Yoshiki is sitting with Marilyn Manson, Sofia Vergara and Joe Manganiello. Behind them is the entire Gene Simmons clan. They are at the movies, at the premiere of We Are X, the documentary based on Yoshiki and his band, X Japan.
If you're not into Japanese rock and the names Yoshiki and X Japan aren't familiar to you, you are not alone. Within the first half-hour of watching We Are X, however, you’ll be asking yourself, “How did I not know about these guys?”
Yoshiki is, inarguably, the most famous entity in Japan, and his band shares similar celebrity. Both an accomplished classical pianist and a formidable drummer, Yoshiki has his own Hello Kitty doll, Yoshikitty; his own comic book series from Stan Lee’s Pow! Entertainment and Todd McFarlane, Blood Red Dragon; and he scored the theme song for the Golden Globes in 2012.
His group, X Japan, out-glams any hair metal band, giving them a run for their Aquanet and Maybelline. Formed in 1982, X Japan took the visual aspects of '80s metal to the next level, creating a music and cultural movement in Japan called “visual kei.” They have sold upwards of 30 million albums and singles.
All of this is covered in We Are X. More than a rock documentary, the film is about friendship, grief, the humans behind the make-up and masks, and the people they indelibly touch. To quote KISS’s Gene Simmons in the film: “If those guys were either born in America or England and sang in English, they might be the biggest band in the world.” To paraphrase Simmons when he introduced Yoshiki at the premiere: “KISS can play one night at the [55,000 capacity] Tokyo Dome. X Japan can play one week.”
KISS was the first concert Yoshiki attended and Love Gun was the first album he bought, something he shares with We Are X’s director, acclaimed music documentarian Stephen Kijak (Stones in Exile, Scott Walker: 30 Century Man, Backstreet Boys: Show ‘Em What You’re Made Of). Prior to taking on the project, Kijak had no knowledge of Yoshiki or X Japan. Soon after meeting and flying out to experience X Japan’s Madison Square Garden warm-up shows at the Yokohama Arena and seeing 20,000 fans “X-jumping” with glow sticks and shouting “X” in unison, Kijak was an instant convert.
“Part of the appeal was it was a total blank slate,” Kijak says. “I can discover along with my audience. There’s so much depth, so much tragedy, so much hair and make-up, so extreme, and the fandom is a specific kind of extreme, like a prayerful worship. The hysteria around these guys, I haven’t seen anything like it before.”
Kijak provides a truly intimate portrait of Yoshiki and as much as possible, X Japan. In return, Yoshiki allows the cameras into his personal life, from doctors' appointments where he receives injections to ease the physical pain of his performances, to graveyards where he prays for friends and family, to one scene in which he walks off stage and straight to brushing his teeth in his dressing room. He also opened up about all the tragedies that have surrounded him over the years, including his father’s suicide and the death of two bandmates.
“I didn’t want We Are X to be a horror film,” says Yoshiki, who has been a Los Angeles resident for 20 years. “I didn’t even want to make this film. It’s very hard for me to go over sad memories. I said yes because people surrounding me convinced me it would help others and give them the courage to move on and move forward. I thought that was a great reason. I want to give people hope. Whoever watches this film, I want them to feel positive, at least toward the end.”
We Are X includes tons of footage from the band’s 30-plus-year history, in part thanks to Yoshiki’s mother, who was convinced that he wouldn’t live very long and wanted to capture as much video of him as possible. “That was a trip,” says Kijak. “Yoshiki has massive archives. The archive log is as thick as the Bible. Every major concert was filmed with 20 or 30 cameras. I could literally pull apart almost any live show and edit it to our purposes.”
“Once I opened the door and told [Kijak] he could use any of the footage, I decided not to care about the small details,” says Yoshiki, referring specifically to behind-the-scenes footage of himself naked on a David Lynch video shoot. “If I was going to change one thing, then I would change another thing and another thing until the end.”
Even more memorable than We Are X's many glimpses behind the scenes are all the moments depicting the deep mutual respect between Yoshiki and his fans. We see him bowing to all the fans he encounters, his hands held in prayer position, staying that way until the fans have walked away from him.
“I wouldn’t have survived without music and without my fans,” says Yoshiki. “These fans supported me unconditionally throughout all the years I wasn’t doing the band or anything. Because of our fans, I still exist.”