Film Review: We Are X

A startlingly intimate portrait of enigmatic X Japan drummer Yoshiki that goes far beyond the typical rock doc.
Specialty Releases

Music docs come in all shapes and sizes, and while the films about the journey to success of well-known rock acts are perfectly fine, We Are X approaches its subject matter from an entirely different perspective.

Having sold 30 million records worldwide, Japanese rock gods X Japan have influenced dozens of other Japanese bands with their mix of musical styles that might be classified as hair metal going by the band’s early look with big hair and lots of makeup, which originated a musical style in Japan known as “Visual Kei.” Unlike similar-sounding American bands like Mötley Crüe and Megadeth, X Japan’s audience isn’t just made up of drunken 40-year-olds trying to relive their youth, but rather a rabid fan base of teen Japanese girls completely devoted to the band since they signed with major label Sony in 1987.

Much of that is due to the band’s enigmatic drummer and primary spokesperson, Yoshiki, a classically trained piano virtuoso whose thrashing drum technique often leaves him completely drained during the band’s live shows. Yoshiki’s fatalistic outlook on life, which he takes to an almost spiritual level, opens the film with a speech about life and death over a beautiful piano riff, perfectly setting the mood for the rest of the doc.

Directed by Stephen Kijack (Cinemania), We Are X follows Yoshiki and the band’s current incarnation in the days leading up to their most high-profile American concert to date at New York’s Madison Square Garden. Despite being a documentary, it’s almost better going into the film not knowing too much about the band’s history, so you can learn about it as you watch. This won’t be a problem for 99% of the Americans who might see this film without ever having heard of X Japan beforehand.

In some ways, this film can be viewed as the polar opposite of the 2008 doc Anvil: The Story of Anvil, which was about an unknown band that gets a big break by being brought to play in Japan. We Are X, in contrast, is about a hugely famous Japanese band trying to break an American market after decades of success.

Kijak’s film tries to cover the band’s somewhat convoluted history, including a good deal of Yoshiki’s childhood friendship with the band’s singer, Toshi, something that’s put to a real test when Toshi falls into the grips of a brainwashing cult that causes the band to break up for more than ten years. Yoshiki himself was a shy and sickly child whose father committed suicide when he was very young, something that’s continued to haunt him for decades, as two former members of the band also took their own lives. This is the cross Yoshiki continues to bear just as X Japan is reuniting and trying to get back to where they were before the breakup.

Probably one of the more interesting aspects of the band is their devout international fan base, who show up for concerts dressed in similarly outlandish garb as their heroes. The filmmaker talks to them as well as Japanese music critics and the bands influenced by X Japan to get a rounded overview of the influence the band’s music has had on different people.

Kijack’s secret weapons for the film are his film editors and those responsible for some of the graphics, which perfectly fit in with X Japan’s visual sensibilities as well as their sometimes schizophrenic music. Live, they might perform an emotional power ballad one moment, then a thrashing metal tune the next.

We Are X provides plenty of reasons to be interested in X Japan, but more than anything else it’s obvious they have a lot of great songs and know how to put on an entertaining show, which hopefully will convince Americans to give them a chance when they kick off their next attempt at making it here in 2017.

Click here for cast and crew information.