Just like with every other music genre, visual kei is a maze of various sub-genres (and sub-sub-genres, etc.). Most people aren’t really sure which band fits which genre, and those who are sure often don’t agree with each other. I’m not a huge fan of genres, but with such a broad genre it’s nice to be able to make a distinction, so I listed the most important genres below. I tried to leave out obscure genres and to use example bands that are most commonly agreed on. Visual kei genres really aren’t exclusive and a band can be part of more than one (e.g. MUCC), or they change their genre throughout their career (e.g. SID or Dir en grey).
Soft visual kei, sofubi 【ソフトヴィジュアル系・ソフビ】
As the name suggest, this is a softer, toned-down style of visual kei. Band members wear natural make-up and classy outfits, and the songs are catchy and easy listening. This was really popular during the boom era (2000-2006), but is nearly extinct these days.
Examples: Janne da arc, SID (late era)
Osare kei, oshare kei 【オサレ系・お洒落系】
Known to us as oshare kei, but in Japan most commonly referred to as osare kei. The genre originated with the band Baroque under the name oshare kei, which roughly translates to fashionable or stylish. The term osare was adopted a little later and is basically just a parody term. Someone who is “osare” thinks they are fashionable and stylish, but they are in fact quite the opposite.
Bands dress in colorful and casual attire and often in styles originated in Harajuku (like decora). The music style is up-beat and has pop and/or techno influences. Osare kei isn’t as popular as it was during its peak era and there aren’t a lot of osare bands left these days.
Examples: Baroque, An cafe, SuG, Aicle.
Kote visu kei, kote kei 【コテヴィジュ系・コテ系】
Abbreviated from kotekote kei which means “over the top”. Kote kei bands dress in elaborate, flashy costumes (mostly in black), have on heavy makeup combined with big hair in bright colors. The music is often described as dark and intense. Some may refer to this genre as old school or traditional visual kei, because it’s been around for so long.
Examples: Phantasmagoria, Dir en grey (early visual era), D, Kuroyume, LUNA SEA
Tanbi kei 【耽美系】
Tanbi (beauty) kei is a subgenre of kote kei (so a sub-sub-genre), along with ryouki (bizarre) kei and taihai (decadence) kei. I’ve only saw mention of the later two once though. It seems that Tanbi kei is seen as a separate genre these days because of some prominent bands being in this genre. These bands are influenced by renaissance Europe (for example, Victorian inspired costumes, religious imagery, influences from classical music, etc.)
Examples: Malice Mizer, Versailles ~philharmonic quintet~, MORAN
Koteosa kei 【コテオサ系】
As the name suggests, this genre is a combination of kote kei and osare kei. It combines the flashy and over the top elements from kote kei with the casualness of osare kei (for example, the elaborate make-up and hair, combined with a more toned down outfit). In terms of their sound, it’s just somewhere in between the darkness of kote and the pop sound of osare.
Examples: The GazettE, Vidoll, doremi dan.
Kobushi kei 【拳系】
Kobushi (fist) kei seems to be a fairly new genre and refers to bands that forbids saki, so the fans have to raise their fists instead. Most of these bands are heavier in their sound, but without the flashy attire of kote kei.
Examples: -OZ-, girugamesh, Dir en grey (late visual era), DEATHGAZE, ScReW, UnsraW, Sadie, the GazettE.
Misshitsu kei, chikashitsu kei, angura kei, shouwa kayou kei , shironuri kei, eroguro kei【密室系・地下系・アングラ系・昭和歌謡系・白塗り系・エログロ系】
I’m not even going to try to properly differentiate bands within this cluster of genres, because I have no clue, and the internet doesn’t agree on this at all. There are definitely subtle differences between the genres, but most bands in this cluster can be filed under at least two of these genres anyway.
Some mention a slight difference between misshitsu (room that cannot be entered, secret room) kei, chikashitsu (cellar, basement) kei and angura (underground) kei but there isn’t much elaboration on it. It seems like they are just different terms for that same strange corner of visual kei shrouded in mystery which us overseas fans have come to known primarily as “angura kei”. The terms actually refer to bands from the label “missitsu neurosis” or bands who participated in the event “Tokyo chikashitsu” but I’m not sure if this is a requirement anymore. It was nearly impossible to find any explanation on the genre other than “these bands are just really fucking weird”. I’ll just refer to these bands as “angura kei” from now on to avoid making this too confusing (if I haven’t already).
Shouwa kayou (shouwa ballad) kei is often mentioned as a characteristic of the three previously mentioned styles, but also as separate genre. Shouwa kayou kei refers solely to a music style (which is pretty unique for visual kei) inspired by the depressing ballads that were popular during the Shouwa era (1926-1989).
Eroguro and shironuri aren’t really a characteristic of angura kei per se, nor is it exclusive to the genre or to visual kei in general, there’s just a lot of angura kei bands doing it. Eroguro means erotic grotesque, shironuri means painted white, which refers to the white skin that is part of this style.
Examples: MUCC, cali≠gari, merry, Plastic Tree, guruguru eigakan, Inugami circus dan.
Nagoya kei, Tokyo kei, Osaka kei, etc. 【名古屋系・東京系・大阪系】
There’s a lot of discussion about this, especially about Nagoya kei, but really, these genres only refer to the location in which the band performs their main band activities. Certain areas surely have different trends, and that’s probably how these terms came into use, but a band can only be Nagoya-kei if they are based in Nagoya.