SXSW Movie Review: “We Are X”

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FilmStill-99X Japan, the subject of this eye-popping, extremely enjoyable documentary, are the most important band Japan ever produced, one of the most popular bands on the planet … and if you live in the West, it is entirely possible you have no idea who they are.

From 1982 to 1997, when they disbanded, X Japan were (and remain) Japan’s most popular rock band, playing a mix of power metal (often at thrash speed) and epic power ballads (one album, “Art of Life,” is a 30 min song performed with the Royal Philharmonic). But they are perhaps best known for their glam-metal-via-anime style of dress, a look known as “visual kei.” Remember for a moment that looking like Poison or Ratt in, say, 1980s Japan was far less acceptable than looking like this at Gazzari’s or the Roxy. (And these guys saw Poison’s look and basically cubed it.) Rock stars don’t get much more massive (nor do they ever look much more “rock star.”)

Director Stephen Kijak (who helmed the amazing “Scott Walker – 30 Century Man” and “Backstreet Boys: Show ‘Em What You Are Made Of,”) looks at the story of this most over-the-top of acts, a tale filled with a whole lot of makeup, lunatic fans, multiple suicides and a show at Madison Square Garden.

The band formed in the early 1980s based around the teenage friendship of drummer/classically-trained composer/bandleader Yoshiki and singer Toshi. Yoshiki, who seems far more delicate off-stage than on, comes from a middle class background whose stability was shattered when his father committed suicide when Yoshiki was 10, a death that informs his work to this day.

Kijak toggles between footage of the band’s stunning live shows, contemporary talking heads interviews of Yoshiki and Toshi and prep for the band’s 2010 reunion gig at Madison Square Garden. The live footage is spectacular — the band are forces of nature on stage with Yoshiki playing the rock star messiah who feels everything, whether drumming at hardcore intensity or sitting at a piano for an massive ballad or collapsing from exhaustion. (Like many long-term rock stars, these days YOshiki lives with constant muscle and joint pain.)

The band’s story (especially as presented by Yoshiki) is an exceptionally tragic one. Driven by Yoskiki, the band solidifies around ‘87 or so around guitarist Pata, bassist Taiji (who cuts a very Duff McKagan-esque figure) and guitarist Hide (a sort of Joe Walsh to Yoshiki’s Don Henley).

Even as the band becomes Japan’s biggest, they failed  to break America. Gene Simmons, never wasting a chance to be Gene Simmons, notes that “English is the language of rock” but X Japan’s timing was lousy; they looked glam and their U.S. debut was a 30-minute symphonic metal song called “Art of Life” at the very height of grunge.

While their legend grew in Japan, the wheels began to come off. The band fell to piece in 1997 as one member was lost to a cult. Soon after, Hide died, either a suicide or an accidental death. The sequences of thousands of young Japanese, mostly young women, mourning him, sobbing hysterically, is deeply striking.

“We Are X” is a sometimes thrilling, not too terribly deep portrait of a band who perform the role of rock n roll messiah about as well as humanly possible. By the end, don’t be surprised if you are converted.

Other screenings: 10:45 a.m. Wednesday, Topfer Theatre at Zach; 5:30 p.m. March 18, Paramount.


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