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Mana and the Rise of Visual Kei

The style of visual kei remains unknown to many western audiences, whose concept of ‘weird’ may not be enough to fully grasp the movement’s appeal. Artistic in nature, its participators are marked by elaborate costumes and make-up, often of an androgynous appearance. Some insist visual kei is strictly a fashion term, but those aware of Japan’s fledging rock scene recognize it as a legitimate sub-genre marked by artists like X Japan, Glay, and Malice Mizer. The latter is arguably the most successful, and fronted by an artist that defines the movement in approach and ability. Malice Mizer’s frontman, Mana, is both a musician and fashion designer; these are two occupations that converge for his final musical product. Malice Mizer are one of few Japanese rock groups, especially of the visual kei niche, to attain a massive following on both sides of the world by infusing visual splendor with hard-rocking arena anthems.

Like many Japanese youths, Mana’s formative music experiences involved classical music. When his teenage rebel spirit kicked in, Mana became infatuated with ‘80s rock like Mötley Crüe, Iron Maiden, and Guns ‘N’ Roses. Iron Maiden’s Piece of Mind was the first album Mana bought, and a Mötley Crüe covers band was his first musical project. Some early experience in punk groups helped Mana increase the tonal diversity of his guitar playing, adding more aggression to his already melodic blend of classical, metal, and rock playing. When he founded Mana in April 1992 with guitarist Közi, Mana took a unique approach to the role of frontman; not only was Mana the lead songwriter and guitarist, he was also the band’s choreographer and label founder. His label, Midi:Nette, would go on to serve as an outlet for Malice Mizer releases and other visual-kei groups like the disbanded Schwarz Stein. He also formed a clothing label, Moi-même-Moitié, which is typical of Japan’s absurdly awesome fashion scene. “Elegant Gothic Lolita” and “Elegant Gothic Aristocrat” are the label’s two styles, and both coincide well with what’s expected out of visual kei in a stylistic sense.

Mana writes and produces all his band’s music, and designs their own costumes for dizzying and colorful music videos and live performances. This DIY, independent methodology is another trait of visual kei, whose love for classic rock genres like glam and punk make quality garage and bedroom recordings entirely possible, and actually encouraged. Intricacy and polish are evident with some groups, but it’s not necessary. Style often plays a big role, and there are many high school groups emulating visual kei purely for its fashionable quirks. Still, the music is relevant to most, especially when Mana does his best to make it accessible to all. He is embracing of fans from other countries, opting for open communication rather than the isolationist mentality of many other artists. While many restrict their fan clubs to their country of origin, Mana is one of few artists who has opened it up to everyone. Despite a notorious reputation for shyness, Mana shows no reluctance to get his music and design talents out to the world.

Over time, many visual kei groups tend to separate from their fashionable idiosyncrasies, as many visual kei bands simply use the costumes as an initial method to gain steam. Mana is so important to the visual kei movement due to his commitment to the craft. Even as Malice Mizer departs from the radical colorings of early costumes, their fashionable tendencies remain just as strong as their musical repertoire, still steeped in aspects of glam, punk, and hard-rock that make it a hard-rocking jolt of fun. While western audiences are more receptive to boy bands and American Idol, fans of music willing to step outside their comfort zone should take a look at visual kei, and Mana specifically. He represents something truly unique out of Japan, a country noted for its innovation – and it certainly is stressed here.

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