This question may seem to have an obvious answer, but is, in fact, way more complicate than it seems. If, on one hand, one may say that Visual Kei is Japanese since it is sung in Japanese, it must not be forgotten that the inspiration for some of the first artist is american glam rock, without forgetting also the phenomenon of “Eurovisual” and the musical direction of some artist. Let’s analyze everything step by step.
One definition that may come in help in this analysis is the one of “smell” of a product, formulated by professor Iwabuchi in the article “Recentering Globalization” (2002): it refers to the way a product is perceived at first by the public. For instance, in this article we are going to see how much a Visual Kei product smells “Japanese”.
Let’s start with the very first famous Visual Kei bands: X Japan, Buck-Tick, Malice Mizer.
Musically speaking, all of the three bands are deeply indebted to overseas rock and metal and, especially in their early works, one would not find a distinguished “Japanese” melody in their works. Between these 3, Malice Mizer has had a more distinct sound, but it still is a western sound which may fall under some experimentation of progressive metal, but a person who wouldn’t pay much attention to the language spoken in the songs, wouldn’t probably say that they sound “Japanese”.
The make up as well (with the small exception of Malice Mizer, Lareine and similar bands which, anyway, represent the ending part of the first era of Visual Kei) has a close take to the one used by dark and new wave bands from England and America, mixing different styles together creating a general image in the mind of the public which has later become to identify visual bands, still this image is far from being visible to anyone as “Japanese”.
Perhaps, the most “Japanese” feature of early Visual Kei is the language, aimed to a young Japanese audience. One might argue that the lyrics often contain english words or even sentences, but they’re almost always un-intelligible when sung and sometime contain mistakes: English is mainly used to make a sentence or a word look cooler or unusual.
If we were to judge early visual kei by the notion of “smell”, we would have to say it doesn’t smell “Japanese” but rather as “Some kind of rock/metal sang in Japanese”.
But, as it has been explained in a previous article, “Visual Kei” is not just the early phases. It is in fact with the “Neo-Visual Kei” movement that the genre has started to have a more distinct “smell”. What brought to a more Japanised Visual Kei is the fact that the early Visual Kei did not become a worldwide hit (it hasn’t become a genre used in different countries like, for instance, hip-hop or dubstep) but did become an inspiration for the following generation of visual artists.
The music has become even more various, producing a plethora of different sounds, including some which really sound “Japanese”. Still, even if there are more and more exception every year, it is difficult to say that Visual Kei has achieved a sound that can be recognized worldwide as “Japanese”. Nevertheless, it would be wrong to say that Visual Kei has no defined sound: throughout the years an agreed “visual sound” has been developing and might lead to some interesting change in the musical aspect.
Visually speaking, “Neo-Visual Kei” has been one of the very few rock/metal movement at the time (early 2000) which relied heavily on the use of eccentric make up, giving it often an accentuated “Japanese” flavour. Perhaps, the way in which Visual Kei has become popular is by the simplistic definition of the “japanese rockers who dress up”.
The language has changed as well, becoming much more diverse and creating a big number of band which use different language patterns, from complete ancient Japanese to lyrics in English only.
In conclusion, while Visual Kei, musically speaking, has no mandatory Japanese sound to define it, on every other aspect has a strong “Japanese” smell, especially in the aspect of visual performance and aimed public.
There are of course some exception. One is the case of the artist which can be catalogued under the name “Eurovisual” such as Yohio, Seremedy, Cinema Bizarre and others. These artists have started their musical experimentation taking “Neo-Visual Kei” band as reference, imitating in their own fashion some of the aesthetics and sound of those bands. Forced to deal with an European public, they often sang in their native language while keeping a flashy aesthetic but ended up changing their sound to a more screamo-like version of Japanese Visual Kei to appeal to a broader public than the Visual Kei fans in Europe: as a result, they only kept the aesthetics, giving a “Japanese” smell only to noses of the Visual Kei fans, but losing any other Japan-ish smell.
One other exception, even rarer than “Eurovisual” is that of the Japanese Visual bands which start playing for a more western-oriented public such as Nocturnal Bloodlust (and a few others). This choice often leads to the composition of lyrics in English only and the conversion to a heavier sound, sometimes closer to hard-core emo, sometimes to black metal. But, since the conversion in this is way more difficult due to the hurdle of the language and the necessity to grow a strong local fan base in order to find the money to go abroad, these bands tend to sound more “Japanese” than the Eurovisual ones.
This, however, remains a still much unpursued road which can give us only few elements to analyze: if these phenomenon one day will grow bigger, it could be interesting looking into it with a more keen eye.
In conclusion, I’d say that Visual Kei has the potential to be picked up by any culture and becoming a global experience, but still struggles to do so mainly because of the barrier of the language and because a certain skepticism to promote Japanese Visual bands for what they are abroad.
As a consequence, Visual Kei continues being mainly a Japan-only experience and the developing of the genre is concentred in the very own country of Japan.
While proto-Visual Kei may be considered a Japanese version of an American genre(but it put the basis for the further experimentation), from Neo-Visual Kei (or maybe from Malice Mizer) and on, Visual kei has become prominently Japanese.