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We Are X and So Can You

I guess the hands are as good a place to start as any. If you’ve watched any J-Pop or K-pop concert footage, you’ve seen it: the unison motion, usually with a lightstick in each hand, waving out the beat like tens of thousands of airport ground crew workers. As the night crept forward at Makuhari Messe, the cavernous concert hall about an hour outside Tokyo that played host to the 2016 Visual Japan Summit, and the bands got bigger and more beloved, the lights multiplied, turning the floor into a giant, glowing, pulsating metronome.

The move is one of many things likely to confound westerners at a festival like this. The acts on stage belong in varying degrees to the proud Japanese tradition of Visual-Kei: a bombastic mix of hair metal and glam rock that originated in the mid-’80s. The music is loud and hyperbolic; many of the musicians sport some combination of over-the-top anime hairstyles, ruffled sleeves, and dusters. But the crowd is markedly undebauched, even those whose ensembles rival their idols’. This was a genre that supposedly liberated a generation from a notoriously conformist society, but to American eyes, there are very few signifiers of rebellion on display. The beer line is suspiciously expedient.

There are few westerners to be found in Makuhari this weekend, aside from the group of thirteen glazed-eyed journalists in the VIP section, of which I happen to be one. We’ve been flown out from Los Angeles, New York and London to watch the headliner, X Japan, often billed as one of the country’s biggest and most important bands, play the final set all three nights at the Visual Summit. And watch them we will: all three nights. Some of us arrive well-versed in the band’s oeuvre and that of their mercurial founder/composer/drummer/pianist Yoshiki, some of us arrive clueless. (I’m somewhere in between, but more on the clueless end of the spectrum.) All of us arrive jet-lagged. I’d guess that most of us leave as X Japan fans. It would be very hard not to. Three nights.

I imagine we look pretty conspicuous up here on the risers, looking down at the passionate crowd from seats that I’m told cost $600 a night. We’re not doing the hands thing, for one. It’s not just because we didn’t pack light sticks—many fans without them make do by moving their hands and splaying their fingers palms up on the beat, as if they’re sending beams of energy toward the stage. There is no headbanging, though the music, especially that of X Japan, seems to beg for it. There’s very little of what I would call dancing, or really any noticeable self-expression. It’s almost as if the point of Japanese rock and roll is the bands.

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As with any country, there is a Japan that foreigners are supposed to see, and a Japan that it would perhaps be easier to not have to explain. Someone has decided that it’s time for the world to see X Japan. (“They sent you out for that?” an American expat asks with disbelief one night at a tiny bar in Shinjuku, while we wait for the cartoonishly drunk bartender to decipher our check.) This is not the first time someone has decided this—every seven years or so you can see scattered evidence of efforts to expand the band’s global audience. The first attempt was in 1992, following an ill-fated U.S. record deal with Atlantic. More recently, the band reunited after a decade-plus hiatus and played Lollapalooza in 2010, then went on a brief U.S. tour.

This time around, they’ve come equipped with the self-promotion tool of choice for any artist hoping to make it big in America: a narrative. We Are X, a documentary by director Stephen Kijak (Scott Walker: 30 Century Man, Stones In Exile*), premiered at the Sundance Film Festival earlier this year and is currently playing at select theaters around the country. The film, which bears Yoshiki’s distinct but not unwelcome editorial imprint, conveys so much of what has been lost in translation in previous attempted American takeovers. Part of it is the unmistakable and enormous talent of the band’s members. Part of it is historical context, and the sheer visual shock that these guys represented at the peak of bubble-era, 80-hour workweek salaryman Japan. Part of it is the avalanche of tragedies that have befallen the group over the years.

X Japan was formed in 1982 by drummer and pianist Yoshiki Hayashi and singer Toshimitsu Deyama, when they were still in their teens. In those early days—and for many years to come—Yoshiki was trying to make sense of the death of of his father, who committed suicide when Yoshiki was ten. Rock music, particularly X’s brand of breakneck, death-obsessed speed metal, became his release. The band’s first self-released album, Vanishing Vision was released in 1988, featuring their most well-known lineup: Tomoaki Ishizuka (“Pata”) on the rhythm guitar, Taiji Sawada on bass, and the beloved, heartbreakingly charismatic Hideto Matsumoto (“Hide”) on lead guitar. Their major-label debut Blue Blood was released in 1989 and soon thereafter came mainstream fame—and its attendant problems.

