It's almost better if you go into watching We Are X without knowing who X actually are. Or what they look like. X Japan is most often referred to in the context of, "They're Japan's…" filling in the blank with every band from Iron Maiden to Mötley Crüe. While I'd never really listened to their music, I knew exactly what they looked like and the term that went with it; visual kei. Slashing together glam's androgyny with gothic kabuki and not an insignificant dash of punk's snarl and attitude, visual kei is the underground 80s movement X Japan helped shove into country, Japan's incidentally, spotlight.
Banishing tradition and reveling in the complete insanity of the look was founder and drummer Yoshiki. We Are X, a new documentary about X Japan directed by Stephen Kijak, is like fan fiction written by someone who took the concept of rock'n'roll and decided that nothing beats one story of excess like all stories of excess and had one band live it all. But as it is with most cases, truth is sometimes wilder than fiction.
"You just have to look at them for like a minute to go oh yeah, there's so much under the surface here. It was almost just that, seeing a picture of them in the late 80s and going I need to know more, this is the craziest looking band I've ever come across," says Kijak. "But once you settle down and get away from craziness and sort of piece it together, it becomes very obvious that the story is very much about Yoshiki. Yoshiki and his life-long friendship with Toshi and their endless battles with all sorts of demons, whether spiritual or physical or emotional."
Yoshiki no longer sports the hairstyle—half mile-high high spikes and half feathered Farrah waves—that made him one of his country's foremost pop icons. His hair is that demure length that older gentleman musicians adopt when they realize they're no longer nineteen but stubbornly want you to know they're not dead yet, either. For Yoshiki, death is a particularly persistent shadow, one that has followed him his entire life. "I've spent probably a third of my life in the hospital," he reflects in the documentary. He's shown wearing a cast in his onscreen interviews and even though the film starts with the band's preparations leading up to their 2014 show at Madison Square Garden, he wears a similar brace now. There's quite a disparity between the half-naked banshee screaming for vengeance and pounding himself bloody lifeless of classic X Japan footage and the sedate leather nymph taking in the mid-town Manhattan traffic from his balcony. But therein lies the truth.
Famous for working himself into such a frenzy that he'd pass out at shows, Yoshiki was never playing it up for the audience but actually struggling to breathe as his health competed with his stage antics. While crowds cheered for their maniac, he literally had to be helped offstage. His mother once cautioned a record executive to, "Film everything he does, document it all. He could die tomorrow, he's fragile." But almost forty years on, he's still here and still fighting against the darkness that claimed his father when he was still a kid, two band mates to suicide, and his best friend and X Japan singer Toshi to the machinations of a cult that contributed to the original break-up of the band.
While his story begins with rebellion; against Japan's rigid moral codes, his family's multi-generational kimono business that ended when he decided to become a rock star, and basically refusing to die like all his doctors predicted he would, Yoshiki now survives in the neither stark white nor pitch black balance between extremes. "Not in the sun," he says decisively, and like good little vampires, we sit in the shade to talk about death, defiance, and David Bowie.
Noisey: It's seems a little trite to say, but there's been a lot of sadness in your life starting with your father's passing. The film focuses quite a bit on that, could you talk a bit about how you cope with grief and how it translates to your music?
Yoshiki: I write lyrics from my heart, everything I write is related to my life. Sometimes it has double meaning. Pretty much talking about death and how we should live life. Why do I exist? Why do we suffer through life? These questions come up and I guess the tragedy in my life brings that up. But at the same time, I'm lucky enough to be a musician and be able to express myself through music. If I weren't in music, making music, I don't think I would've survived my life.
A couple comments you made on the doc really stood out; how you think suicide is a selfish act but at the same time you talk about how you live in constant pain and if you could end it, you would. How do you reconcile thoughts like that and keep moving forward?
Physical pain is nothing compared to mental pain. I try to be healthy but the way I play drums and the way I acted in those early days was destroying me. But I don't take things for granted as long as I am living I will make music. I try to take care of myself now and I have a lot of things to say. So I will keep writing music to say it.
You also talk a lot about how dying with honor, suicide, all these factors feed into the identity of being Japanese. Do you think this mentality has changed at all?
Japan has changed a lot in the last 30-40 years. When we first started I couldn't even get a cab looking the way I looked. There were no blonde people in Japan—if you were blonde you were in X Japan! I would dye my hair a lot when I was younger and the headmaster once shaved my head because of the way it was. But it's changed now and keeps changing in a good way like keeping some things traditional, but letting the new in as well. I think Japan now has an interesting mix of culture from the East and West. We change the culture a bit, too, I think. With the way we looked.
Can you talk a bit more about that? Defying convention and how that relates to growing up and being Japanese.
I played classical music up until my father's death. That's when I found rock and thought it was the coolest thing. I was very depressed and angry then, my father killed himself and I was in a bad place and while classical music is cool, too, it's very…composed. Rock I felt was like freedom and especially freedom to express yourself. Eventually critics came and told us what we should really be doing but and that was disillusioning because I thought it was supposed to be free and here I find there are so many rules. So I wanted to break every single rule.
Is that why you went with the half-mohawk, half super styled coif?
That was very accidental, actually. Before I was into hard rock and metal I was listening to punk rock so spiked hair was the look. But we had to go onstage one night and I didn't have time to do all the spikes so only half my head was done. I had go on, though, so I did. People seemed to like that so I went with it. We play pretty fast music and we got criticized like, "If you play this kind of music, why don't you dress like a 'man,'" and I thought fuck that. I wanted to do it my way and my way was I chose to dress like a princess. It's just fun, I'm not too serious about the look but I just want to enjoy it. At the same time it was like a rebellion against everything. We didn't want to be conventional.
