“To create some kind of art, I don’t think you should be in a normal mental state of mind. It’s a war.” – Yoshiki, X Japan’s drummer, pianist and composer.
As this is an anime website, it is probably best to start with something that most people here may be familiar with. Chances are that if you are familiar with the rock band and “visual kei” pioneers X Japan, it is because of their work connected with Clamp’s manga X. The 1996 film version used the band’s song “Forever Love” as their theme and in 1993 a series of short films was made featuring artwork from the manga set to the music of X Japan. More recently, in 2011 they composed and recorded “Scarlet Love Song”, which was used as the theme for the anime film version of Osamu Tezuka’s Buddha.
If you are wishing to know more about any connection between X Japan, Clamp and Tezuka however, then this film may not be for you as there is no mention of it. However, don’t let that put you off. First of all, this documentary film, We Are X is brilliant. Secondly, now is a better time than ever to look at this band, who are releasing their first album in over 20 years in March to coincide with a concert at Wembley.
We Are X tells the story of X Japan primarily through the band’s frontman Yoshiki, who plays the drums, the piano, and is the principle composer of the band’s songs. The backdrop for the film is a concert at Madison Square Gardens in October 2014, and it tells of the band’s origins, successes, failures, break-up and reunion. Perhaps the best comment on the band is made by Gene Simmons of Kiss who says that if the band was from either the USA or the UK, “they might be the biggest band in the whole world.” Among other notable names featured in the film include late Beatles producer George Martin; co-founder of Marvel Comics Stan Lee; other rock musicians from the west including Wes Borland (Limp Bizkit), Richard Fortus (Guns N’ Roses) and Marylin Manson; and other Japanese rock bands such as MUCC, Ladies Room, Luna Sea, Dir En Gray and Glay.
The best way to sum up X Japan is this: if Spinal Tap were real, they would be looking at X Japan and be exclaiming: “How come their drummer’s still alive?!” Whereas some musicians perform music about love or sadness, with Yoshiki his music appears to be about pain, and he has gone through a lot of pain both emotionally and physically. When Yoshiki was ten his father committed suicide; two more members of the band died by their own hand – bassist Taiji hanged himself after he was put in a cell over an air-rage incident, while lead guitarist hide’s death was reported as suicide at the time, although Yoshiki believes the death was a result of a drunk misadventure while doing a neck stretching exercise; the band broke up for a decade after the singer Toshi was brainwashed by a cult; the London concert that is happening in March was meant to happen last year, but had to be postponed after the guitarist Pata had to be rushed into intensive care; and Yoshiki himself has so many physical injuries it is a miracle he can still perform. Years of constant head banging while drumming has resulted in a deformed neck bone, so he has to wear a neck brace while performing otherwise his neck might snap. Also, he has such bad asthma that he needs oxygen tanks backstage because he has so little air in his lungs while performing, and is often on the verge of death during gigs.
The film details the struggles they had previously trying to break into the English-speaking world, with a failed attempt to make an English-language album back in the 1990s when the band itself was going through some trouble.
This is something that it has to be said is still true today. If you include the forthcoming sixth album, only three of X Japan’s six studio albums are legally available to download via iTunes. The other three albums are not available over here, and the only way you can get them is to import the CD or record from abroad. Also, while certain aspects of modern Japanese culture like anime are popular, Japanese music is not often appreciated. Visual kei is a rather obscure movement in the west and most people don’t know about it. I think the biggest way of showing the lack of attention to any music from the Far East, is that most people are only aware of one single song, and that’s “Gangnam Style”, which is more famous for its comic dancing than the actual music.
But what makes me really angry is that while the film has been recognised by some organisations such as the Sundance Film Festival, it hasn’t been recognised by other more notable institutions. I thought We Are X was bound to be nominated for an Oscar, namely “Best Documentary”. In the end, the only Oscar it was considered for was “Best Song”, and it failed to become a nominee. Not only that, but two of the songs in that category both come from the same film, La La Land. How is it fair for one film to be nominated twice in the same category? Mind you, this is the same category that in 2014 thought that the best song in all cinema that year was “Let It Go” from Frozen, so arguably you could say they dodged a bullet there.
However, X Japan certainly deserve to be better known, simply because they were the first heavy metal act to make it big in Japan, and to a mainstream audience. It is thanks to them that other rock and metal bands were able to make it. Plus, like X Japan, other Japanese rock bands have occasionally had the odd brush with anime too – examples include The gazettE, who provided music for Black Butler, and Buck-Tick whose music has been used in shows like Trinity Blood, xxxHolic and Shiki.
If there is a downside to the film, it would be that I question the need for there to be subtitles whenever any of the Japanese people in the film speak English. Most of the time they seem to be speaking perfectly well.
We Are X is available on exclusive Steelbook and DVD on 22nd May. http://wearexfilm.co.uk/