Hot-headed Taiji was fired in 1992 for what was officially called “musical differences” — he would later commit suicide in 2011, a year after a brief reunion with the band. Toshi’s recruitment into a “self-development seminar group” led to his disavowal of his rock star lifestyle and a huge rift between him and Yoshiki. (He later claimed to have been brainwashed by the Home of Heart organization, who had also taken over management of his solo career and left him bankrupt.) This led to the band’s eventual dissolution in 1997—in an era when they were still selling out the 55,000 seat Tokyo Dome on an annual basis, but when Visual-Kei was waning in popularity. Five months after their final concert, Hide was found dead in his home in Tokyo, an apparent suicide. The national outpouring of grief was enormous. In gut-punch of tragic irony, after years trying to get a foothold in American media, the story made the New York Times. Three fans died in copycat suicides.

The images from Hide’s funeral are extreme, but they’re a testament to how much a generation of fans imprinted upon the band. They were symbols of freedom — emotional, aesthetic — in a time when everything in Japan seemed to revolve around money and efficiency. They made it OK—cool, even—to be self-contradictory: Yoshiki and Taiji were wearing pearls and lipstick on stage at the same time they were banned from multiple Tokyo bars for getting into fist fights. Perhaps Japan was a bit late in getting their Bowie or Ozzy, but the impact was comparable. When they announced their reunion, and played their first shows in over a decade in 2008, the fans were still waiting for them—three back-to-back nights, over 150,000 tickets in total, sold out in seconds.

That’s all in the past though, and X wants America to love them now. Now that they’ve mostly toned down their look in favor of elder rock statesman black leather, now that it’s been twenty years since their last album. Now that rock—especially any rock that couldn’t be described with some variant of the word “chill”—is considered dead in the United States. Past efforts to sell middle America on Yoshiki have emphasized how famous he is, how passionate his fans are. But the finer nuances of celebrity and genius are hard to translate, and fandom can look impenetrable from the outside. Maybe, if X wants Stateside fans, they should send as many Americans as they can afford to Japan for three consecutive nights of concerts, all expenses paid.

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It had been ten minutes since X had been scheduled to take the stage, and Makuhari was vibrating with repeated chants of “We Are — X! We Are — X!” I wandered out of our dismal little press tent into the backstage area while the rest of our group was waiting to interview vocal X fan Gene Simmons, who was due to make a surprise appearance that night. But I didn’t want to miss the beginning of the set. As I entered the staging area (there were 19 bands playing that day, and nearly as many makeup stations) I saw a scrum headed toward me. I clutched my all access pass, put my head down, and let it sweep me up. Seconds later, jostling alongside cameramen and handlers, I saw him for the first time in the flesh: Yoshiki.

Here are some things you must know about Yoshiki before we continue.

• Yoshiki has a race car team
• Yoshiki is the first celebrity to have a Hello Kitty character made in his image. (KISS are the only others.)
• Yoshiki has a line of Visa credit cards adorned with his face
• Emperor Akihito commissioned a symphony from Yoshiki in 1999, in honor of the emperor’s 10th anniversary on the throne.
• My grandma knows who Yoshiki is. When I went to visit her one morning at her condo in the Tokyo suburbs, I told her why I was in Japan, in my hacky Japanese. “Ah yes, I know them,” she said, with a gasp of understanding, then scrunched up her face. “But I cannot listen to them.”
• Yoshiki is shockingly delicate in person, willowy like a supermodel. If you had never seen him drum before, you’d fear for him in a strong breeze. He’s suffered from asthma and general sickliness since childhood, and in We Are X his mother says she was told that he would not make it to adulthood.
• You cannot stop looking at Yoshiki, because he’s unreadable. He wears wraparound toffee-colored sunglasses that completely obstruct his eyes whenever he’s not on stage. He has an eerie composure, like he’s not experiencing time the same way everyone else is. Never could he be mistaken as just Some Guy, even in L.A., where he lives more or less full time now in peaceful anonymity.

I had been swooped up in the middle of a photo shoot, with the members of X Japan as well as co-headliners Glay and Luna Sea. There was lead singer Toshi, getting the collar of his leather jacket propped up just so. There was guitarist Sugizo getting his auburn swooshy hair fluffed.

When everyone was in position, all fell quiet except for the clicking of shutters and chirping camera flashes. I was standing beside one of three tall, thin, perfectly coiffed European model types who always seemed to be within 20 feet of Yoshiki, bottles of water at the ready. As the shoot began, she turned her face away from the flashes, her hair falling in a shiny curtain on one side of her face, a demure move that it looked like she’d done hundreds of times. I once read about the outrageous efforts that friends, significant others, and even assistants of Asian pop stars sometimes made to maintain their anonymity and avoid the wrath of fans. If it looks like stratospheric fame and it smells like stratospheric fame, it tends to feel indistinguishable from stratospheric fame, certainly when you’re this close to it.

