As I grew up, I never really got into the same music my peers enjoyed. I enjoyed a lot of techno (because it reminded me of game music), and I quickly developed a love of Japanese Pop music, because it was present in the animes I enjoyed watching. As I began to listen to more and more J-Pop, I eventually ran into an artist named Gackt. I never really knew much about him, but I found his music was interesting. However, the part I missed was how massively successful, massively popular, and massively bizarre Gackt really was. As one of the most notable and known artists in Japanese history, many video games and movies use his songs, and he has both a massive cult following and a massive “normal” following. By drawing on several aspects of Japanese culture, he has created a persona and career unlike almost anything else in the world.
Aside from his talent, part of Gackt’s success comes from his choice to become part of the Visual Kei movement (for an excellent analysis of Visual Kei in Japanese culture, see Vinh’s blog post that explores the topic). Gackt is a very mysterious artist (to this day people are unsure of what his birth name is), and visual kei not only gives him a way to bend genders, but also to mask his sexuality. While he doesn’t make an explicit statement about who he is, he does give people the ability to imagine their own version of his persona. He is a man or a woman, and he is heterosexual or homosexual, it doesn’t really matter.
As Japanese society is traditionally reserved in how it divulges information, this strategy really benefits Gackt. He avoids offending a large amount of people by not explicitly saying “I am _____,” or “I believe I am ______” (in the instance he has chosen to be transgendered), and at the same time allows people to play out their own fantasies with his identity which the fan may have issues voicing publicly (ex: if the fan is homosexual, they can see Gackt as homosexual, etc). Similar to how The Twilight Saga uses a Mary Sue structure to allow readers to imprint themselves into the books, Gackt uses similar techniques (both visual kei, and his eccentric approach to divulging factual and fictional information about himself) to draw fans into his own mythology.
Speaking of mythology and divulging information, Gackt, to this day, remains an eccentric enigma. Up until the summer of 2009, Gackt stuck to the story that he was a vampire born in the year 1676. He also makes comments about his “magnum” from time to time. And, best of all, to this day no one knows for sure what his real name is (as a personal note, I find that insanely impressive. Seriously, the steps one would have to take to entirely mask his true name, especially from rabid fans in the era of information exchange? Simply absurd). By controlling not only his persona’s image, but also by restricting the visibility of his real self, he both feeds people all the necessary eccentric information to spark rabid fan groups (Vampires + Man/Woman + Questionable Sexuality = Internetgasm) and keeps their belief suspended by not introducing information contrary to the (vague) mythology he has created for his persona.
Combine smart marketing, visual kei, a good voice, and a few other popular cultural trends in Japan (Gothic style costumes, for example), and you have an icon more popular than Gundam (which is to Japan like Star Wars is to America). Popular icons have existed in America, and perhaps the closest thing to Gackt in America is Lady GaGa, who has created a similar persona (in terms of how Lady GaGa portrays, elaborates on, and delivers her persona, but not in terms of its personality) and a bit of mythology behind said persona. However, America lacks an idol that plays to the idea of creating a concept that people can play with, sculpt, and display (if only in their minds) in whatever way they want. Perhaps part of the reason why America lacks such an idol is due to the differences in how Japanese and American society express and divulge information; As Japan is more reserved, fantasies are more important to each person, as their fantasies and thoughts in their minds replace expression of said thinkings, which is what happens more often in America. Regardless, Gackt’s initial, and continued, success played off his ability to be exactly what his fans wanted, which is what makes him an important part of Japanese culture.