With face-melting guitar riffs, blistering drum solos, towering hairdos, and a ravenous fan base, X Japan is undeniably one of the boldest and best known Japanese rock bands in the world. As such, it was only a matter of time until the flamboyant rockers had a documentary made about them — which is exactly what happened at this year’s Sundance Film Festival. Director Stephen Kijak’s We Are X is a glitzy, sleekly edited chronicle of the band’s current iteration as they prepare to play Madison Square Garden in New York City. Much like the band itself, We Are X is a visual feast, careening from one spectacle to the next at an almost breakneck pace. Yet unlike its subject, We Are X‘s charms are merely superficial, eschewing meaningful exploration of the band’s history and pivotal moments in favor of sparkling generalities and meaningless platitudes.
Just in case you’re not in the know, X Japan is an essential part of Japanese rock ‘n roll history, particularly in the development of visual kei, which is basically the Japanese equivalent of glam rock with an anime bent. Big hair, loads of makeup, elaborate costumes — the whole nine yards — and X Japan had them in spades. Formed in 1982 by teenage pals Yoshiki (the band’s de facto leader, as well as its keyboardist/drummer/composer) and Toshi (golden-throated lead singer), X quickly found success. Six years into their existence, they released their first record, Vanishing Vision, which blended punk aesthetics with speed metal to create something louder, more abrasive, and catchier than anything else on the Japanese scene. Yet as the band’s revolving door lineup changed over the years, so did their sound, adding in more symphonic elements and lugubrious lyrics to the driving guitar riffs and thunderous blast beats.
Like any classic rock ‘n roll story, with success comes sorrow — something to which X is no stranger. As mentioned, the band’s lineup constantly fluctuated over the years, and not always for pleasant reasons. In 1992, bassist Taiji left the band over “musical differences,” which were purported in his autobiography to have been over a widening income gap between Yoshiki and the other band members, something the doc does not address. What the film spends more time on is the rift between founding members Yoshiki and Toshi, the latter of whom left the band to join a cult, resulting in the group going on a decade-long hiatus. As if that weren’t bad enough, two of the band’s seminal members, Hide and Taiji, committed suicide. These deaths and departures had a profound impact on the band, but equally tragic is the fact that we never gain any real insight into it. Though these horrible events are treated with appropriate solemnity, little is revealed in the one-on-one interviews with band members as they remain impassive and ambiguous.
Though we see the band rise above these personal and professional tragedies, one can’t help but feel that we’re getting a carefully curated, mostly anesthetized overview of one of the most important bands in modern Japanese musical history. While that may not come as a surprise to some, what will raise an eyebrow or two is the fact that, according to the press materials, director Stephen Kijak had never heard of X before taking the job to make the film. That isn’t to say that he is unqualified to make the film — quite the opposite given the director’s filmography, which is laden with rock docs — but it does feel hollow. Rather than welcoming us into the band’s world, We Are X feels like we, the viewers, are always being kept at arm’s length, standing behind a security barricade like the screaming fans at X’s sold-out shows. For those who are unfamiliar with the band, We Are X provides a solid, albeit shallow entry point into their weird, wild world. For diehard fans or those looking for a true rock-doc experience, this plays like a greatest hits record with a couple of tracks missing.
Rating: 3 out of 5 rockin’ burritos
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Image: Mitch Schneider Organization PR, Sundance Film Festival