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It’s easy enough to become a rock star, but you can’t inspire the devotion of a generation of fans if the music doesn’t make them want to sign over their lives to whoever made it. X Japan makes that kind of music; this was abundantly clear from the chugging guitar line of “Jade,” their 2010 comeback single, which they opened with all three nights. “Jade” is enormous, its potential silliness canceled out by how generous it is. It’s made to be sung along to, from the front row at Makuhari, or in the car after a stressful work week. Its English lyrics are torn from a tear-stained diary, its chorus melody is National Anthem material.

X Japan doesn’t really do party anthems or raunch. Even apparent fuck-offs like the 1991 single “Standing Sex” are dead serious in their pursuit of deviance. (Sample lyric: “Slash, slash, let me slash / Boredom, tasteless life”) The m.o. of X Japan, even as the members reach their 50s, is unrelenting intensity, and that doesn’t leave much room for jokes or drunkenness or anything less than virtuosic performance. (Taiji’s dismissal from the band is a point of much speculation, but alcoholism is believed to have been a factor. Ability certainly wasn’t.)

One thing that may have stuck out at this point: Yoshiki, though the figurehead and primary creative force of X, is not the lead singer. This isn’t super unusual in Japanese bands; Luna Sea was founded by its bassist and rhythm guitarist, who wrote most of their music—but vocalist Ryuichi still wrote the words he sang. The majority of X’s words and music are penned by Yoshiki and Yoshiki alone. This shift in the band’s balance of power, from the microphone to the drum kit, ends up distributing power more evenly among all its members, whether or not they’ve poured their blood or tears or vision onto the page. When the fans point their light sticks or stretch their palms out toward the stage, they’re sending support not just to the visionary leader, but to Toshi and Sugizo and Heath and even the conspicuously un-showy rhythm guitarist Pata, who gets extra cheers during each night of Visual Japan after recovering from a blood clot scare that derailed a world tour scheduled for earlier this year.

It’s paradoxical: Yoshiki acts the part of rock auteur from the sunglasses on down, and his on-stage melodrama has become legend. Everything about Yoshiki is at 11; even while wearing a neck brace necessitated by a headbanging injury, he still drums hard. (You can tell his body still desperately wants to headbang, so when the Jumbotron zooms in on him, his face is contorted in a smile-grimace like those photos that they take of you on a roller coaster; an unstoppable force hitting an immovable object.) But X Japan clearly remains a team effort, not just a vehicle for one member’s artistic indulgences. And that’s reflected in the crowd, who are not there to get sloppy and live out a personal debauched rock and roll fantasy, but to show their respect and to be part of a fabric of waving lights and open palms, giving back to the band that has meant so much to them for so long.

When Yoshiki does get behind the mic, it’s at the end of “X,” the Blue Blood track that’s both a mission statement and the epitome of their speed metal roots. While they play the song, images of Taiji and Hide shine on the screen, and the audience wails their names, many in tears. The images remain even as the song winds down and Yoshiki steps down from the drum platform, comes to the front, and leads the crowd in a screaming, arrhythmic, call and response of “We Are — X!” I’d seen this happen in the film, but didn’t realize that in the flesh, it went on for what I’m guessing was five minutes but could have been twenty. The arena is awash in droning guitar feedback and the flutter of the kick drum, and Yoshiki and Toshi stalk the stage in a kind of sweaty tandem fugue. When the spirit moves them, they full body scream: “WE ARE!” and the crowd responds with their crossed arms held high in the ubiquitous “X” sign. As it goes on, the exchange starts to take on the air of a revivalist church service, or a mass exorcism—a cleansing ritual in the face of all the sadness the band has endured. It usually ends when either Yoshiki or Toshi have blown out their voices.

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On our last night in Tokyo, our passenger caravan wound its way to Akasaka, a staid, businessy neighborhood north of Roppongi, and pulled to a stop in front of a sparkly new shopping plaza with a Dean & Deluca on its first floor. We’d been herded around with minimal explanation so many times at this point we knew better than to ask where we were being taken. We just dutifully followed Yoshiki’s manager up several escalators, through the strangely empty mall, until we reached a tony French spot that Yoshiki had shut down just for us.

“Yoshiki wants to thank you for coming all the way out here, and for your patience and understanding this weekend,” Yaz, the manager, announced as we took our seats. Whatever she was apologizing for I no longer cared about; I’d joked to one of the other reporters that after three days of jet lag and late nights and lack of food in the press tent, our weakened psychological state made us perfect recruits for the cult of X Japan. When we finally met Yoshiki face to face, we’d probably all start crying and trembling and kissing his wrist guard.

