Fall 2021’s Visual Prison Is… Something…

I recently messaged a friend of mine who is also into Visual Kei, the music genre. We were coordinating some details about bands/music when the topic of VKei elsewhere in popular culture came up. It was sort of a reminiscent of bands playing themes for anime, actually having tv appearances, etc. I mentioned the manga “Tamiko to Visual Kei to.” and my friend stated that a ‘Visual Kei’ anime was going to be premiering this coming fall.

I was in a bit of disbelief since, honestly, VKei has not been a competitive player in the modern Japan pop-culture sphere in nearly a decade. That doesn’t mean it’s over and dead, but it’s closer to punk or ska genre-wise. There will always be bands that call themselves VKei, but the genre will (most likely) never rise to prominence the way it had in it’s earlier years. Also I was just mad that this was announced in March, and I found out two months late. Better then never right?

So I read through the Anime New Network article, and then played through the character introduction promo video and well… I’ll let you guys take a look before giving my perspective, as a long term anime and VKei fan.

… Which prior idol anime did all these reject designs come from? I hate to be so harsh, but that was truly my first thought after taking it in. This anime announcement doesn’t really capture the essence of ‘Visual Kei’ to me, especially in the cultural context of the genre. But let’s walk through some details and see what does and doesn’t line up.

Off the top of my head, I didn’t really know any of the figures heading this particular production, mostly Noriyasa Agematsu and A-1 Pictures. However, in doing a bit of research aside from the headline, they’ve
produced the likes of B-Project, and most recently Hypnosis Mic (and many others).

We’re off to an interesting start in terms of how this is going to spin out. Because I’m about to say something so obvious, but so easily angers the gatekeepers of the VKei scene. That being, Visual kei is the opposite side of the same coin as idol. Idol culture and VKei overlap in many ways. Both male idols, and VKei bands by and large target the age 13 to 25 female demographic in terms of fanbase. Both use similar marketing strategies of if you buy x thing, you get to meet you idol/bandman for x amount of time or receive x super special perk/merchandise. There are other points of comparison, but I think you guys get it. Idols are the ‘pastel’ fantasy, and VKei is the ‘dark’ one.

Looking at a sampling of A-1’s works, I understand why they pivoted here. In certain regards I even applaud them for noticing before other studios. I can’t deny that Hypnosis Mic which, to my knowledge (please don’t hurt me) is an idol anime but with rapping units, verses a typical idol group, has done numbers since it’s release. Similarly, Twisted Wonderland is showing that there are plenty of younger girls willing to throw a lot of money at stories with bishonen characters with ‘darker’ themes if given the chance. So now, combine something that’s an idol anime but not idols, with something dark; Visual Prison is born.

Except… we have a few problems with this execution. Visual Prison is suppose to show VKei musicians as vampires. The vampires thing, cheesy but I get it. Makes the series a little bit darker, a little bit sexier, and sets the series up to have some instant ships. That’ll for sure get merchandise moving off the shelves. It helps that VKei has a history of using vampires as inspiration. Some of my favorites being “Lilia” by Royz, and “Transylvania” by Malice Mizer. Plus, the running jokes that some of the fore-fathers of VKei, mostly Yoshiki, Gackt and Kamijo are ‘vampires’. Fair enough.

I’ll even give them that the story isn’t too flawed in it’s premise. The idea of someone stumbling upon a VKei performance while on the way to a different concert is solid. I’d even argue somewhat realistic in the grand scheme of anime logic. Having two bands ‘battle’ is actually on the money as well. 2-man lives are common and friendly ‘battles’, between the groups after their individual performances are common too. This being on a red moon and a male character that kicks this all off, a bit far-fetched but again going with the vampire theme, is workable enough.

The bigger problem is that… none of the characters are musicians. At least at the time of writing. While their profiles read very similarly to VKei bands, the biggest giveaway is the fact they have member colors. That’s very much an idol thing, look at nearly any idol group (male or female) with real people, and I mean… look at the history of A-1 Pictures music anime. Certainly there are VKei bands where a member might have a color association. Koichi formerly of Mejibray was known very much to be the ‘pink’ member due to his hair, but such a thing is an association, not a profile point. Additionally, Eclipse, Lost Eden and Oz are currently missing the most critical note that any VKei fan wants to know: the instrument they play.

To which, I will give some leeway on due to technicalities. The first being, aside from the music used in the PV – there’s nothing to go on so far. None of the units have music released or a group theme at the time of writing. There’s room for the possibility that later on the units will have their instruments announced along with the theme or style of VKei they’ll have but… I have my doubts.

Mostly because, I highly doubt that authentic Visual Kei music is being produced for this project. Elements Garden has been listed as handling the music for this anime. Which makes sense given their prior ties to the project, but there’s no secondary musicians or bands listed as contributing to the project. I even dug around Elements Garden discography to see if they had collaborated with a VKei artist, and no dice. The closest we get is Nishikawa Takanori, but he’s long gone from the scene.

