November 7, 2016
Movie Monday: We Are X
Yet like many foreign bands, especially those that don't sing in English, they've never found mainstream success in the US.
We Are X is a British documentary framed by X Japan's concert at Madison Square Garden on October 11, 2014. It starts with a glimpse of the successful concert, then delves into how the band got there. Yoshiki remains the focus, but each band member gets some time in the spotlight (except for new guitarist Sugizo). Most of the strife facing the band in We Are X is Yoshiki's health problems, including asthma, a torn ligament, tendonitis, and more. It is only toward the end that the deaths of lead guitarist hide and former bassist Taiji are addressed.
There's very little of X Japan's actual music in We Are X. If you aren't a fan, don't expect to get a real sense of their sound, as only tiny snippets are ever played. (And no snippets of my favorite song, "Silent Jealousy".) In fact, a sense of X Japan at all is hard to grasp. For all the focus on Yoshiki, he is a reticent subject in interviews. He can be poetic about his musical journey, but many questions get simple, intriguing answers that he refuses to give a follow up on. (The reason Taiji was fired remains a secret.)
There are some moments of intrigue that will draw viewers in, such as the decade the vocalist Toshi spent in a cult that brainwashed him to believe X Japan's music was demonic. This moment is teased early in We Are X, then more fully explored in the section about Toshi.
I found We Are X to be a frustrating documentary, too shallow for fans and too disjointed for newcomers. The chronology is all over the place, and not much is done to help viewers sort out the timelines or keep the various personalities straight. Stan Lee, Gene Simmons, and Marilyn Manson are all introduced as Yoshiki's fans and American champions of the band, but there's no insight given into what brought them into X Japan's orbit.
The documentary is beautifully shot and edited, with a sense of style more often seen in art films. Archival footage of the band is used to show their more colorful years, and it is genuinely affecting to see lingering close-ups of hide in his last live performance with the band in 1997. There is plenty within We Are X to encourage viewers to explore more deeply into the band's history and discography.
This is a documentary that shows even without sex and drugs, rock n' roll can take a physical and mental toll on musicians. It also explores the question of how such a talented, successful band can fail to break into the American market. Many interviewed scorn America's closemindedness to music not in English; X Japan just laments their inability to learn how to sing in English natively.
X Japan is a fascinating band that deserved a feature documentary. I wanted more from We Are X, and I'm not sure if my high expectations doomed my watching experience from the very beginning. Still, I'm glad it got made and that it's popularity at Sundance has helped bring more attention to X Japan.