Japan. To most Americans Japan is a somewhat mysterious country on the opposite side of the Earth. Most U.S. citizens know little and less about what life is like in the island country. Misconceptions abound, largely steeped in the vague generalities portrayed in TV and movies. Even though there are multitudes of stellar Japanese bands, only a few manage to find popularity in the Western world. Since the majority of the popular music world sets its dial to English-language music, many of the biggest names worldwide opt to record with English lyrics in hopes of reaching the largest audience possible. It may be that limiting factor or cultural insularity that keeps talent from the East from crossing the biggest of ponds on this planet, but there are some truly great artists doing fresh and unique things beyond compare. One band in particular features a brilliant composer, drummer and pianist. One that has sold out the massive 55,000 person capacity Tokyo Dome, will headline Wembley Stadium in 2017, has been produced by famed Beatles producer George Martin, has a comic book with living legend Stan Lee, and even can boast an official Hello Kitty character based on his likeness. His name is Yoshiki, band leader for Japanese juggernaut X Japan.
The group first formed by childhood friends Yoshiki (née Yoshiki Hayashi) and Toshi (née Toshimitsu Deyama) started over 30 years ago, and is considered one of the pioneers of Eastern kei rock. Kei rock is comparable in visual style to what we in the West commonly refer to as glam rock, though the band themselves adopted a more natural rock aesthetic 10 years into their success. The group released five utterly massive albums before temporarily breaking up in the mid ‘90’s. Just 10 years later (and following vocalist Toshi escaping a no-kidding brain washing cult) the group reunited in 2007. Between their break-up and now, two of the group’s vital members lead guitarist hide (pronounced hee-day) and bassist Taiji in separate incidents both tragically died. Both deaths appear to have been due to suicide. Taiji in particular died not long after he had reconciled with the group and was finally going to formally rejoin the band. The group, led by drummer/pianist/composer Yoshiki has soldiered on and is on the verge of releasing not only their first album in 20 years, but also a feature-length documentary chronicling their entire career appropriately entitled We Are X.
In the midst of Western music business chaos at the annual SXSW music conference in Austin, Texas we sat down with Yoshiki to discuss the documentary and the long-in-the-works new album. For a man of mythic stature, Yoshiki is soft spoken and polite. Permanently hidden behind sunglasses, but warm and open in a way one would not expect. Especially considering if his name is even mentioned on Twitter it prompts an explosion of adulation from fans of worldwide. In his penthouse with a large entourage—publicists, managers, assistants and a full-on camera crew—the apparatus that drives Yoshiki is well-oiled and readily apparent. A whole lot of time, thought and man power goes into allowing this understated genius to operate with power and grace. He smiles and laughs as the buggy recorder that is capturing this interview is called upon to not fail. Unsurprisingly, in the midst of several back-to-back interviews, he has not yet ventured into the fray of the chaotic music festival. “I would like to if I have time today,” he offers humbly.
The new film he is here in Austin to promote along with a solo performance tackles directly the band’s fame and the drive to equal that fame with Western audiences. Deceased X Japan members hide and Taiji both greatly desired to see the band find the same toehold in the Western world it enjoyed in Japan for so long. There’s an undercurrent in the film of the band wanting to fulfill their departed bandmates’ dream. Yoshiki supports this notion, calmly explaining, “I think so. Even though we have five members right this moment. hide and Taiji are part of us. So when we actually play on stage we feel like we are playing seven of us together. So we still call them members.” Yoshiki’s quest connects to deeper ruminations in his own life. He continues, “Because I am always thinking. Why am I in this world? What’s the reason? Gotta be some reason? There’s a mission. Why am I born in this world? I love music and I think I have musical talent. So I’m doing music but I also have some kind of mission to spread hide and Taiji’s legacy. To try to achieve their dream as well.”
“It’s not so much my responsibility to break X Japan in the west,” the film’s director Stephen Kijak explains. “It was our responsibility to make the best film we could because that will help with that goal I think.” He elaborates, “If you get to know them as people and you see the human side of it all. … Those barriers melt away. So to go forth with a film like this and to hopefully have it be successful is one step in helping to spread the word. It’s not a promotional film, but you want people to like [X Japan]. Of course we’re trying to promote and celebrate the men and their music.”
