We Are X (Cert 15)
1 Disc (Distributor: Manga Entertainment) Running Time: 95 minutes approx.
“Who’s that?” asks a bewildered woman as a gamine, slightly effete blonde Japanese male enters a New York building surrounded by photographers, cameramen and hoards of screaming fans. “Somebody very famous” comes the reply from a photographer. The woman pulls a face, apparently none the wiser.
And that in a nutshell sums up the status of Yoshiki and his group X Japan. One of the biggest rock bands in the world, they have sold over 30 million records worldwide, can fill arenas across the globe, have influenced many bands both in and outside of Asia in their storied 30-year career yet remain off the radar of the mainstream.
Perhaps this film from noted documentary maker Stephen Kijak, whose prior subjects include Scott Walker and the Rolling Stones, could change that. Shot around the band’s show at the exalted Madison Square Garden in 2014, it focuses largely on their founder, drummer, pianist, main songwriter, spokesman and leader, the enigmatic Yoshiki.
Born a skinny, frail asthmatic Yoshiki wasn’t expected to live a long life; he admits he thinks his existence is solely to find a way to die. This sounds depressing but Yoshiki and the band are surrounded by death and obscure tragedy, beginning with Yoshiki’s father dying when Yoshiki was just 7 years-old and his mother threw away all reminders of his existence, save for one photo.
Displaying a prodigious musical talent, Yoshiki was trained as a classical pianist but it wasn’t until he discovered western rock bands like KISS and Deep Purple that Yoshiki took up the drums, forming a band with his long time friend, singer Toshi which became a nascent version of X (later changed to X Japan to avoid confusion in the US with US punk group X) with Yoshiki already handling song writing duties.
With bassist Taiji, rhythm guitarist Pata and guitarist hide (sic) from rockers Saver Tiger, the classic line-up of X Japan was born along with the DNA for the musical movement called Visual Kei – heavy metal music played by groups with huge hair, provocative make-up and flamboyant costumes. If you think 80’s hair bands were wild, they are nothing compared to the sky scraping barnets X Japan boasted at their peak.
Tributes from other Visual Kei bands MUCC, Glay, Luna Sea and Dir en Grey speak profoundly of the influence X Japan had on them and Japanese society, whilst praise also comes from unlikely US sources like comic book legend Stan Lee, alongside music giants Gene Simmons, Marilyn Manson and some emo guys I don’t know.
In between footage of Yoshiki conducting TV and radio interviews and clips of the band (read: Yoshiki) rehearsing at MSG the remarkable story of X Japan is relayed accompanied by archive footage and personal photographs. It may not be by design but this does feel more like the Yoshiki Show than an X Japan retrospective; he is the multi-hyphenate that drives the band but there are also four other people in it too.
Only singer Toshi is given interview time (to hear the others speak, check out the extras), largely as his story is equally as astounding as Yoshiki’s nightly dices with death – as an asthmatic with severe joint and muscle pain, he drums like a devil every night to the point of near fatal exhaustion, which the fans think is part of the performance!
Toshi, permanently hiding behind a big pair of black shades even when on stage or having is hair done, is softly spoken and contemplative when looking back at his career. In 1996 he met a woman whom he later married that was part of a cult that successfully brainwashed Toshi into denouncing rock music and X Japan as satanic, causing the group to publicly disband in 1997.
Footage from the Last Live show at the famed Tokyo Dome shows bawling fans openly blaming Toshi for initiating the split, then sobbing relentlessly during the show. A song clip in the extras perfectly captures the emotion of the night for both the band and the fans, while Toshi hid the face he was fearing for his life.
But the X Japan story takes an even darker turn. A year later, guitarist hide died from an apparent suicide, which Yoshiki disputes, with 50,000 fans attending his funeral. Then bassist Taiji, fired in 1992 for what Yoshiki coyly explains as “doing something he shouldn’t have” (revealed in Taiji’s autobiography as questioning the discrepancy in pay between Yoshiki and the others), died in 2011 from injuries sustained in a suicide attempt whilst in jail for violent behaviour.
Assuming the role of bassist from 1992 onwards was Heath, joined by guitarist Sugizo who has replaced hide ever since the 2007 reunion, but to this day X Japan still regard Taiji and hide as current members, showing both prominently on the video screens during live shows.
Despite being the preferential treatment and borderline deification Yoshiki receives here, he doesn’t come across as particularly egotistical aside from always wearing shades and taking selfies at his father’s grave. He is thoughtful in his answers, his personal philosophies are bleak and nihilistic yet he is an empathetic thinker, shedding more than a few tears throughout.
The dialogue is spoken in Japanese and rather competent Engrish by Yoshiki and Toshi, thankfully subtitled here although the absence of HOH subtitles means the mumbling Yanks can’t be understood by folks like yours truly – bad form Manga! The production values are slick, sometimes a little arty while the tone is frank and the footage lacking contrivance. For this writer though more music clips would have been nice.
If We Are X (all cross your hands now) sparks new interest in the band then this has film has done its job. It may not be the ultimate biography the band or the fans deserve – 95 minutes for this story is insufficient – but it is a decent platform to launch a more comprehensive and befitting retrospective one day.
2.0 LPCM Stereo
5.1 DTS HD Master Audio
Yoshiki On “We Are X”
Last Live – Forever Love / Kurenai
Fan Video: Born To be Free
Limited Edition Steelbook
Rating – *** ½
Man In Black