X Japan have been described as ‘the world’s biggest and most successful band you’ve never heard of.’ Whilst their powerful speed ballads, fast-paced progressive metal, and mascara heavy glam-rock fashion made them one of the most popular groups in their native Japan, they are largely unknown in America and the UK.We Are X, Stephen Kijack’s latest musical documentary, is an attempt to rectify this, telling the the story of the band from it’s inception in the early 1980s, to the highly-publicised break up in 1997, to their triumphant success at Madison Square Garden in 2014.
The film is structured around a series of interviews with Yoshiki, the band's androgynous founder, drummer and occasional pianist. A philosophical and soft spoken individual, the bulk of the bizarre and immensely turbulent story of X Japan is told by Yoshiki himself. We are offered glimpses into his traumatic childhood: his discovery of his father cold and grey on the floor after an apparent suicide; Yoshiki’s own attempts to take his own life; and how he eventually channelled all of his adolescent rage into the immensely visceral and intense performances that would make him such an icon in Japan.
Yoshiki’s bodily frailty is emphasised throughout the film. Plagued from a young age by numerous illnesses and physical difficulties, Yoshiki’s intense devotion to his performances onstage (often playing the drums until he literally collapse) worried many of his friends.
"His body was just emanating death", said one, and some of the most effective moments of the film involve the rapid cuts between Yoshiki’s almost superhuman persona onstage and his emaciated, sickly appearance in private. He should have died years ago, his mother tells us, and yet instead he lived to see those he cared about most die around him. Death, it seems, has haunted X Japan throughout its long history, and it forms one of the films central motifs, driving the narrative forward with a febrile intensity that’s reinforced by the films rip-roaring soundtrack.
Yet for all these good points one can’t help coming away from the film feeling unsatisfied. Director Kijack has expressed his desire to get to the heart of the band's story, yet in reality he barely scratches the surface. Interesting paths of enquiry are revealed enticingly for the viewer, only to be shut down by the carefully constructed personas of the band members who are interviewed.
Crucial questions remain unanswered - what did Taiji do that led to his argument with Yoshiki? What was the unnamed ‘cult’ that lead singer Toshi was allegedly brainwashed by? And who the hell are those two blonde women who we see following Yoshiki around but who never actually speak to the camera?
Whilst the intention may have been to create an aura of mystery around X Japan, the result is a frustratingly unsatisfying and seemingly synthesised version of their story. Kijack, despite having never heard of the band before making the film, appears slightly in awe of his subject, refusing to probe behind Yoshiki’s carefully constructed on-screen persona. One gets the sense that there is far more to the story than is being told, and that the viewer is only given a carefully chosen fraction of the band's troubled history; the conversations between Toshi and Yoshiki about their childhood memories seem forced and staged for the camera, and there are a few times when you get the sense that a well-worded question could have got to the heart of an issue that was instead just skirted around.
"I’m weak," Yoshiki tells us, "but I created a strong Yoshiki and I’m performing him everyday." It seems he was performing for the viewer in We Are X as well.
The film is fun enough, a well-edited and entertaining attempt by Stephen Kijack to tell what is definitely a fascinating story. Yet it is ultimately let down by the director's inability to peel back the layers of pretence that are placed in from of him, which leaves us with the frustrating sense that there is something more bubbling just below the surface of X Japan’s history, and just out of reach of this film.
WE ARE X will celebrate its UK Premiere on 28th February and will screen in cinemas nationwide 2nd March.