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Yoshiki with Golden Bomber

Courtesy of Visual Japan Summit 2016 powered by Rakuten

Big in Japan: Visual-Kei All-Stars Rock the Visual Japan Summit

Lyndsey Parker
Editor-in-Chief, Music

Yoshiki, Japan's top rock star and the founder of the most successful rock band in Japanese history, the 30-million-selling X Japan, is sitting in a lounge at the Shibuya Hikarie skyscraper on the opening day of Tokyo Fashion Week. He just finished showing his Spring 2017 Yoshikimono line, during which he pounded on a drum kit and played his signature crystal piano while models strutted through a simulated rainstorm in his edgy, graphic kimono designs. But this wasn't the only event in Yoshiki's busy week that brought the fashion — and the drama. In three days prior, X Japan curated and headlined the first annual Visual Japan Summit, a festival of more than 50 "visual-kei" bands drawing nearly 100,000 fans (and surprise guest Gene Simmons) to Makuhari Messe, Japan's largest convention center.

Related: Yoshiki, Gene Simmons Unite Via Shared Love of Rock, 'We Are X' Film, Hello Kitty Dolls

"Visual-kei was a Japanese movement influenced by Western rock and then Eastern culture. KISS, David Bowie — I'm heavily influenced by David Bowie; if there is no David Bowie, I don't think I am here — Sex Pistols, kabuki, Japanese animation. Put everything into one part and mix it up. That's visual-kei," Yoshiki says of the scene, which was pioneered by X Japan in the 1980s. (The term itself originates from X Japan's slogan, "psychedelic violence crime of visual shock.")

"It's called Visual Japan Summit. It's like a fan [convention] for visual-kei, another kind of movement we kind of created, except it's like freedom to express anything. Because X Japan showed up, people say, 'Rock needs to be like that, punk needs to be that,' and we're like, 'F— that, you know? We just want to express our feelings, and then music.' So that eventually turned into a thing called visual-kei. So there are a lot of visual-kei artists out there, but stadium bands never played together at the same time. So I think it's the first time in history they are all coming together to play at one festival."

Western rock stars disappointingly eschew such lavish spectacle nowadays, dressing down in jeans and T-shirts, and the visual-kei artists that played the Visual Japan Summit on Oct. 14, 15, and 16 seemed to be resurrecting the theatrical glory days of the '70s and '80s. One particularly outlandish act, the comedy "air band" Golden Bomber, even dressed up like X Japan circa 1982. But Yoshiki clarifies that visual-kei isn't tied to one specific era, nor is it a retro movement. "It's different from '80s hair metal or something like that. A lot of visual-kei bands are influenced by punk rock," he says, adding, "I don't think it's a 'coming back' thing. It can be a new thing for America, actually."

And so, the bands performing at the Visual Japan Summit ranged from veteran arena acts like X Japan, Glay, and Luna Sea (all of whom have toned down their image somewhat over the years), to the French Revolution-themed prog band Versailles, the hostess-costumed girl group Aldious, and the cosplay-inspired Psycho le Cému. Explains Yoshiki: "Visual-kei doesn't have to be a one certain look or a certain sound. It's a spirit. Basically, we are saying, 'We are free to express ourselves.' And we are enjoying this freedom. For us, every day is like Halloween."

Rock has long been declared “dead” by critics in the West, but in Japan, it seems to be alive and well. "You saw the festival, right? Rock is completely there!" Yoshiki declares with a laugh. As for whether rock 'n' roll can make a global comeback, Yoshiki asserts, "It's just a matter of time. It's going to explode. The rock scene is like a volcano that has been resting several years. It's about to explode — and I am going to put that fire into the volcano."

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