Why has it been so hard then? With so much talent and so much crossover appeal why has been so difficult for X Japan and Japanese acts in general to find acclaim in the Western world? For Yoshiki on the surface it’s obvious. “One simple [reason]: language barrier,” he says. “When I came here for the first time 20 years ago, I didn’t speak English at all. Zero. That’s the simple reason. Also, there’s an invisible wall between the East and West. It’s getting thinner and thinner and lower and lower.” He does feel that the environment has changed enough that it’s more possible now than ever. “The labels used to have much more power to promote,” he explains. “But now, basically the audience, people can pick what they want. Because of social media, Internet and everything.”
As the film rolls, feeling for the members of X Japan is easy. While the band became explosively popular quite quickly, much of the group’s material was shaped by the death of Yoshiki’s father when he was barely 10 years old. His father’s suicide shaped much of his worldview and his pondering on his father’s demise was a subject frequently tackled in X Japan’s lyrics. The movie shows how the fellow band members didn’t even spot the connection because Yoshiki went so many years without opening up about it. Even vocalist Toshi, who Yoshiki has been friends with since kindergarten, didn’t realize. Add to that the 12-year stretch Toshi was trapped in a brainwashing cult and the tragic deaths of principal members hide and Taiji, the band has suffered in ways that seem oddly unfair. It would be hard for anyone, but did Yoshiki really want to share these personal details with the whole world?
“I didn’t want to,” he says pensively. “I have an agent in Los Angeles, actually at William Morris Endeavor. His name is Marc Geiger, he’s the head of music. He’s been a friend of mine as well as our agent. We were out for dinner and he said, ‘Yoshiki, you have to create X Japan’s film or documentary because that story is crazy. It’s very rock and roll. It’s beyond rock and roll.’ And I know that, but it’s so hard to open the door for me. So it took almost five/six years to open the door. And then finally I say, ‘You know what? I’ve been thinking thinking, kind of haunting me. Should I tell people or not? Japanese people know what’s going on. Not everybody knows every single aspect though.’ Then I said like five years later, ‘You know what Marc? Let’s do it?’ Then once we decided to open the door, why not open the door all the way.”
Even though it would have seemed like a hard area to approach, director Stephen Kijak had no problem probing into the darkest parts of the band’s story. “It actually wasn’t, because we knew we had to,” he explains. “And to be clear, these are pretty large plot points in the arc of this band. There’s an element where they almost become part of the mythology.” How the band’s music helps them persevere made it necessary. “We knew we had to just go right in there because that’s going to crack this open and show you this very vulnerable, damaged, human side to these men who are soldiering on through their art to save themselves and carry on through music,” he says.
Another aspect that is positively painful to behold is how Yoshiki’s relentless drumming, composing and piano playing has taken an immense toll on his body. Numerous scenes show him either playing at concerts to the point of total collapse or visiting doctors trying everything from physical therapy to injections to reduce his pain. He recounts in the footage how both drumming and piano playing causes him pain in different areas of his arms. After so many years of such physical duress, Yoshiki has apparently not considered taking a break to give his body time to recuperate. “Eventually my body is going to deteriorate,” he admits. “That way of playing, you know. I’m also a composer. I compose classical music as well. Maybe like 10 years from now I’d just become a composer, just write a symphony or something like that. I like actually doing that too. While I have this body. I don’t know how long it’s going to last. I’m going to try to keep going.”
The span of X Japan’s members lives covered throughout the film is comprehensive to say the least. All phases of the band’s career are well represented including both behind-the-scenes personal moments and their on-stage, public life. Often music documentaries can have trouble finding enough true video footage to fill time, but not so for this movie. “Yoshiki has a warehouse of his own archive,” says director Kijak. “When you have an artist that’s so organized—like the Stones are like that—they handed me an archive log that was 800 pages long. The challenge was just pouring through it. Some things were labeled very well. ‘Oh look a thirty-camera shoot of nine different concerts.’ And that to me is a dream come true.”
