Friday, October 28, 2016

‘We Are X’: Soulful Documentary of Japanese Heavy Metal Band

The band X Japan in the 1980s, as seen in the documentary "We Are X." Photo: Drafthouse Films
As a kid, Yoshiki always wondered if he were from somewhere else — like Mars.

A misfit child scarred by his father’s suicide, Yoshiki, trained in classical music, grew up to become a David Bowie-like man who fell to Earth. He revolutionized heavy metal music in Japan and, still going at 50, is trying to break into the American consciousness.

Stephen Kijak’s documentary “We Are X” is a broad but surprisingly personal portrait of Yoshiki and his band, X Japan, which formed in 1982, broke up in 1997 and re-formed in 2007. The band began a push into the U.S. market about five years ago, and interviews include American friends and fans such as Kiss front man Gene Simmons and Marilyn Manson.

 The film is a rush, all right, but it’s also a soulful look at Yoshiki, who although rarely without his dark glasses, still seems very revealing. He recalls as a young boy finding his father’s body. That day his life changed forever, and would fuel his painful creativity. He tried channeling that creativity into his classical piano training, but he finally found his calling in heavy metal — on drums.

Yoshiki’s pain is the overarching theme of the documentary, and not just emotional pain. Yoshiki claims to be in constant physical agony, with carpal tunnel syndrome (for much of the documentary, his wrist is wrapped up) and back and neck pain from his all-out drumming style. In one scene in the documentary, he visits a physical therapist in the U.S.

He also, for a while, ended nearly every concert by collapsing; finally, his band arranged for oxygen tanks to be available after each performance.

You could say Yoshiki has given his life to his music. He is extremely prolific, with dozens of albums and thousands of performances over the years, including this week at Mezzanine in San Francisco’s South of Market neighborhood. Yet there seems to be no trace of a true personal life, not in this documentary and not in a brief surf around the Internet (he has never been married and has no children, apparently).

That might contribute to his God-like status in Japan, where he revolutionized popular music in the 1980s and is still a formidable figure. One heavy metal singer popular in Japan says in the film, “There’s a mountain we all have to climb. It’s called Yoshiki Mountain.”

Johnson, G. Allen. "'We Are X': Soulful Documentary of Japanese Heavy Metal Band." SFGate. Accessed October 28, 2016.