They’ve sold 30 million albums over three decades. Their fans faint and cry at the mere sight of their long spiked hair. Influencing countless bands and selling out stadiums around the world, including the Tokyo Dome 18 times (which seats over 55,000 people). X Japan is one of Japan’s most important bands of all time, and you probably haven’t heard of them if you live in the States.
Formed in the ’80s by two troubled teens, the band built up its fan base as well as its member count by presenting a new look and sound to the Japanese public. Pioneers in the Visual Kei movement (a mixed look of glam, punk and heavy metal, with a dash of androgyny and a speed metal sound), the band inspired a movement. But their inability to break out in the United States has been a sore spot for the group. Finally, a chance for this to change arises with their first performance at Madison Square Garden. This is where Stephen Kijak’s documentary We Are X starts, but where it goes … well you’ve never seen anything like it.
Chronicling the band’s meager beginnings to their domination of the Japanese market, the story is anything but straightforward. Kijak weaves multiple narratives and unexpected twists together in a beautiful and subtle way, allowing the viewer to see the world of X Japan through the eyes of its front man, Yoshiki. The band’s story (as well as Yoshiki’s) is so unbelievable that if it were narrative fiction you’d consider it far-fetched. But this is real, and it gets weird. I sat down with Kijak at this year’s SXSW to discuss the project.
Paste: You’ve made a number of music docs—Scott Walker: 30 Century Man, Stones in Exile, Backstreet Boys: Show ’Em What You’re Made Of and Jaco. How did this project come about? Were you a fan of X Japan?
Stephen: Essentially, it started out as a work-for-hire that kind of became an obsession. John Battsek—he’s a producer on things like Searching for Sugar Man and Listen to Me Marlon… Really great producer and one of my really close friends. He and I started another film about Jaco Pastorius that debuted here (SXSW) last year. But we were looking for something new to do, and he’s constantly just throwing music ideas my way, and this one just caught on. I just got so interested in what it was. You Google image X Japan and get an eyeball full of it, why wouldn’t you want to know more about that?
The slogan is “Psychedelic Violence Crime of Visual Shock”—whatever that is, I needed to get a piece of that! It was just fascinating. I’ve done the fan film—I was a Scott Walker obsessive. Now I’m more looking for these opportunities to learn something. It’s opened another door that I didn’t know existed. I was not that versed in Japanese music culture, some may see that as a handicap. I see it as a bonus, because then I get to drag that audience along, who is like me, and just go, “Check that out. You’ve never heard this before, and you’ve never seen this before.” It had a lot of opportunities to do visually interesting stuff.
Paste: The structure of the film must have been tricky. The band’s story is so full of twists and turns, the film could have been 10 hours long and even then there would be things that would have to be left out. How did you pare the story down?
Stephen: A lot of this film was an editorial discovery. It was the work of two editors. I had a Japanese editor and an American editor because we needed the dual perspectives. It was almost an urge towards a little too much reverence with Yoshiki, and we had to pull it back and try to be a little more objective, because a lot of it is really fucking weird. There’s a brilliant strangeness surrounding it, but then you also want to honor it and be true to him and who he is.
If you’re really paying attention, there’s a lot going on, because really what it is is a portrait of Yoshiki, and it’s a story of the band kind of refracted through his prism. There is a present-day by-the-numbers—the “band is going to play Madison Square Garden” segment, but it’s less of a will-they-or-won’t-they, and it’s more of a portrait of Yoshiki and his struggle physically, mentally and spiritually.
Paste: His whole past is filled with tragedy—everywhere there’s tragedy. How did you approach that?
Stephen: This is often the trouble with rock stars—it’s just the embedded narrative. And even with Yoshiki, the tragedy is part of the narrative, and it makes for great drama. It amplifies it and intensifies it for you. But what I found extraordinary is the more we would talk about it, the more he would start to get really emotional very quickly when we would talk about certain subjects—especially the father, especially Hide’s death—he takes a lot of it on himself. That was interesting, because you can see kind of there’s a performative element to it, because again—what a drama. But it was his life, and at every twist and turn someone is dropping. He’s losing people all the time and he’s always got the threat of dying.
Paste: Which they said was asthma?
Stephen: Yeah, he’s got asthma. His tendons are shredded. Head banging he broke his neck and had to have an operation. He’s a mess. He’s falling apart. He’s literally throwing himself on the altar of rock for his fans night after night. It’s kind of self-sacrificing, but there’s a lot of fortitude and strength within that, too, because I think he does almost see himself as a bit of a savior figure. There’s a little bit of a Messiah quality going on here, but it’s not like a Bono kind of thing. It’s something with the way the fans react—it is like he’s some kind of savior.
Paste: The band and the fans say that they keep each other alive, but, there’s a tragic duality, that obsession with the band and the pressure of being in the band is the reason why some people have lost their lives. Do you think that’s something in their music? Do you think it’s just something in Japanese fan culture? Is it just that they’re at the level of gods?
Stephen: I think it’s a combination of those things. I think the fandom in Japan is very unique from what I’ve seen. The fact that Yoshiki at one point started dressing in wedding dresses with pearls and a tiara and looked very effeminate—it was almost like creating this alter ego. When I would dig into that—it’s unfortunately not really expressed in the film, but when I would talk to some of these people in Japan about it… “Do you see this and think ‘drag queen?’ Is he gender bending? Is there a sexual element?” And they kind of looked at me like, “What are you talking about?” They’re just creating a mirror that we can look at and see ourselves in. So the female fans (it’s very female) saw something in him that was a piece of them, and it became devotional.
You see that it was a society that was so button-down… Somebody once said that [X Japan] gave everyone permission to actually scream, to shout, to challenge ourselves and challenge our society. So, the freedom that they gave people was so liberating in a very different way than, I think, punk did to Western society. It was that kind of seismic reaction that really triggered something in people. It changed them. It changed the DNA of Japanese culture. I think it’s really powerful. You see it in the fans—they imitate them and they dress like them, and that bonds them to each other in a way that I’ve never really seen in other fan cultures.
Paste: Last question, will you make the great David Bowie Documentary?
Stephen: Oh, my God. I only wish! Yeah, who do I have to kill to do that?
Paste: I think you’ve got a good enough track record, and I think the Scott Walker connection and the X Japan connection it makes sense that you would be the guy.
Stephen: We think so! My producer has two little gold men—he’s a very prestigious documentary producer in England. Trust me—I think every documentary filmmaker on the planet is trying to figure out how they can be the guy (or gal) to make the David Bowie film. We’re going to just hang in there. I think it’s a little too soon. Rest in peace. He is the greatest thing to ever walk the Earth. I’m a huge, huge, huge fan, obviously.