As evidenced by the cameras preset at the interview with Yoshiki his actions have always been well documented. “He has people following him around for years just filming everything,” Kijak recalls. “I saw one string of archive tapes that were preparations for a big Tokyodome show. Someone was filming him while someone else was filming them filming him, and they all run into another camera crew. There’s constant surveillance and documentation. [Yoshiki] joked that his mother said to some record executive, ‘Film everything because he might die tomorrow,’ and they took it seriously.” They even found lost footage including behind-the-scenes moments from a David Lynch directed video. “There was nothing on the log,” he explains. “It was just like ‘Yoshiki document take 1 – 20’ with a random date. I went, ‘What are those tapes? Let’s look through these for kicks.’ And there’s David Lynch and Yoshiki nude on a beach.”
The film focuses on the band’s big 2014 headlining show at Madison Square Garden in New York City, a big moment for them in the Western world. Diehard fans of the band will know that initially the plan was to release X Japan’s first new as-yet untitled album in twenty years on March 11th, 2016 and then the very next day play their headlining show at Wembley stadium along with the premiere of this film. This was easily big enough to be their next career highlight in the West. Then, in the ramp-up to completing the new album, X Japan guitarist Pata was hospitalized behind a life-threatening blood clot. The album and the show both had to be delayed. When asked if there is any update to both Pata’s health and the completion of the X Japan’s new album, Yoshiki is incredibly forthcoming.
“His health is improving slowly but surely,” Yoshiki says. “We can’t really say when he’s going to be 100% recovered. But we are moving forward. Some members are playing his part as well as recording. I’m even playing too. I would say the record’s going to be out this Fall. Then we want to go back to [regular] activity to tour and performing somewhere around the same time. Pata may not be able to join in full on stage, because I also don’t want to give him any pressure. When he went to the ICU, and that was January 16th this year, some of the members were in a recording studio in Los Angeles. So Toshi, the vocalist, and Sugizo, the guitar player, were in the recording studio. We were trying to finish the album. We were working almost 24/7. Then we heard the news, Pata is in the ICU. ‘Can I talk to him?’ We couldn’t even get to him.”
“He was in the ICU for one week,” Yohiki continues. “One week later his manager says, ‘Yoshiki, He wants to talk to you.’ Then Pata was saying, ‘What should I do about Wembley? What about Wembley?’ I said, ‘What are you talking about?’ ‘I need to do Wembley.’ All he could think of was Wembley.” The doctor detailed there was no way Pata was physically able to proceed until he healed. “So I talk to the doctor,” Yoshiki recalls. “‘He has a blood clot. There’s no way we’re going to let him travel on airplane. He can get to Wembley. He may even be able to do something but he’s never going to come back. That’s the end of his life.’ I said, ‘I can’t do that.’ There’s no way I’m losing another member.” His guidance for Pata was to maintain his recovery as long as it took. “So I said, ‘Pata forget about Wembley. Well, we can’t forget about it. But as the leader of the band, I’ll take care of it. Even though I’m going to get all the blame for anything. I’ll do that. Pata, concentrate on fixing your body,’” he details. “I don’t want to give him any pressure. X Japan will start this October touring again. It may even happen that he can join on a few songs. We might have to have a support member.“
Yoshiki emphasizes Pata’s spot will always be held for him. “His spot is always reserved no matter what,” he says. “He’s there. Our member and family.”
Yoshiki also indicates the new album is progressing and that one particular song is drawing the majority of his focus right now. “There’s a song called ‘Kiss the Sky,’” he explains. “When you create the album as a rock band, what are we aiming for? Big hit? Most popular song on the radio? Do you want to fans to like the songs? Should we be happy? I think of all those things. Also being on social media some people say, ‘Yoshiki, I need to hear another heavy song.’ Some people say, ‘Another beautiful ballad!’ Of course I try to listen to it all but I came up with an idea, a conclusion. I just want to write what I want. The song called ‘Kiss the Sky,’ I pretty much listened to everything, at the same time ignored everything. This is the song that should be here. It’s 10 minutes long. Super heavy part. Super soft. Symphony’s there. Orchestra’s there. That’s the song I’m finishing up.”
He goes on to reveal that he considers this upcoming album, “the most edgy album we ever made.” He clarifies that edgy means, “Experimental. Also, [it] may not fall into just a hard rock category,” he details. “I’m very confident. It’s going to be 20 years from the last album. The last album was Dahlia. Dahlia was 7 years apart from the previous album, which was Jealousy. When we released Dahlia, I was doing a bunch of interviews. ‘Yoshiki, what do you think about the new album?’ He pauses and then says with a shrug, “OK.” He warmly laughs before continuing, “The record company was Warner, ‘Yoshiki, please say something positive.’ ‘Yeah, but it’s kind of a mediocre album.’ I was very honest about it.” Pressed about why he didn’t think it was excellent, he calmly states, “You know there was some good songs, but just too predictable. But this time, I’m very confident.”
