Visual kei is very diverse, both in terms of style and sound. One visual kei band could be gothic and play heavy metal, another could be extremely colourful and play pop. A number of sub-genres have appeared over the years to try and define different types of visual kei bands. However, many bands are difficult to put into one sub genre. Some bands fit into multiple sub-genres, some change sub-genres over the years, and some won’t necessarily fit into any sub-genres at all. A lot of these sub-genres aren’t used in modern visual kei – in most cases, both fans and bands would simply use the term ‘visual kei’, and many prefer to categorise bands by music genres, as visual kei sub-genres are often categorised mostly/entirely by looks, and many bands mix or change styles.
Also, these sub-genres refer mainly to visual kei bands, rather than visual kei street fashion. While elements from these styles do appear in visual kei street fashion, you are unlikely to see someone wearing something resembling what bands wear on stage, because those are not designed for everyday wear (usually custom-made, very expensive, and difficult to care for as they often can’t be washed easily).
Kote Kei [コテヴィジュ系]
Abbreviated from kotekote, meaning over the top. Also known as old school or traditional visual kei, because it refers to the style worn in the early days of visual kei, from the 1980s to early 90s. It isn’t seen as much anymore, although it has definitely influenced other bands and sub-genres as visual kei as a whole has evolved. Bands dress mainly in black, with heavy makeup and big, brightly coloured hair. Blonde and red were popular hair colours. A common theme was all black outfits for a heavier sound, and contrasting all white outfits for ballads – this is also popular within Tambi Kei.
Examples: X Japan (early), DIR EN GREY (early), LUNA SEA (early), D (early)
Tanbi Kei [耽美系]
Tanbi means ‘aesthetics’, and Tanbi Kei is inspired by Baroque, Rococo, and Victorian era Europe. Common themes include: churches and other religious imagery, castles, royalty/aristocracy, and roses. Music is also heavily inspired by Europe during these eras, with classical elements, and instruments such as harpsichords. All-black outfits for heavier songs and contrasting all-white outfits for softer songs are popular, as with Kote Kei (seen with D, Femme Fatale, MALICE MIZER). Hime gyaru hairstyles are popular amongst onnagata members of Tambi Kei, as they are similar to hairstyles worn in the Rococo era.
Several tanbi kei bands have modelled for/collaborated with/had outfits made by lolita and aristocrat brands. Mana (ex MALICE MIZER and Moi dix Mois) , owner of the popular gothic lolita & gothic aristocrat brand Moi meme Moitie, is often credited with popularising gothic lolita. Also, several tanbi kei musicians wear lolita or outfits heavily inspired by the style (for example, Mana’s later MALICE MIZER outfits). However, despite this strong connection, it must be made clear that lolita and visual kei (as both a music genre/movement and as a street style) are separate. Lolita is a street fashion, but tanbi kei is rarely seen (if at all) outside of bands’ stage costumes. I feel I must say this, as I have seen tanbi kei mistakenly labelled “lolita kei”!
Examples: Misaruka, Scarlet Valse, MALICE MIZER, Versailles
Oshare Kei/ Osare Kei [お洒落系, but more commonly オサレ系] and Koteosa Kei – Dark Oshare Kei [コテオサ系]
Oshare means fashionable or stylish, and Oshare Kei is considered to have originated with Baroque in 2001. Osare started being used later, almost as a parody term (osaregimi translates to ‘being on the ropes’ or ‘losing ground’) and someone described as osare thinks they are fashionable/stylish, but they are actually the opposite. Features bright, bold colours for a much lighter appearance than most other sub-styles. It is also usually more casual, often with influences from street fashions such as decora. Osare Kei bands also usually have a much lighter pop or electronic music style. Kirakira Kei also seems to be used nowadays in Japan to refer to Osare Kei. Koteosa is a combination of Kote Kei and Osare Kei, with black/darker coloured outfits and a combination of darker sound with a lighter, pop style. Some koteosa bands use spooky or Halloween themes, creating a creepy cute feel, for example エルム (ELM).
Examples: An Cafe, Baroque, SuG, LM.C., Lolita23Q, ドレミ團 (Doremidan), AYABIE
Nagoya Kei [名古屋系]
There doesn’t seem to be a real definition for Nagoya Kei, other than to describe a band that originates from/has most of their band activities in the Nagoya area. However, being from that area does not necessarily define a band as Nagoya Kei. Bands described as Nagoya Kei often incorporated punk, post-punk, and gothic music styles into their work. Main period during the 1990s, and considered dead after 2004.
Examples: lynch., Laputa, DEATHGAZE
Next Generation Nagoya Kei [次世代名古屋系]
Although Nagoya Kei doesn’t seem to be used by bands or fans these days, アルルカン (ARLEQUIN) have described themselves as Next Generation Nagoya Kei (次世代名古屋系/Jisedai Nagoya Kei). Only one of their members comes from Nagoya, so Nagoya Kei isn’t a case of ‘bands that come from Nagoya are Nagoya Kei’, but instead more about musical influences and the band’s preference as to what genre they consider themselves to be.
Neo Visual & Soft Visual [ソフトヴジュ アル系, or for short ソフビ]
A much more toned down look, closer to visual kei street fashion. Hair and make-up is often more toned down as well. Several bands have become Neo/Soft after years of another style, such as The Gazette, DIR EN GREY, X Japan and LUNA SEA. Popular during the renaissance of visual kei during 2000 – 2006. Bands usually have catchy, easy-listening music.
Examples: Janne Da Arc, The Gazette, SID
Anguro Kei [アングラ系]
Short for Andaguraundo (the Japanese pronunciation of Underground). Based on cultural movement in Japan during the 1960s that included independent theatre focusing on traditional Japanese themes, and also the political unrest of the decade. Features elements related to traditional Japanese clothes, culture, music etc., such as outfits based on kimono, military uniforms and WWII related subjects, the Rising Sun Flag, and traditional Japanese instruments. Shironuri is also used by some bands. There are similarities with Eroguro Kei, and there is some crossover between the two sub-genres, but Anguro Kei is often darker and more formal (i.e. wearing traditional Japanese clothes) than eroguro.
Examples: 神楽 (Kagrra), 犬神サーカス団 (Inugami Circus-dan), 己龍 (Kiryu), R指定 (R-Shitei), AvelCain
Eroguro Kei [エログロ系]
Combination of ‘erotic’ and ‘grotesque’. Features sexual and grotesque themes, often in a shocking or disturbing way, and can also be quite bizarre. Based on the Eroguro movement which originated in Japan during the 1920s and 30s. There are similarities with Anguro Kei, and there is some crossover between the two sub-genres.
Examples: cali≠gari, MUCC, Merry
Iryou Kei [医療系]
Meaning ‘medical care/treatment’, it uses grotesque and gorey medical themes, so is related to and possibly considered a sub-sub genre of Eroguro Kei. While it is fairly common for bands to cosplay doctors/nurses for an event etc., that doesn’t make a band Iryou Kei. There are very few Iryou Kei bands, and it seems to be the most uncommon sub-genre. Because of this, it could arguably be considered a theme, rather than its own sub-genre.
Examples: Sex Android, +isolation, LuLu.