Jokes, but still: at this point I hadn’t just drank the Kool-Aid, I was taking a four-day soak in an ofuro full of it. I had started welling up the day before while listening to “Jade” on the train ride to see my grandma. My critical question at this point was not “can X make it in America” but rather “What is wrong with America that X isn’t already huge there?” I’d been around so much Japanese, all day every day, and brushed up on my own in preparation, that the language barrier seemed as inconsequential as the brand of Yoshiki’s drum sticks. Never mind how many times we’d been told that Rain or Girls Generation or whoever was going to be the next big thing in the states—that was K-Pop, shamelessly manufactured and cynical, always doomed in a country that’s still deeply rockist despite its best efforts at pretending otherwise. X was recognizably human and loud and intense and often embarrassing, and how exciting was that compared to whatever light-trap-beat pitch-distorted-vocal ad-ready sub-tropical three-minute song creation team was being dubbed the “New Halsey on Beats 1?

My head was already swimming with hunger when Yoshiki arrived, still with his quiet intensity and Caucasian model entourage, stopping to accept the exhortations and repeated bows of the restaurant’s flustered manager before sliding into his seat. Someone had decided that I should sit next to him at dinner, and I found myself suddenly bone-tired and nervous and relieved to see the wine coming. I moved aside so he could take his seat, and after thanking him for everything, I asked, dumbly, if he came here often.

“I don’t remember, actually,” he said.

Here are a few more things you should know about Yoshiki:

• Yoshiki’s voice is incredibly soft. This may be from hoarseness (see: “We Are—X!“) but it also feels like a soft talker power move. It works; we all lean in, rapt.
• When you finally shake Yoshiki’s hand, it, too is incredibly soft—especially for a drummer—and room temperature like a vampire.
• The wine? Yoshiki has—yes, you know what I’m about to say—a wine label. Y by Yoshiki wines retail for about $65 a bottle on Rakuten. While sipping the 2008 Cabernet, Yoshiki guessed it would cost $200 a bottle at the Ritz Carlton. It was a pretty nice Cab!
• Yoshiki is a medical marvel. I asked him about his shoulder and wrist—and We Are X details the painful deterioration of both—and got some off-the-record details of the wacked-out celebrity experimental medical procedures he’s undergoing. Lucky for him, and me, I’d had several glasses of Y by Yoshiki by then and can’t remember any specifics.
• Yoshiki kept his sunglasses on throughout the entire meal.

“I’m always thinking about the past,” he told me earlier in the day. “Actually—was. I was kind of stuck in a painful moment for a long time. But after the film, I can think of a future more.”

I tell him that he seems like he’s in better spirits than Kijak leaves him in the documentary—that in his on-stage collapses he’s smiling; that it’s no longer a painful display. “I’m very positive [now.] And I feel very good after the film,” he says. He told Newsweek earlier this year that he cried ten times during the film’s Sundance premiere. “When I watched everything—if you combine everything, it’s a pretty new experience, actually … It’s too crazy to be a true story.” In a way, he says, the project with Kijak has clarified what X is, and why it’s worth it to keep playing as long as possible. “I appreciate every single moment of what we do at this point,” he says. “So that means I’m much stronger than before.

“I wish I found out how lucky we [were] much earlier,” he says, finally, in almost a whisper. “Before Hide’s death, before Toshi’s brainwashing. Yeah.”

As the dinner went on and Yoshiki stopped paying attention to our end of the table, I started chatting up his assistants, who sat quietly at a separate table with his manager and publicist. One girl was from Russia, the other from Belarus. The girl from Belarus had come to Japan to study abroad, and had been modeling in Tokyo when she got the gig with Yoshiki. She must have been 22, she was fluent in Japanese. I wanted to ask her a million questions: What is your life? How did this happen? What is it like to spend your waking hours as the shadow of this deeply internal, haunted rock vampire?  But then Yoshiki sent her out to the car to get his vitamins.

After Yoshiki left us, one would have expected a sense of the sun sinking below the horizon, but instead there was a sudden surge of energy. That’s because we knew that the only thing left to do was karaoke. We had to sing X Japan for ourselves. We certainly knew the songs well enough by now, and while it would have felt weird to shed our veneer of objectivity and sing and wave along with the fans at Makuhari, the safety of a darkened booth would liberate us. Another writer and I agreed: we had to sing “Jade.” Because we were beautiful. Our scars were beautiful. Like the jade.

But as we piled into our room and ordered the first of many rounds of tequila shots and Kirin, we made a disappointing discovery. The karaoke control pad was indecipherable without using the English mode. And in English mode, X Japan was nowhere to be found.


*Correction: An earlier version of this piece said that Stephen Kijak directed Searching For Sugar Man. That film’s director was Malik Bendjelloul. It was produced by We Are X producer John Battsek.