Except when you performed for the Emperor of Japan.
The only time I was really nervous about how I looked was when I played for the Emperor of Japan. I didn't know how strict it would be so I dyed my hair dark brown and dressed more conservatively. But later I was told, "Oh it would've been okay to play for the Emperor with red hair." Really? OK.
But you do have a different "look" for when you play your solo concerts versus performing with X Japan.
The amount of energy and emotion that goes into both are the same. I play drums and piano for X Japan, and when I'm solo just the piano. Solo is more intimate, I talk to the audience. With X Japan…I scream at the audience.
Do you feel you slip into different personalities or characters when you're at different moments in your life? Where do you draw the line between rebellious, screaming punk and Carnegie Hall soloist?
I asked the same question to David Bowie a long time ago.
I love him.
He is my favorite.
Me too! I asked him, "Where do you draw the line? Offstage or onstage?" He couldn't really answer the question. He said, "Come to think of it, I'm always pretty much on." So the same goes for me, too. Depends on what I'm doing, I'm just bringing a different side of me. You put a drum in front of me now I'm going to start banging. The switch is always on.
Going back to what you said about Japan's cultural changes, do you think this also applies to you and your place in your home? After all, your rebellion started at home by ending the family's kimono business.
Last year, I did the finale for Tokyo fashion week and this year, next week, I'm opening it with my kimono line. In Japan, all the traditional businesses have families that specialize and my family had a kimono business. I broke the tradition when I became a rock musician. But several years ago I met a 150-year old house that made kimonos and we talked about making a design together. Our version had the models wearing like KISS-style, you know the band KISS?
KISS-style boots and sexy underwear. It's the rock'n'roll version of a kimono. I think there are no rules when you're talking about art. At the same time, I do think keeping traditions is a good thing, too. So this is how my art expresses itself. The kimono tradition is shrinking in Japan so in a way, my rebellion in the face of complete tradition is helping it stay alive but also helping bring change. This is the same approach I have when making music, too.
But most importantly, you have a Hello Kitty based on you.
Yes, I have a Yoshikitty.
Is she a punk rocker or a concert pianist?
A little of both.
Yoshiki is set to perform at Carnegie Hall solo in January but coming up in November is the release of We Are X. Director Stephen Kijak carried on the conversation about how bizarre costumes, band strife, and Bowie (yet again), drew him to the project.
Noisey: What drew you to X Japan's story? Was it the hair or the music?
Stephen Kijak: It started out as work for hire, I wasn't a fan. I was a metal head up until I was 12-13, and then I kind of morphed into a New Waver, and started dressing like Robert Smith from The Cure. I'm coming back around. When I did meet Yoshiki and started digging into the band's story, it really was the story that caught my attention. At this point, I don't think I need to be a fan to take on these films, to me it's all about bringing an audience through this journey of discovery, it's almost better if you're not a fan so I can open you up to this new world and just kind of challenge your perceptions of something you may have resisted. The music, the way they present themselves, the distance of cultures are barriers that are interested challenges to break down.
Did you learn their story first then try to translate it to film or how did that process work out?
You do your research, you figure out the basics and what was nice about the way we made this was that when we started, we had almost no pre-production. Literally, I got hired and in days I was watching a show in Yokohama and then we were shooting at Madison Square Garden. There wasn't a lot of time to plan or make pre-conceived notions about what it's going to be about, we just started shooting. You're just in the world and taking it all in and getting to know the band and the fans and the entourage and all the weird shit that sort of swirls around them. You absorb the vibe first, which gives you a hint on where you're going to take the film next. Which makes it more than a music film.
Could you talk a bit more about what you mean by that?
I think you needed to feel empathy for Yoshiki, you have to relate to him despite the fact that he is this Japanese rock god and there's all this hair and make up and…leather. And scarves! Get past the artifice and look at him as a human being. Celebrate the myth but also look for a way to get inside of him and kind of start to relate and feel his pain and share it and maybe be healed by the music. You're kind of trying to do two things at once. You always have to reach for the universal. And then we were able to wrap it in a lot head banging and crazy costumes and pyro. All of the visual and sonic stuff they gave made for fantastic cinema. I've always said making these films is like making mix tapes; I'm the geek that would make you a mix tape because I wanted to turn you on to this or that. It's kind of the ethic I put in place with films; it has to have a flow. Everything has its place but it comes from an instinctual gut feeling. You want to pop it in and blow someone's mind.
Your B-roll footage was probably pretty comprehensive.
One of the most well organized archives of any band I've ever seen. Yoshiki's always having himself filmed because I think early on there was this fatalistic impulse of film everything because he could die tomorrow. Fans have told me that it's been thrilling to get that privileged view inside the machine because there's all this intimate stuff backstage. Even him just hanging out, just taking a nap on the sofa, for the fans it's like they're right there. It's the stuff you'd never see normally. Then we'd find him being directed by David Lynch.
Yoshiki's naked on a beach and David Lynch is barking orders at him, like it's crazy, there's so much stuff there.
I think we get glimpses of it throughout the film. I remember a scene with his hair dyed orange on the beach similar to what you're saying. Very Man Who Fell to Earth.
Totally. Exactly. That was one of the first things that went through my head—he is the man who fell to earth. This guy. He's an alien. He's been beamed here from somewhere else. Him and Bowie came here from the same distant galaxy.