They are big in Japan, and you probably haven’t heard of them. They are mega huge in Japan I should say, and despite the fact they have been around since the mid ‘80s, many of us have never heard of X… Not that Californian punk-country band, but X Japan, the metal rock band from Japan, who are making a mega comeback with a desire to become big everywhere.
I didn’t know much about the most successful rock band in Japan history until last night, but it’s not the case anymore after the screening of the documentary ‘We Are X’, directed by Stephen Kijak, and which chronicles their dramatic and tumultuous story till their recent comeback.
The central character of the movie is the band frontman Yoshiki, who is first a drummer, but also a pianist and the composer of the music. He walks through the movie, which is his own personal life story, like a romantic and tragic character, while becoming a triumphant survivor.
If any music documentary has some unavoidable debauchery and decline followed by a redemption episode, ‘We Are X’ has no sex and no drugs but only pure rock ‘n’ roll, the movie has no sin but only pain, extreme pain forever endured by Yoshiki due to his crazy drumming style. he has an incredible way to combine fragility and femininity (he has an undeniable androgynous look) with brutality and power (he plays drums with a forceful energy and used to hit insane tempo, practically unheard of). Because of his violent style, he is a broken-bone man, he wears a permanent neck brace since his 1995 neck injury, and has sustained many injuries. Beside an artificial disc inserted into his neck vertebrae, he also had tendinitis, carpal tunnel syndrome, and I can only imagine the pain he has to endure during the physical performance he calls a concert. ‘Everything fades away in this world, but pain never disappears’ he says toward the end of the movie. We see him spending some time with doctors during the movie but despite the professionals’ repeated advices to slow down, he doesn’t seem to do so and continues to perform through excruciating pain.
There’s the physical pain and there’s the mental pain, which are always connected as music saved Yoshiki after he lost his father who committed suicide when he was only 10. Playing drums with such violence was an outlet for his deep pain and existential crisis, and prevented him to kill himself, although he tried a few times…. Watching him sometimes looks like self-flagellation by a man who wants to forget his mental torment through physical pain.
Formed in 1982, X has been extremely successful in Japan, they are actually the most successful band in Japan history, they have sold 30 million albums singles and videos combined, and sold out the 55,000-seat Tokyo Dome 18 times, playing for millions of fans around the world. Their over the top style has simply made them rock gods in their country: Imagine the theatricality of Queens or Muse, combined with the heaviness of Mastodon, the solos of prog rock, the extreme look of every hair metal band you know reviewed by a Manga cartoonist, and add to this solos by Yoshiki, who has had a classical training, and can play Chopin-like amazingly sentimental piano parts. They manage to combine heavy music with soft parts, while the show always sounds dramatic. It’s a crazy combination and a visual experience with many aspects of western rock culture pushed to the extreme, such as tower-high colorful mohawks, insane makeup and every punk and metal studded item you can think of, wrapped by the grandiosity of arena rock, and amped to new heights with pyrotechnics and other special effects.
During the movie, we see a few familiar faces praising the band, with a brief apparition by Stan Lee, Gene Simmons (Yoshiki is unsurprisingly a huge KISS fan) and Marilyn Manson, who is a close friend of Yoshiki… ‘If X were born in America and sang in English, they might be the biggest band in the world’, says Simmons, who is probably right if we were still in 1990. However, the X phenomenon is exclusively a Japanese story, and the scenes of screaming and hysterical fans make these black and white footages of Beatles fans look very tamed.
In traditional Japanese culture, where emotions are rarely talked about, where crazy make up and hairdos were unimaginable in the 80s, the X men looked like extreme versions of Bowie in Labyrinth and played extremely emotional music, they were first dissed by critics but soon became an incredibly popular phenomenon.
‘We Are X’ is more than a rockdocumentary, it’s a drama and ‘it could have been a horror movie if it wouldn’t have been so cleverly edited’, said Yoshiki after the screening. And the band had its dose of drama. We see Yoshiki spending a lot of times in hospitals but also in cemeteries as the band got hit by other tragedies: after the band break up in 1997, their charismatic pink-hair guitarist Hide hanged himself in 1998, and was found in his apartment hanged by a towel tied to a doorknob (a scene that reminded me the Chris Cornell recent tragedy). Yoshiki speaks about the death of his ex-band mate while explaining it was probably a mistake, an accident, as Hide was ‘the most positive person in the band’, but we never know for sure the exact circumstances. Then, a few years later, bassist Taiji also hanged himself in a jail cell after being arrested following an argument with his female manager.
After relocating to Los Angeles, Yoshiki had nevertheless never lost hope to cross over and bring back his band to the world by trying to make lead singer Toshi sing in English. After having difficulties with the language, Toshi quit the band while being under the influence of the crazy cult Home of Heart.
Only this last part has a happy ending as Toshi has since reconnected with Yoshiki after admitting being brainwashed, and the band reunited in 2007 with Toshi singing Yoshiki’s songs again. During the documentary, we follow them and the rest of the band preparing for their sold out concert at Madison Square Garden in New York on 2014. Since, they have also sold out Wembley Arena, and they are playing Coachella this year. Last weekend, they were the only metal band playing the festival, and they delivered a pyrotechnic enhanced glam rock show with Yoshiki playing a crystal piano while joined by Limp Bizkit’s Wes Borland, Guns N’ Roses’ Richard Fortus and the holograms of the band’s two deceased members, Hide and Taiji. Ask for epic and they will deliver. Yoshiki, who was present for a Q&A after the screening with bandmate and guitarist Sugizo and Limp Bizkit’s Wes Borland, has announced that Marilyn Manson will join them for the second weekend of Coachella. The band has also recorded a new album, which should be released this year.
Yoshiki is really a big deal in Japan, he is a rock god and has composed music for Emperor Akihito’s 10th anniversary, but he is a true survivor and the documentary highlights his incredible resilience as well as the power of music. I should add that X Japan are playing in the same time slot than queen Beyonce at Coachella, but for a band which has survived several suicides, countless injuries and cult brainwashing, it truly doesn’t matter.
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