Originally screened as part of the London Film Festival, We Are X is a British-made rockumentary by American director Stephen Kijak (Scott Walker – 30 Century Man, Stones in Exile) about, “the world’s biggest and most successful rock band you’ve never heard of… yet.” The band in question is X Japan, who have been playing back in their homeland since the 1980s.
It is definitely true to say that back in Japan, the band is massive. They are credited with making rock/metal acceptable in the country. All five of their albums have made the top 20 back in Japan, the first reaching the top of the Japan’s indie chart, and the last three all being No. 1 albums in the main chart. Three of their albums have gone platinum, and they have had four No. 1 singles. They are due to release their next album, their first in over 20 years, when they perform at Wembley Arena on 4th March 2017.
What is holding them back then? Probably the fact that they are not native English speaking, as is evidenced by the fact that the film’s central figure, Yoshiki (pictured in the centre of the above photo), the band’s frontman, drummer and pianist, does speak English but he’s accompanied with subtitles all the way through the film. To quote one X Japan fan, Kiss frontman Gene Simmons who is interviewed in the movie: “If those guys had been born in America, they might be the biggest band in the world.” The film mentions that they did try to break into America back in the 1990s but their attempt failed.
Mr. Simmons is not the only famous name appearing in this movie stating their love for the band: Marilyn Manson, Marvel Comic’s Stan Lee, Limp Bizkit’s Wes Borland, Guns N’ Roses’s Richard Fortus, and recently departed Beatles producer George Martin all make contributions to We Are X, so it is clear that the band have the support of the wider rock community.
The film itself details the band’s history, mostly through Yoshiki, as the band prepared to form in Madison Square Gardens in 2014. What is made clear is that one of the recurring elements of the band and Yoshiki’s own personal story is pain: both physical and mental. His father committed suicide when Yoshiki was only 10, the band’s singer Toshi (pictured to Yoshiki’s right) became brainwashed by a cult which resulted in the band breaking up for a decade, and just five months after that break-up the lead guitarist, hide, died in what was thought at the time to have been suicide (it’s now considered to have been accidental). This led to three copycat suicides by fans. The emotional pain is real, as is evident when Yoshiki cries when being interviewed over hide’s death. In 2011, the band’s former bassist Taiji, committed suicide after being arrested on a flight. Another sign of this, not covered in the film itself, is that the Wembley performance and sixth album mentioned earlier were meant to take place in March 2016, but had to be postponed by a year after guitarist Pata (far left of the picture) had to go into intensive care with a blood clot and diverticulitis.
On top of this, Yoshiki is also so physically frail that it seems a miracle that he too hasn’t died. He suffers from asthma, tendonitis, carpal tunnel syndrome, a torn ligament and a deformed neck bone caused by years of head-banging, meaning he now has to wear a neck brace while drumming. He’s so energetic on stage that often he wasn’t breathing properly, so he would often collapse on stage, and when he made it backstage he had oxygen tanks waiting for him because he had so little air inside him he was often on the verge of death. That’s when you know you rock, and rock hard at that. Yoshiki says: “To create some kind of art I don’t think you should be in a normal mental state of mind. It’s a war.”
The band itself were part of what is known in Japan as “Visual Kei” – visual rock. The original look of the band was really over-the-top, with massive haircuts and a glam-look. The band’s original slogan was: “Violence Crime of Visual Shock”, and the look certainly was shocking, even today. While today they may have a simpler look, the music still has the power to move you.
This is the great thing about We Are X – it brings together the music and both the on-stage and off-stage personas of the band, especially Yoshiki, to tell a great story. It is a story that deserves to be told, mainly because X Japan has earned the right to be heard.
It also highlights the difficulty that non-English speaking artists have with trying to make it big in the UK and USA. No matter how big you are back home, there will still be people in this country who won’t listen to you because you don’t sing in English. It says quite a lot about British attitudes to Far Eastern music in that there is only one song that most people can probably name, which is “Gangnam Style”, and even that is more famous for its comical dancing than for the actual music. There are still problems with X Japan’s music reaching a wider audience today, as only two of their five albums and some of their more recent singles are currently available on iTunes.
The people who made We Are X are the same people behind the Oscar-winning documentary Searching for Sugar Man. With a film like this they could win the award again, or at least get nominated, and for one hope they do, because it would help establish the name of what should be one of the world’s biggest rock groups (it was not nominated for an Oscar sadly).
We Are X is available on exclusive Steelbook and DVD on 22nd May. http://www.wearexfilm.com/