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Drama, drama, drama… This is the word most associated with the biggest rock group to emerge from The Land of the Rising Sun by those who know and love them best and even by the band themselves.  The ups and downs of X Japan are the stuff of several volumes of Greek tragedies and has become a part of their legend.  It’s also at least some of the reason their legions of dedicated fans love them with a rabid devotion that has lasted the band’s entire thirty four-year existence.  In We Are X, documentarian Stephen Kijak shines an overdue and definitive spotlight on the myth, madness and music of that phenomenon that most in the western world have yet to know.

Japan and western rock have gone hand in hand for generations.  One genre that left a huge mark on that country was heavy metal.  The 70’s group KISS, in particular, seemed to speak directly to the souls of young Japanese boys with their Kabuki-inspired appearance, theatrics and hard rock sound.  The power of metal, the butterfly-like imagery of glam, as represented by the gender-bending chameleon David Bowie, and the chaos of the UK punk scene were some of the fathers of Japan’s Visual Kei hard rock movement.  VK took all these ingredients and mixed them with the classical and symphonic training experienced by many Japanese youths, along with a lyrical emotionalism.  X Japan were not the first Visual Kei act, nor the only, but once the magic lineup of vocalist Toshi, lead guitarist hide (Small “h,” no typo), rhythm guitarist Pata, bassist Taiji, and leader/composer/drummer Yoshiki came together, they were launched into a stratosphere that no other Asian group had attained then or since.

The story of X Japan begins with its androgynous, dandyish leader, Yoshiki Hayashi, revealing the story of his father’s suicide when Yoshiki was ten years old and its effect on his formative years.  Death is a sadly recurring theme through the film as Yoshiki relates having had the feeling of impending doom over his head nearly every day, including his own suicide attempts.  To contain his artistic temperament, the natural rebellion of youth and the pent-up rage over his deceased father; Yoshiki’s mother wisely purchased a drum kit for her son in lieu of grief counselling, and off he flew, gravitating towards Japan’s rock scene like a moth to a flame.  With him was his best friend since kindergarten, Toshi, and the pair soon recruited (and occasionally hijacked from other bands) the three missing links that would form X (The “Japan” came later to avoid confusion with the LA punk group). 

Their highly stylised, wild, punk-meets-Kabuki hairstyles, makeup and clothing, along with the violence permeating their music, playing style and lyrics (Their debut single was charmingly titled, “I’ll Kill You”) connected with the young people of Japan on an unheard-of scale.  They tapped into the psyche of Japanese youth in a way not seen before; giving the reserved culture a voice and outlet for the emotions they weren’t normally allowed to express.  They celebrated individuality; extolling their fans to “Be proud of yourself,” in direct contrast to a conservative society that prized homogeneity and to whom standing out was anathema.

X Japan went from playing small clubs to selling out Tokyo’s largest arenas seemingly overnight.  Such victories did not come without cost.  Yoshiki talks about firing volatile bassist Taiji and the emotions of their final show together {Heath joined in his place}.  Then, as many did in Japan at the time, singer Toshi fell under the sway of a religious cult and turned his back on the group, which he had been brainwashed into believing was evil, forcing X Japan to disband after a final show on New Year’s Eve, 1997.  Five months after that last live, guitarist hide was found dead in his home with a contested verdict of suicide as the cause.  Broken and bloodied, Yoshiki left Japan completely for sunny California, sporadically releasing half-engaged solo projects, and mostly to heal.

It wasn’t until Toshi’s cult revealed their true con artist colours, having left the singer broke and betrayed, did the two best friends reunite and the seeds of a reformed X Japan took root, with fellow Visual Kei legend Sugizo standing in for hide.  We Are X takes us through the days leading up to the highlight of their achievements, a triumphant show at the world’s most famous arena, New York City’s Madison Square Garden.

Director Kijak’s sense of pacing and his riveting, thrilling placement of the raw energy of X Japan’s concert footage throughout the film, from the movie’s breathtaking opening credits, maintains a level of excitement and adrenaline that makes the audience feel the frenzy and hypnotic pulse that X Japan is to their fans.  It’s that momentum and intensity that separates We Are X from other rock docs. 

The other defining quality is its intimacy; abetted by Kijak’s access to an abundance of archival, behind-the-scenes video footage over the group’s long life.  For fans of X Japan {Ahem}, while part of the soap opera-quality drama has bound itself into the band’s legend; it has also been a cause of frustration to decipher the reality.  Just getting the straight, simple unvarnished truth about subjects like, what was Toshi’s mental state when he left for the cult?  What really happened that caused Taiji - at the time possibly the most accomplished musician of the group, with an impassioned male following - to leave?  What did the band, particularly Yoshiki, feel about hide’s death?  Followers have surmised fragments from rumours and fan-subtitled interviews, but no one has posed these questions directly in a ‘once and for all’ format.  Kijak has success with some of the mysteries, and others he can’t crack, even though not all the subjects involved are living any longer.  Some topics, like Toshi’s betrayal by the cult that his then-wife led him into, are still too raw to explore deeply and it’s remarkable what Kijak is able to plumb from the group’s long and complicated history.

