wanted to come up with something so outstanding that people couldn't ignore them. They promoted themselves only through social media and now they hold concert tours all over the world.
Their rock music is influenced by many different genres, including hip hop. They did start out mainly singing in Japanese but as they became more famous overseas, they focused on English lyrics.
Japanese Rock Music - Don't Judge a Book by its Cover
Some people are fast to judge Japanese bands by their looks even going so far as to call it "pretty boy" music. The unique, often androgynous appearance of the performers tends to irritate especially male music fans.
However, if you do like rock music, I highly recommend giving some of the bands mentioned above a try. Japanese music is surprisingly versatile and the way it is arranged is quite unique compared to music outside Japan. You might just find your new all-time favorite band!
Please visit the featured artists' official websites:
GOTCHAROCKA: http://www.gotcharocka.com/ (Japanese)
KAMIJO: https://chateau-agency.com/kamijo/ (Japanese)
X JAPAN: http://www.xjapan.com/index.html
LUNA SEA: https://www.lunasea.jp/?lang=en
Ryuichi Kawamura: https://www.kawamura-fc.com/ (Japanese)
VAMPS: http://www.vampsxxx.com/ (Japanese)
DIR EN GREY: https://direngrey.co.jp/lang_en/
MAN WITH A MISSION: https://www.mwamjapan.info/
Main image courtesy of LUNA SEA from LUNATIC FEST. 2018 - Join An Exciting Celebration of Japanese Music!