Does Yoshiki feel like this is the best album X Japan has ever done? ”I think so,” he says without hesitation. “I mean, I usually don’t say. I’m very honest about my music. Even though it’s my creation, I say, ‘That song is bad.’ But this one is very strong.” He indicates that every song being recorded was culled from hundreds of written tracks. He says there is no filler on this album. “Every single song has a meaning,” he says.
While fans worldwide anxiously await the completion of the new album, the We Are X film currently making the rounds on the film festival circuit, is a cohesive and eye-opening look at the band’s history and state of mind. There’s so much content that some major aspects of the story, such as vocalist Toshi’s immersion into a brainwashing cult and subsequent escape are only briefly touched upon. That story alone could have been enough for a full-length movie. One major aspect of his exit from the cult did make it into the film as Yoshiki and Toshi recently discussed their reunion after many years of being separated in Los Angeles back in 2006.
“Very recently Toshi published a book called Brainwash Comeback From 12 Years of Hell where he talks about the whole thing,” Kijak explains. “Yoshiki only recently read it. And it was only now this last year or so that he’s realizing what Toshi went through. So he was learning things. So we’re filming them talking to each other and Yoshiki is then interviewing in a way going, ‘When you came to see me all these years ago, were you still brainwashed?’ Toshi’s like ‘Oh yeah, yes. They were calling me all the time.’ He’s going, ‘My god. I had no idea.’ It was pretty stunning really.“
“It was a moment when they connected again,” Kijak continues. “And through a song Yoshiki had written for the band but after the band had broken up, ‘Without You,’ that they play together at the end of the movie. He wrote the song with Toshi’s voice in his head but there’s no more band, there was no more Toshi. Oh well. This song goes on a shelf. Until that day Toshi comes to L.A. Toshi said, ‘You played that song for me and I actually felt something again.’ It found the old Toshi in there. It kind of opened him up. He said he cried. He felt human again.”
One gem that did not make the final cut was Kijak’s meeting with Hello Kitty designer Yuko Yamaguchi. Yoshiki indeed has his own Hello Kitty character called Yoshikitty. Kijak emphatically explains, “We’re in Tokyo. We managed to get into her office. She drew me a Yoshikitty and talked about the creation of this character and what it meant. Yoshiki’s inspired by Hello Kitty as a global brand. He only wishes he was as successful as Kitty is. As a Japanese export, it dominates the global consciousness. Everyone knows who Hello Kitty is. To be sitting in a room with her and drawing Yoshikitty was amazing. It’ll probably be a viral extra bit we’ll leak out on the Internet.”
As the film runs the press circuit and Yoshiki puts the finishing touches on the band’s new album, also on the horizon is a digital adaptation of Comic legend Stan Lee and Yoshiki’s comic book Blood Red Dragon. Yoshiki explains, “POW! Entertainment, Stan’s company, we are creating a digital version of Blood Red Dragon. We are pitching for a TV show or something like that. Everything is moving forward,” Yoshiki states. He’s uncertain whether he would voice the title character though. He says with a laugh, “I’m not sure. My English is not good enough.”
One thing is for certain, the world of X Japan and Yoshiki’s solo endeavors feels like an undiscovered continent. The film We Are X and the band present to the world with the same wonder and surprise that Rodriguez did in the amazing documentary Searching For Sugarman. They embody a whole mythology with a deep, evolving story, both affected by the fans that love them so and affecting the fans on a personal level. It’s one where the music has grown greatly over time and has managed to cover multiple styles powerfully. In a hyper connected world, where nearly everything feels strip-mined to the point of exhaustion, it’s incredible to find a joyous slice of the music world somehow not strangled for every last inch of life. And what’s more, it’s a portion of the world somehow wide open, honest and willing to greet new visitors. The door’s open. Come on in. Stay a while. You are welcome here.
All live photos where not indicated otherwise by Raymond Flotat