We've got the look

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 19 February, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 19 February, 2012, 12:00am


Much like their hairstyles, outfits, stage sets and guitar riffs, Japanese rockers L'Arc en Ciel's celebration of their 20th anniversary will be big. So big, in fact, that it will last two years - and encompass their 21st birthday as well.

The quartet started last year with a series of anniversary shows in Japan and closed with a film concert series screened around the world in places such as New York, Los Angeles and Paris. Now they are embarking on an anniversary world tour that starts in Hong Kong on March 3, followed by stops in Bangkok, Shanghai, Taipei, New York, London, and Paris.

For L'Arc en Ciel and their legion of fans, the anniversary marks a significant milestone: they're one of only a few bands from the niche subgenre of 'visual kei' to have cracked the mainstream Japanese music industry. But to call visual kei - which means 'visual style' in Japanese - just a music genre is misleading. To the artists and the fans, it is a lifestyle.

Visual kei is widely considered to have been pioneered in the 1980s by X-Japan, a heavy metal band whose members were into flamboyant clothing, outrageous hairstyles and make-up; they also cultivated an androgynous look - much like David Bowie's Ziggy Stardust persona from the 1970s. 'X-Japan were heavily influenced by Bowie during his glam-rock phrase,' says Tokyo-based music journalist Hiromi Fukada. 'Both founding members, Yoshiki and Toshi, have said they were big fans.'

The visual kei scene, she says, began with X-Japan's formation in 1982. But it took determination to get the movement going. Despite developing a loyal following after years of gigs, most record labels were not interested in signing the outfit in the mid-80s. Their outrageous image and violent lyrics - their first single was titled I'll Kill You - were seen as a turn-off for mainstream audiences.

But 'Yoshiki's mother believed in the band so much she sold the family business, a grocery market, and let Yoshiki use the money to start his own record label,' Fukada says. After setting up Extasy Records in 1986, X-Japan released their second single, Orgasm, and a debut album followed a year later - reaching No85 on Japan's Orion charts despite its indie roots.

The four members of L'Arc en Ciel - Tetsuya Ogawa, Ken Kitamura, Yasunori Sakurazawa and Hideto Takarai - had yet to meet then but also took note of X-Japan's sound. Lead singer Takarai, better known as Hyde, would later cite X-Japan's 1989 sophomore album, Blue Blood, as a major influence.

The scene began to swell as alternative bands such as Luna Sea, Malice Mizer, Glay and Color emerged. Some visual kei fans believe Japanese rock - or J-rock - developed its own identity around this time. 'Before X-Japan and these other bands, Japanese bands were indistinguishable from Western bands - only Japanese acts were far, far less well known or established,' says Sophia Toshii, who runs the popular blog Visual Kei Heaven.

Takoko Inoue, author of the 2007 book Visual Kei no Jidai (Age of the Visual System) agrees: visual kei stood out from the start due to its 'vastly different look and sound', he says. 'Bands such as X-Japan and Luna Sea sounded completely different, with the former being heavy metal and the latter being punk rock, but they were all considered the same because of their visual style.'

Inoue describes this as the first phase of visual kei, lasting from the mid-80s to about 1993 - when L'Arc en Ciel hit it big and set off the second phase. 'L'Arc en Ciel, along with bands such as Malice Mizer, ushered in a new era for visual kei,' Inoue says. 'They took the crazy looks to another level, with brighter costumes and hair that went higher and wider.'

The sounds were also evolving. X-Japan changed to a lighter pop sound, and it worked, helping the band sell out the 55,000-seat Tokyo Dome in 1992 - the first of 18 such full houses.

But L'Arc en Ciel were catching up - and then surpassing - their former idols in terms of fame. They found some international success when their music was used in the video game Drum Mania and the film Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within, both released worldwide.

Hong Kong, which has always kept a finger on the pulse of Japanese entertainment, picked up on the trend - sort of. Denver Lee Dan-wah, a former graphic designer for local music magazine Beats and a guitarist for local indie band Gaze, says many alternative Hong Kong music fans were into X-Japan and L'Arc en Ciel 'but Hongkongers are too shy to dress up like that'.

Many believe that visual kei peaked in the mid-90s. Fukada says the genre split into two main subgroups around this time: oshare kei, which adopted a 'cute and trendy street style', and Nagoya kei, darker, with violent undertones. 'Think Marilyn Manson and you get the idea,' Fukada says.

Both styles went down well with the mainstream Japanese crowd, but also led to a wave of one-hit bands - though that's through no fault of the musicians. Meg Pfeifle, a reporter for Japanese music website JaME, wrote in a 2011 study that visual kei could not support many groups; only the biggest made enough money to last.

Which was why, blogger Toshii says, it regressed into a sub-culture again after its 90s peak, with few bands having international appeal.

'With something as out there and wild as visual kei, obviously people are either diehard fans or indifferent to it,' says Cyrus Lo Sai-man, entertainment editor at TVB.com. 'Even in Hong Kong, it's a niche genre - some worship bands like X-Japan, but many find their look ridiculous.'

Another factor behind the drop-off in visual kei's mainstream popularity in the late 90s could be the band break-ups and a tragedy: in 1998, Hide, lead guitarist of X-Japan - which had disbanded - committed suicide after a drunken night out; three fans followed suit.

Luna Sea and L'Arc en Ciel too broke up within the next couple of years for various reasons.

Fukada says while breaking up wasn't unusual - groups frequently fell apart or members embarked on solo projects or joined side bands in the 80s - the timing of the L'Arc en Ciel and Luna Sea hiatuses proved too much for the genre to overcome.

'Both bands eventually came back, but it just wasn't the same anymore,' she says.

At least not for Luna Sea, anyway. L'Arc en Ciel returned in 2003, and after a few songs made their way onto movie soundtracks and into Nintendo games, they were back in business. In 2004, they embarked on their first US tour.

Three years later, X-Japan returned, with new members.

Lee says that although both bands have lost their mystique - even the outfits have been toned down drastically, he points out - he will still catch them when they visit Hong Kong. 'They're legends. X-Japan started the genre and [L'Arc en Ciel] pushed it in the 90s, so they'll always matter.'

L'Arc en Ciel World Tour 2012, March 3, 8pm, AsiaWorld-Arena, Hong Kong International Airport, Lantau Island, HK$420-HK$990 HK Ticketing: Inquiries: 8100 0138