Arts & Entertainment

Paying tribute to Atsushi Sakurai: One of the primary founders of Visual-Kei

Visual-Kei, J-Rock, goth icon and leading man of the band BUCK-TICK passes away at only 57 years old, right after giving the performance of a lifetime.

During this quarter’s Arts & Entertainment issues, we have deep dived into several diverse genres of music that perhaps many of you hadn’t heard of before. But today, I have decided to pay tribute to perhaps one of the most talented vocalists in music history, and an undeniable inspiration for Visual-Kei and J-Rock bands to come. 

Atsushi Sakurai was born on March 7, 1966, in Fujioka, Japan. Little is known about the artist’s childhood, but Atsushi had a clear vision of becoming a musician and songwriter as early as his high school years. Starting as the drummer for the band BUCK-TICK, he later asked one of his future bandmates, Toll Yagami, if he could become the lead vocalist for their other band, SP. But was rejected on the spot.  

Still convinced that his calling was to sing and write songs, he insisted to his band mates in BUCK-TICK to let him sing, and after try-outs, was accepted openly. Ironically, Toll ended up leaving his post in SP and became the new drummer for BUCK-TICK only a few months later, forming the band that would soon revolutionize the J-Rock scene as Japan knew it.  

BUCK-TICK grew to quick acclaim for their first debut album, “Sexual XXXXX!” Their song “Just One More Kiss” — released in 1988 — reached number six on the Oricon Singles chart only a few days after its release. After their fourth studio album, “Taboo,” they performed live in the Tokyo Dome, a great feat for an up-and-coming band. After their 1990 album “Aku No Hana” though, they reached number one in their respective genre Oricon charts.  

They have continued to stay on the top for more than 30 years, known as the “Gods of Visual Kei,” a music genre and subculture greatly influenced by glam rock with European gothic aestheticism. Think long hair, rosettes, avant-garde velvet suits, heavy makeup and layered fabrics (lace, tulle, pleather, frayed fabrics, etc.). A key component of this subgenre is androgyny, where most band members could easily be mistaken for femme idols despite their dark, gothic appearances.  

Mixing makeup techniques used by the goth subculture and applying it to Asian traditional makeup, which accentuates the aegyo sal (or flesh under the eyes), Atsushi was able to single-handedly become the face for an entire generation of alternative rock fans. He never shied away from the use of makeup and excelled in putting together the most perfect androgynous looks. He was voted one of Japan’s most beautiful celebrities and was later acclaimed worldwide for his looks during the late 90s.  

As a new wave of media swept the nation of Japan, many artists began to look for inspiration in the real world. Atsushi Sakurai became the main inspiration for several anime characters during this time, such as Kouji Nanjo from Zetsuai 1989, D from Vampire Hunter D: Bloodlust and perhaps his most similar looking character, Takumi Ichinose from Nana. He became the standard look for the “aloof, mysterious yet alluring” anime male characters; even though he himself was an extremely warm and charismatic person. This won him the love of so many fans, for despite his looks and his extreme vocal prowess, he remained humble.  

Earlier this year, BUCK-TICK announced a tour to celebrate the release of their newest album, “Izora”. On October 19, during a live performance on this tour, Atsushi began to feel ill. By the third song, he was escorted out by his band members and security and promptly rushed to the hospital. He later died in that same hospital at 11:09pm. On October 24, the members then took to X to announce the news of Atsushi’s passing, as well as the cause: a brainstem hemorrhage. The tour was therefore canceled, and the rest of the month has been a time of mourning for his family, friends and fans alike.  

By October 25, memorials surfaced globally in Atsushi’s name, made for those who weren’t able to attend the public memorial held later on November 4 in Japan. Atsushi had a profound impact on not just his main Visual Kei community, but also in pop culture and the 80s goth rock scene. Alongside his bandmates he built a community that appreciated genderfluidity when it was still considered a taboo in Japan during these times, inspiring bands such as Gackt, Dir En Grey, Moi dix Mois and the GazettE.  

It’s with a heavy heart that we must bid farewell to such a phenomenal human. Atsushi Sakurai was a pivotal figure in this writer’s journey to falling in love with the goth subculture and taught me all I know about Visual Kei today. I encourage readers to listen to BUCK-TICK’s new album and support them during this trying time, as this might be the last album they ever record. “Izora” is currently out on all streaming services.  

If you’re looking to learn about the classics, here are my personal favorite tracks throughout their entire discography: “Romance,” “Dress,” “Just One More Kiss,” “Romanesque” and “Victims of Love.” They’re all out on Spotify and Apple Music. So, if this article piqued your interest, go give them a listen.