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Sects, suicide & speed metal: the unreal story of X Japan

Japan’s biggest metal band were inspired by Bowie and collaborated with David Lynch – this new film bares all

X Japan are Japan’s biggest, loudest secret. The speed metal group, famed for their visual kei aesthetic, have sold 30 million albums, established a diehard fanbase, and are Japan’s very own Nirvana. Unlike, say, Babymetal, their glorious sound is tinged with tragedy. Band members were lost to suicide. They split for 10 years when their singer was brainwashed by a cult. Yet to casual listeners outside of Asia, they’re an unknown entity.

That’s set to change with the release of We Are X. Directed by Stephen Kijak, the rock doc is a pounding intro to X Japan’s stadium-ready prog riffs, their multi-coloured sparkling hairdos, and, of course, tortured bandleader Yoshiki. “Pain has been my friend, my enemy, my lover,” the drummer and main songwriter declares in the film. No kidding. When Yoshiki hits the sticks, his right arm aches; on the piano, it’s his left that stings. Sometimes he collapses on stage from lack of oxygen. Other ailments include a deformed neck bone (too much head banging), tendonitis and carpal tunnel. “I should not be playing,” he admits. Doctors echo this statement.

Here in London, Kijak is asking Yoshiki about the origins of X Japan’s slogan “Psychedelic Violence Crime of Visual Shock”. It dates back to the 80s, when the group struck a chord by disrupting their country’s conservative society. “We had blonde, spiky hair,” Yoshiki explains. “At that time, in Japan, it was almost a crime. That was the crime of visual shock. We also wanted to mess up people’s minds through music. That’s why it’s psychedelic violence.”

The aggression has its own backstory. When Yoshiki was 10, his father committed suicide, which he discovered upon returning home and witnessing a body on the floor. “I didn’t know what to do,” Yoshiki recalls. “I was very angry and sad. I was only doing classical music. I couldn’t express myself.” Shortly after, his mother bought him a drum kit. “Then I found out about rock. I could scream and break things. I became a rebel.”

Kijak agrees, adding, “Then your audiences sees that freedom, and that starts to fuck with society, because they realise, ‘Oh, we actually have permission to scream and dye our hair and be different and break down barriers.’” A music doc pro, Kijak’s past subjects include the Rolling Stones and Scott Walker, but it’s X Japan – and their stage show – that’s struck him the most. “I’ve never been around such a pyrotechnically enormous experience. The arc was so emotional and radical. It’s the richest, fullest story I’ve grappled with so far.”

“I found out about rock. I could scream and break things. I became a rebel” – Yoshiki

Yoshiki and vocalist Toshi formed X Japan (then called X) in 1982, and their subsequent recognition has been mostly limited to Japan. “20 or 30 years ago, the world wasn’t ready for a band like us coming from Asia,” Yoshiki believes. “Through the internet, people stared knowing our band. It’s a very different world now.”

Still, in the 90s, the group had superfans who were super-famous: George Martin scored a solo album for Yoshiki, the Emperor of Japan requested an original composition from Yoshiki, and David Lynch got in touch too. In fact, Lynch directed the music video for “Setsubou no Yoru” in 1995. “I was naked on the beach,” Yoshiki laughs. “I forgot about that.” It was, Kijak notes, Lynch testing visual tricks he was preparing for Lost Highway, except with Yoshiki stripped bare in a nightmare wilderness. “That’s where you were at that point in your life,” the documentarian tells Yoshiki. “It’s the perfect metaphor.”

Kijak’s referring to tensions that arose from the band’s attempt to break the States in the 90s, which led to a decade-long hiatus in 1997. Were American listeners too unadventurous? “It’s also our fault,” Yoshiki concedes. “Back then, we didn’t really try. Every time we went overseas, something happened internally.” The deciding factor was when Toshi was introduced by his wife to a cult. Then, in 1998, lead guitarist Hide hung himself – which led to copycat suicides from fans. In 2011, former bassist Taiji (who left the band in 1992) also took his own life. Both members, however, are still honoured at live shows.

“X Japan ended when the internet was born,” Kijak says. “They missed out on that free expression and boundary-less communication of music. Now, people are prepped. We’re less dictated to, in terms of the kind of music we receive.”

The comeback came in 2007 when Toshi, after 10 years, somehow reversed the brainwashing. Although the cult convinced the singer that the band were satanic, there was a sudden change of heart and he reunited with Yoshiki. You suspect this chapter could be a film on its own.

Since then, the fandom has certainly been translating. Much of We Are X covers the band’s rehearsals for Madison Square Garden, and later this week they’ll perform to a sold-out crowd at Wembley Arena. The point, though, is they should be humungous. If they were born in England or America, Gene Simmons believes, they’d be the biggest band in the world. In the doc, the KISS bassist puts it like this: “How do you break through that silent prejudiced wall?”

If the music’s not for you, then you at least have to admire the hair. The visual kei look – Japan’s answer to glam rock – owes some debt, according to Yoshiki, to David Bowie. “When he was in Tokyo, I told him he was an enormous influence.” You can spot it in the androgynous touches. “When we played heavy music… I went the complete opposite and did something feminine. When we played ballads, I had spiky hair.”

It’s not that simple, though. “It’s mistakenly tagged hair metal by some people,” Kijak says. “It’s metal mixed with new wave mixed with punk mixed with kabuki mixed with KISS. It’s the brilliant absorption of all these different influences, but it comes out uniquely as X Japan. It’s very distinct and Japanese.” He turns to Yoshimi. “It’s your personality, and the personality of the band members.”

With We Are X, it’s all on display: the storied history, the twists, the riffs, the highs and many lows. Otherwise, a brief description fails to capture X Japan’s essence or why fans will literally die for this band. “Critics try to categorise us sometimes,” Yoshiki sighs, “which makes me uncomfortable. Rock is supposed to be a free way of describing yourself.” He pauses. “I just want to rebel.”

‘We Are X’ opens in the UK on March 2