We have testimonies from fellow Visual Kei legends like Luna Sea, Glay, MUCC and Dir en grey, Taiwan rock gods, Mayday, and KISS’ Gene Simmons and Marilyn Manson, but some of the film’s best exposition comes from X Japan’s former producer, Naoshi Tsuda, who speaks from both the most objective and closest viewpoint.  His recollection of meeting Yoshiki for the first time and imagining he saw a bloody wound springing from the drummer’s chest stands as a harbinger for the film’s theme of the death and depression that has followed Yoshiki since childhood. 

It is many of Tsuda’s remembrances that set up the emotional connection when Kijak frames the story of X Japan’s most beloved member, hide (Capitalised in the film to avoid confusion).  Called by Yoshiki, “the mother of X Japan,” the guitarist from Yokohama was the fan favourite, who gave that love right back.  Kijak’s choice of beautifully restored footage showing hide’s tender interaction with his biggest fan, a young girl facing a terminal illness, tells us all we need to know about the man who was the soul of X Japan.  The footage of his funeral, which stopped Tokyo with miles of mourners filling the streets, shows us fans’ palpable grief and hysteria, and it isn’t a surprise to hear how some of them committed suicide to follow their adored idol.  For the uninitiated, Kijak lays out that devotion clearly.  For X Japan fans, it feels like a watershed moment that Kijak, someone who himself knew nothing about X Japan when he began the documentary, immediately locked in on the magic of the puckish, flamboyant guitarist and presented him with such beauty, grace and coolness as we see here.  Having done him such justice, I would love for Kijak to explore hide’s fascinating life further in another film.

After the heights of the depiction of hide, this brings us to the B-side, or the flaws of the piece.  The most outstanding would be that no one could be faulted for thinking We Are X should more accurately be titled, I Am X, for all its focus on leader Yoshiki, but perhaps considering the symbiosis of the group and the man, it’s no accident.  Still, while providing some amusing moments, including with a physician who shows off his recorder skills as a technique example to Yoshiki, I think I could have understood that the drummer legitimately endures a lot of physical pain without having to spend so much time watching him go from one doctor’s office to another.  An absolute, drum-destroying thrash beast like no other, Yoshiki’s never been shy about reminding folks how wounded he is and plays through agony and lifelong poor health, but perhaps the material seems fresher to new eyes than to others that might roll a bit here.  The focus on his X-tracurricular (See what I did there?) activities in the days after and even adjacent to X Japan’s breakup and subsequent reunion seem like they would have been better spent on a biography on the drummer himself.  What did the other guys do during the ten year hiatus?

I’d have loved to spend more time with guitarist, Pata, who is sort of like the Old Man of the Mountain, having seen it all.  One of the few insights he gives is precious about the soft-spoken, outwardly fragile Yoshiki not quite being the delicate flower he carefully cultivates in the public eye.  I’d also have liked a few pertinent words from bassist Heath.  He only speaks of how hide brought him into the band, but I’d have liked to know how it was for him to have replaced the revered Taiji (Taiji would also die young under questionable circumstances.) at X Japan’s peak?  But while Toshi gets some time to talk about his unfortunate experience in the cult and the paranoia he felt during the last days in the band, there is a sense there was perhaps more to say that he felt he couldn’t.  His touching on feelings of self-doubt after years of dominance over Japan’s music scene might’ve been interesting to explore further.  As I said, we get a lot, but not everything.  

However, even as an ardent fan, these bumps in the road were not enough for me not to have been enthralled with the driving rhythm of the film, and the humour (One member of Ladies Room candidly admits the X Japan taught them “how to drink.”) and reverence that was well-placed, without being cloying.  It is astounding that someone who began this journey as an outsider could give us such a view of this band.  Kijak truly encapsulates the phoenix-like quality of X Japan and the members’ and fans’ refusal to let the group, and all it stands for, die.

With We Are X, what director Stephen Kijak captures for those who already knew and those who’d never heard of the phenomenon that continues to be X Japan, is the insanity, the magic and the music that has made them legends.

 

~ The Lady Miz Diva

Oct. 21st, 2016

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Photos

Exclusive Photos of X Japan at 2014 New York Comic Con & Madison Square Garden Concert by LMD

Stills Courtesy of  Drafthouse Films
 

 

 

 

 

 

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