I can give Elements Garden credit that at least they’ve composed for bands before with BanG Dream! project. The majority of their credited discography falls strictly into the realm of anisong. That’s not a bad thing, because the group has the skills to compose and craft some bonafide hits. VKei though, like many other indie sub-genres is a genre that values authenticity and is very much in the spirit using real humans to play real instruments for their compositions. So Elements Garden… has the potention I suppose, but I can’t say for sure. A wait and see for this particular detail.

Additionally, I have my reasons to believe that all opening, ending and insert songs will most likely be performed by the voice actor’s themselves. Which, again makes sense given the history of those involved and what this project is really is, but really is a missed opportunity. There are a ton of bands that given the chance would absolutely kill it and add a little more Vkei credit to this anime. Again, not confirmed, but seems highly unlikely.

Afterall, VKei is a genre of music that can accompany a lot of subgenres and labels, and trying to explain this in depth would derail my thoughts. So for those who need a crib notes version, I do highly recommend the wikipedia page to get a better grasp on what is and isn’t Visual Kei.

But speaking as a fan of both anime and Visual Kei: Visual Prison from what is known, isn’t Visual Kei.

It’s just a ‘dark’ idol anime in my book.

Aside from questions about ‘units’, the music itself, we now have character designs. For a dark idol anime they’re nice. The designs are streamlined, clean, but not un-detailed. Each unit has an individual color pallet and style that go with each member, but are not outright repeats. You can tell that the character designer actually knows a thing or two about costume design, and might even have taken a peek at actual VKei bands.

However…. these designs are much closer to military style costume and, once again, idol group stage costumes, then VKei bands. I heavily concede that VKei does dabble into the realm of mock-up military uniforms from time to time. My favorites being Diaura, and Gotcharock but trust me there are many more bands, some better then others, who’ve dabbled with them for a particular release.

Visual Prison really could have taken so. many. more. risks. There are so many sub-genres and decades of costuming they could have taken inspiration from. Trust me, if they had dug just a little bit deeper and played it less safe, Visual Prison really would look and feel more like actual VKei than idols cosplaying. Some examples of routes they could have gone for each unit are – Menhera (Mental Health) style via Shellmy inspired…

Some more 90’s Visual-kei inspired looks like Dir en Grey back in the day,

Or Tanbei-kei, a-la Versailles (which seems like was referenced but not far enough imo),

Maybe something like Kiryu who mixed modern and traditional elements in music and costuming,

Perhaps even the emerging area of art-kei/street-kei via nurié.

Instead what we got are… what were shown earlier. Which, to be repetitive, truly feel like a pile of reject designs now repurposed. I can’t begin to understand what goes into designing characters, but really these are as safe as VKei gets. I just wish they had done just a bit more research so each group would be truly distinct. I understand wanting harmony between groups so they don’t look so dissimilar that the animation looks janky. But the designs they have now, with what little is announced, every character could be swapped for a different member so long as they adjusted the colors. It’s just too safe to be interesting.

My final point of contention, which is more of a nit-pit really, is how many characters are listed as being from foreign countries. Out of the current line-up, there’s only two members, Ange Yuki of Oz (also the protagonist), and Mist Flave of Lost Eden that are Japanese. The rest are from various European nations. That’s not an accurate choice, in my humble opinion. It makes some sort of sense for the vampire plot line, but for the VKei aspect that’s not accurate. VKei bandmen and fans aren’t exactly the most accepting of non-Japanese bands taking the genre label of Visual Kei. Also, let’s be really frank; all these characters will either have perfect Japanese accents regards of nationality, or butcher the language so badly that it’ll constantly be a punchline. Yet, another element that’s poorly aged and re-used from idol anime.

Right now, I can at least give credit that A-1 Pictures does have a very solid history of animation with not only a lot of titles under their belt, but shows that are still cherished to this day. I’ve even seen a few of their projects in the past, idol and not, and have no major complaints on that end. Additionally, I concede that the voice acting cast are all seasoned. Most of them have been involved with or are currently involved in a prior idol anime, so they have a pretty good grasp on what’s expected of them and be able to deliver. I have a suspicion based on the Japanese comments on their Instagram, that this project is more for fans of the voice actors than VKei fans. But again; can’t judge what isn’t known.

At the end of the day, don’t take me too seriously about this. There’s no discourse or fires burning due to Visual Prison‘s somewhat mis-leading labeling. As far as I’ve seen, those that are aware of the series have a relatively positive reaction to the announcement, as the point of publishing. Both the Japanese and English comments reflect as much. Fans of the voice actors seem happy enough, and the few VKei fans who have commented are significantly less critical then I. And that’s for the better.

This piece was just born of my too many thoughts to keep to myself, and the fact my blog covers both anime and Visual Kei. I’m doing my best to keep myself out of this one (aside from here obviously), and just keeping distant watch on the project so I can see how it unfolds. I’m not looking forward per say to how it all pans out, but I am curious to see what’s in store.

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