Spank The Monkey reviews a new documentary telling the story of Japan’s most unGoogleable rock band
If you know Japanese popular music at all, it’s probably because of its idol culture: the shiny girls and boys like Kyary Pamyu Pamyu churning out pop as disposable as they are. Sure, other genres of music exist, but in the West we only tend to see them filtered through the idol prism. In rock, for example, we have the relentlessly hyped Babymetal, whose combination of fetish-dressed young girls and heavy guitars has made them mainstream enough to support the Red Hot Chili Peppers on tour. (See also: the now defunct LadyBaby, a bizarre combination of two girl vocalists, a transvestite death metal singer, and a series of songs promoting Japanese culture. Turn on the subs for that video if you don’t believe me.)
But rock still exists in Japan, albeit in a variety of subgenres we don’t get over here. And the biggest rock band in the country has been going, on and off, for 35 years now: an outfit that started out calling itself X, but subsequently changed its name to X Japan for the sake of everyone’s sanity. You may not have heard of them, so it might surprise you to learn they’re headlining a 10,000 seater show at London’s Wembley Arena this weekend: and also that the show coincides with the brief theatrical release of We Are X, an English-language documentary covering the band’s history.
X was formed in the early 80s by two schoolfriends: vocalist Toshi, and drummer/pianist/songwriter Yoshiki. From the start, they stood out from the run of Japanese pop. Yoshiki’s songs, driven by his hyperspeed drumming, had a degree of aggression that the country hadn’t seen before. But on top of all that came the image: X took the New Romantic and punk rock looks coming out of London, and exaggerated them till they looked like they came from another planet. The costumes and makeup were toned down as they got older, but there’s no denying X’s influence on an entire generation of bands, effectively giving birth to the Japanese glam metal genre they call Visual Kei.
X Japan carried on doing this until 1997: then they stopped: then they started up again ten years later. That, basically, is the dramatic arc of We Are X, assembled by director Stephen Kijak from contemporary footage and new interviews. Yoshiki is the primary focus of the film, as the main creative talent of the band: most of his insights come from a series of interviews performed in the runup to X Japan’s 2014 show at Madison Square Garden. He’s a thoughtful interviewee, although occasionally maddeningly reticent when it comes to dishing out the serious dirt. Irritatingly, his English speaking voice – slightly accented, with occasional slips in grammar, but otherwise perfectly easy to follow – is constantly accompanied by English subtitles. It’s a technique frequently used in documentaries, and it always feels patronising towards the subject. (Though not as much as it does in the 2004 rockumentary One For The Road, where English subtitles are used throughout to help people struggling with the apparently impenetrable accent of Squeeze’s Glenn Tilbrook.)
You might know Stephen Kajak from his documentary of a few years ago, Scott Walker: 30 Century Man, an attempt to get under the skin of one of pop’s most reclusive figures. For me, one of the things the film did best was explain the greatness of Walker’s music, using an incredibly simple device: filming people in close-up listening to it, and getting their real-time reactions. (The mixture of awe and bewilderment on Lulu’s face as she hears Farmer In The City is worth the ticket price on its own.) I mention this because We Are X has no real equivalent: sure, we get to hear quite a bit of Yoshiki’s music, but we get no explanation as to why it’s touched people so deeply. In the West, rock bands with a classically trained frontman and an overblown sense of visual presentation are ten a penny. There’s no evidence here of what sets X Japan apart from the rest of those.
The closest we get is a fan who suggests that Japanese listeners associate their personal suffering with that of the band: because in their 35 years as a unit, the members of X Japan have had their fair share of hard times. It’s to Kajak’s credit that he doesn’t use these tragedies in a manipulative way for cheap emotional effect: frequently, he’ll withhold information or use foreshadowing to lead us gradually to a revelation, rather than just surprise us with it. The defining moment in Yoshiki’s childhood that turned him away from classical music, for example, is obliquely introduced, and it’s not until an hour into the film that one more detail reveals the impact it must have had on the boy. Similarly, the reason for the band’s ten-year hiatus is initially touched on by a casual remark in an American radio interview, positioned in the film to generate the same ‘wait, what?‘ reaction that it does in the interviewer.
The history of X Japan is full of stories like this. Not just sad ones: there’s also Yoshiki’s description of how he nearly quit music altogether after the band’s split, only to change his mind when the Japanese Emperor asked him to write a piano concerto for his anniversary, like you do. To a Western audience unfamiliar with X Japan’s music, it’s the twists and turns of the band’s story that keep it interesting, to the extent that the film’s blatant attempts at creating artificial jeopardy by hinting Yoshiki’s health might give out just before the New York gig feel rather tacky.
We Are X feels like a film intended to introduce the band to a new audience, rather than being a present for existing fans. I don’t think it really pulls that off at a musical level, but the story is a fascinating one: if you enjoy the sort of rise-and-fall rock documentaries that make up most of BBC Four’s Friday night schedule, then this is one with a couple of wrinkles you might not have seen before.
We Are X will screen in cinemas across the UK for one night only on Thursday March 2nd, with a home video release to follow on May 1st.
X Japan will perform live at the SSE Arena Wembley on Saturday March 4th.