X Japan as seen in We Are X (Drafthouse Films)

X Japan in We Are X (Drafthouse Films)

X Japan is the premier Japanese metal band. A mélange of thrash, glam, and symphonic rock, it’s as if Metallica and Poison had a baby and raised it on a steady diet of Beethoven. It’s impressive music—virtuosic, grandiose, and deeply intense. Yoshiki and his boyhood friend Toshi put the band together in the early 1980s before calling it a day in 1997.

The film countdowns to a 2014 reunion concert in Madison Square Garden. However, the documentary really centers on the band’s leader, drummer/pianist/songwriter/conceptualist Yoshiki, a frail, fragile ghost of a man. Haunted by his father’s suicide, he’s compelled to turn his pain into something cathartic. His mother relates a story that his childhood doctor told her that it would be a miracle if he lived past 10. We see him at 50, getting cortisone shots in his arm, wearing a neck brace in concert, and generally suffering for his art in the most physical way possible. Watching him perform is something in itself. He happens to be a powerful, precise drummer who gives so much of himself in a performance that he has to be helped off the stage.

The film is directed by Stephen Kijak, who recently made Jaco, an exquisite film about another tortured genius, jazz musician Jaco Pastorius. Kijak did not come to X Japan as a fan but as someone who knew little about the band. What results feels like a mutual discovery. Kijak is learning about the band as we do. X Japan has a history that ranks with the best of VH1’s Behind the Music subjects, and Kijak manages to make the band’s experience seem fresh. He does this by focusing on the personalities—rather than on the circumstances the bandmates find themselves in—and on the effect the group has had on its audience. After one member committed suicide, the footage of mourners reminded me of the reaction to the death of Kurt Cobain here in the West. That’s how much this band means to a large segment of Japanese youth.

There are spots here and there that drag. There is a 10-year band hiatus where Yoshiki states he was aimless and drifting, and boy, can you tell. Meanwhile, Toshi’s story during that time, which is so extraordinary that it could take up another documentary by itself, lifts us back up to the band’s inevitable triumphant return.

We Are X ultimately accomplishes what a good music doc should. It has a very compelling subject that makes you want to know more about the music, and it is very, very good music.

Directed by Stephen Kijak
Released by Drafthouse Films
English and Japanese with English subtitles
UK/USA/Japan. 95 min. Not rated