Like many folks in the US, caught up in niche music and favorite genres, I had never heard of X Japan, the Japanese rock band which has sold 30 million combined singles and CD albums world wide and has a massive global following which began when the band took off in full flight in the 1980s under the leadership of electric,l lightening rod, multi-faceted and sensitive Yoshiki. Yoshiki is the founder, songwriter, composer, classically trained pianist and multi-instrumentalist (piano, guitar, drums) who is the genius behind one of the greatest bands currently on the planet. Depending upon who one speaks to, X Japan just may be the greatest band (on a number of different levels). After all they have been through, (Pata, Yoshiki, Yoshi), they are still around, as if their aura, their ethos had been purified by fire so that it is gleaming gold.
This only is made clear by the end of the documentary We Are X directed by Stephen Kijak. Kijak and the production team of Searching for Sugarman have created this film as a crash course in X Japan that is designed to hammer one to the core and pierce one’s soul with gradual emotional stealth. From beginning to end, the film is a mesmerizing pageant of blaze and psychic color. It is a sensational rock-doc invitation to become immersed in a band’s evolution from an initially glam-punk rock band that morphs through many iterations, each one better than the last. And then the film takes a sharp right off the cliff and flies into an examination of the hearts of the band members as all the while, Kijak’s camera lens follows their supercharged, visual light rhythms.
The director cleverly has not traced the film in chronological order. Instead he divides the story into segments liberally using flashbacks and forwards to guide the audience through the story keeping it closely aligned with thematic threads about death, loss, reinvention of one’s self and one’s culture, turning points, taking one’s life as an alternative to never-ending pain. The director moves back and forth in time with ease maintaining crystal clarity in the narrative and commentary about the where and when of events.
He introduces the band members with video footage from various points in the last decades as the band was evolving in its performance. The band members primarily lead by Yoshiki comment; when they speak in Japanese, there are subtitles. The effect is to travel through time zones in the past, a journey which always returns to the present with Yoshiki resolving and tying up the threads or introducing new ones.
The flashbacks are of their songs, their stylized glam-punk look (incorporating elements of ancient Japanese culture and art), and video clips of their helter-skelter performances in Japan which defied the conservative Japanese culture and swiftly upended it. All are beautifully edited, the songs selected thematically, relate to the narrative as it explicates Yoshiki and other band memeber’s lives. Kijack also includes black and white photographs of the band as children, and photographs (what are left), of Yoshiki’s childhood. All are edited succinctly; each provides the pieces of the puzzle which round out the portrait of their lives and imply how they arrived at the imperative to make soul rending musical phenomena.
The most shocking and visceral junctures of this story of X Japan follow Yoshiki and his relationship to each of the members and inevitably his relationship with himself and the ghosts of the past who haunt him; they are ghosts he cannot exorcise, however assidously he tries. For each of them Kijak reveals that music is the way out of themselves into places that are more comforting until it no longer is. When music brings more pain than sanctuary, it is then that the band reaches the steepest canyons of darkness and self-treachery; not only can they not go on together, the dark abysses isolate some of them forever. The tragedy in their story of X Japan is poignant for those who are still alive. We feel beyond empathy for Yoshiki and Yoshi’s relationship; they were the closest of friends throughout childhood and school days, only to have their bond hacked by an unusual situation which Yoshiki and Yoshi, after much prompting by Kijak, discuss.
It is with exceptional editing and thrilling cinematic story telling (flashbacks and forwards), that the director gently introduces us to Yoshiki and Yoshi, and the others, revealing their greatness in overcoming problems of physical and emotional pain and torment (Yoshiki suffers from tendonitis and back problems; Yoshi has been in an emotional prison for a decade). The filmmaker’s gentle penetration to mine the personal journey into Yoshiki’s soul is riveting, especially when Yoshiki explains his history, references his father’s death and his mother’s numbed reaction and refusal to tell him his father was dead. We learn that his mother received a diagnosis that Yoshiki would not live to be an adult. His fragility and sickliness stays with him and we watch how Yoshiki receives pain medication to relieve muscle strain before each performance.
