X Japan in the U.S.: From Anime Conventions to Lollapalooza to a North American Tour

Saturday night, X Japan will play live at The Wiltern. It will be the band's first full concert in Los Angeles ever. This is despite the fact that the band initially formed in the early 1980s and went on to become one of Japan's greatest rock acts, launching the visual kei movement in the process.

Yoshiki with Stan Lee at The Yoshiki Foundation America party, July 1, 2010
Yoshiki with Stan Lee at The Yoshiki Foundation America party, July 1, 2010
Shannon Cottrell

Though Saturday's gig is the first date of X Japan's North American tour, the band made their official Stateside live debut earlier this summer at Lollapalooza. (Jonathan McNamara of our sister paper Phoenix New Times was at Lollapalooza and wrote brilliantly about it in "X Japan Is the Biggest Rock Band in Their Homeland -- Can They Finally Break Through in the States?")

"That gave us confidence to keep going," said founding member Yoshiki, who plays drums and piano as well as writes much of the band's music, of the festival performance when we spoke on the phone last week. "Towards the end, the people tripled or quadrupled."

Though easily described as a metal band, probably the best way to get an idea of X Japan's sound and performance style is to hear Yoshiki talk about his early influences.

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"I like KISS when I was a kid," he said. "David Bowie. There was a band called Japan from England. I liked those bands, musically and how they looked as well. Also, I liked some punk."

He continued, "I think the combination of those things inspired us."

X Japan may have a lot of hard-edged guitar riffs, but the band is also melodic with orchestral elements. They are visually arresting with a gothic-inspired appearance. That Yoshiki has collaborated on a clothing line with popular Japanese designer H. Naoto and has his own jewelry line should come as no surprise. The band is well-known not just for its sound, but for its on stage style, and the visual kei groups that followed owe a lot to X Japan for bring such dramatic looks to hard rock arena stages.

X Japan broke up in the late 1990s, after years of success in their native county, and the surviving members (guitarist Hide died in 1998) reunited a decade later. Still, it took another few years for them to launch a tour of the U.S. and Canada.

Yoshiki of X Japan at The Yoshiki Foundation America party, July 1, 2010
Yoshiki of X Japan at The Yoshiki Foundation America party, July 1, 2010
Shannon Cottrell

In the beginning of 2010, it had become obvious that X Japan would be making a play for a larger U.S. audience than the already diehard one they had acquired over the decades. Back in January, they filmed four music videos between downtown Los Angeles and Hollywood. Photographer Shannon Cottrell and I were invited to step behind-the-scenes at the Los Angeles Theatre. (See "Exclusive Behind-the-Scenes Peek of X Japan's Video Shoot for 'Jade'" and "Exclusive Behind-the-Scenes Photos of X Japan's Video Shoot".) The response from fans on the blog post was incredible, just one of many signs that people wanted to see more of X Japan.

For X Japan, though, the wave of recent promotion hasn't simply been through music outlets. Last May, the film Yoshiki History Through X Japan screened at Anime Central in Illinois. Later in the summer, members of the band appeared at Otakon, a major U.S. anime convention held annually in Baltimore,

On July 1, The Yoshiki Foundation America, which raises funds to bring music to ailing children, held an event adjacent to Anime Expo that featured a fashion show from Yoshiki's line with H. Naoto as well as a brief acoustic set from the band. We were at the event and it was packed largely with people who had attended the anime convention earlier that day.

In the U.S., the connection between X Japan and anime fans is undeniable.

"We have the same fan base," says Yoshiki of his band and anime cons. "[Anime fans] are very special. They are very passionate and enthusiastic. So, we would love to have more of those fans."

Yoshiki also noted that he is "working on several animation projects," though he can't reveal what those are yet.

(Trivia: In our interview, Yoshiki said he watches series like One Piece, Naruto and Bleach.)

X Japan is by no means a band whose biggest appeal is to anime fans, though. Like many other Japanese musicians, they've been able to make inroads through the convention scene, where thousands (and, in many cases, tens of thousands) of young people are gathered. The crowd already has an established interest in Japanese pop culture. They're also as tech-savvy as they are passionate. For X Japan, it was the fans who ultimately helped spread the word through blogs, social networking sites and online forums. In mixing convention appearances with a major festival show and now a tour, the band has sparked a cross-fandom buzz that has made tomorrow night's show one of the most anticipated music events of the year.

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