As we become familiar with the band, we also understand how they transitioned, evolving in their musicianship, artistry, look and unity. Amidst flashback we view who they were and relate this to who they’ve become against the backdrop of their upcoming concert at Madison Square Garden in NYC. Thus, Kijak shows past and present always coexist; they are readying for Madison Square Garden in a countdown of less than a week before the concert. Yet the fledgling band of the 1980s with their dynamic, brightly colored, stylized appearance and frenzied rock, have atomized into the mute colors of their present dress and soft, chic appearance, but the music is still phenomenal, perhaps more so.
What I found intriguing is in how Kijak reveals the first part of their story before the separation; all appears bright and lovely though there are a few ripples (Yoshiki’s fragility and asthma). But little impedes their success, their gaining iconic admirers outside of Japan (Sir George Martin-Beatles producer, Stan Lee and KISS, etc.), and the constant love of their adoring fans who assure them that their music gives them the reason to live.
It is in the remainder of the film the mystery is clarified. We understand why Yoshiki visits the graveyard a number of times, and we understand the elements that helped to split up the original band members (Yoshi is back now). It is an interesting highlight of the film that Kijack shows that the band’s unity is threaded by Yoshiki. Yoshiki engineers the soul proximity of each of the founding members (Hide, Taji, Yoshiki, Pata, Yoshi). They are close; they understand one another; their music is brilliantly uniting. Yet, these are the very elements and snares that trap and sacrifice each one of them until they realize it is over and there is nothing left.
The enormity of the band’s underestimated and ignored greatness outside of Japan is a theme which Stephen Kijak encapsulates when he edits in an archived clip of a video interview of Gene Simmons from the 1990s in which Simmons said, “If they had been born in America or the UK, they would be the biggest band in the world.” The band knew this; and perhaps it was this knowing and the ambition to change that that impacted X Japan the most.
The component of learning English and writing English lyrics was crucial to the band’s global success and served as a cultural and spiritual turning point. On the surface they intended to expand and launch the “X,” of their mysterious cultural “otherness” across the oceans and around the world. On another level it fostered an inner cultural revolution searing their consciousness perhaps beyond what they realized was energizing. It is only in looking back (three quarters of the way through the film), after you are acquainted with the members and their success, that Kijak intimates that this expansion also caused their downfall.
Kijak gradually brings together various themes in sections of the film to the point where the band members confess that when they attempted to go global, it was when everything fell apart. The rip and tear of the cultural divide was paid for with a heavy price which Yoshiki and Toshi are working through still. But this is part of the mythic story of the band, why two members died and why the ghosts still haunt to break the remaining band members’ hearts.
Perhaps they were not ready to move from the nurturing warmth of their country into an alien world; or perhaps they were and what happened afterward, the band disbanding, the loss of members whose influence and spirit are still everpresent (something Yoshiki affirms by saying he will never forget them and feels guilty), was one huge epic step in the development of Yoshiki, Yoshi and Pata (he is the most grounded), as individuals and musicians in the progression of their musical greatness.
However, for each of the remaining three, it is a new day and now, the expansion into global renown seems right. On November 11, Yoshiki made history by becoming the first-ever artist to be honored with the Asian Icon Award given at the Classic Rock Awards which took place this year in Japan in an event that was attended by Jeff Beck, ELO, Jimmy Page, Joe Perry, Def Leppard, Richie Sambora and others. His expansion is not only in global recognition, it includes expanding his music genre to include playing at Carnegie Hall in New York City,with the Tokyo Philharmonic Orchestra on January 12 and 13. It has been a long time coming.
The truly remarkable film We Are X is screening at festivals. It is a must see. For those familiar with the group, X Japan is touring and Yoshiki is promoting his classical tour. You may see playdates on the film’s website HERE.