We Are X is the latest documentary by director Stephen Kijak, who is known for music documentaries such as Stones in Exile and Backstreet Boys: Show ‘Em What You’re Made Of.
It recounts the incredibly dramatic story of X Japan, “the biggest metal band you’ve never heard of”. You would be completely mistaken for thinking that this is a typical heavy metal biopic of endless head banging fuelled by drugs, alcohol and high octane rock’n’roll antics. It rather is a poignant tale of untold tragedy and friendship.
Over the course of 3 days, we follow X Japan as they get ready to perform for the very first time in Madison Square Garden. Yoshiki, the drummer, pianist and enigmatic leader of the band gradually bares his soul and shares his amazing story.
It’s a very honest depiction of the light and shade that makes up the rich tapestry of life.
I caught up with Stephen and Yoshiki, as We Are X was being previewed in London on the 2nd of March.
Stephen, what was your motivation for making this documentary? Did the fact that you are, as described in your biography, a “lapsed” drummer have any influence whatsoever on your decision?
Stephen: I actually did not know anything about them until my producer introduced me to the idea of making this film. So I started from nothing. The fact that as a kid I played drums was kind of a nice connection. I think Yoshiki and I got our first set of drums around the same time and we both owned the same first record, which was ‘Love Gun’ by Kiss. So even though I did not know X Japan, I thought that we started on an equal footing, because despite our cultural distances, there was some communality to start with.
Given that X Japan is so huge in Japan (they have sold over 30 millions records), I’m rather surprised that no one else had made a documentary about them before you did!
Stephen: Well, Yoshiki had initiated a project, but maybe he can tell you more about how it came about…
Yoshiki: Actually, the reason why we have all those historic footages available which are part of the documentary, is because almost 20 or even maybe 25 years ago, people approached us to create a film, Sony records were actually amongst them. But eventually, the vocalist left the band and then the guitar player, Hide, passed away. At that point, we stopped the project, because it was too painful to carry on with the whole thing.
10 years later, Toshi, the vocalist came back to the band. And immediately, people started approaching us, asking if they could make an X Japan documentary. It wasn’t really going to happen as we had just reunited the band. A few years later, my agent in America urged me to go for it. But I thought it was still too painful to do so. Later on people started saying that my story could help to change people’s lives. I thought that maybe, we could do this. So basically, we almost had 20 years of people approaching us to make a documentary, but we never really made it. So this is really our first one.
Why did you choose to make this particular one? Do you think that one of the reasons might have been that it came at just the right time in your career?
Yoshiki: You never know when the right time really is, but I thought we might as well go for it this time…
Stephen: Well, I think the fact that the band was going to play Madison Square Garden was a great launching point for us to start making the film. It’s a milestone in their career and with the new album on the horizon, it’s time to tell people their story. It’s one thing to do a film that is strictly promotional to try and sell a record but this was so much bigger than that. Even if you just want to sell more records, people are going to have to know more about you, but not just the name or the image. In order to create empathy with a band like this, for people to get beyond those cultural barriers, a film is a great way to do that, if it’s done well. And it has to stand on its own in order to communicate to people who have never heard of them. So I think that the timing in that respect is also really good.
It seems to me that a part of the success of the film is due to the closeness that developed between you and Yoshiki. How much time did you spend together for the making of this documentary?
Stephen: The filming unfolded over the course of a year. Yoshiki sat down for 5 or 6 different interviews. We were not together every single day for a year but what you have to understand is that when Yoshiki agreed to do the film, I did not have to break through a lot of barriers as it was his choice.
We had to get to know each other and build trust. He opened the door to us, allowing us in, and as you can see from all the archive footage, he is very used to having people filming and cameras, so there was an ease to that. And then I think that the interview process almost became like a kind of therapy for him. It was a long process but necessary.
Considering the hugeness of X Japan, I found Yoshiki’s openness very refreshing. But it could also have gone the other way, where he maybe could have remained rather distant, which would have resulted in a very different kind of documentary. Can making an intimate film such as this one be a bit of a gamble?
Stephen: Yes, it’s always a risk. As I said, we knew we had to take full advantage of Yoshiki’s initial openness to the project and get as close as possible. Especially with this movie, we wanted to contrast the immensity of the success and the spectacle with something very close and intimate, almost creating a shock for the viewers as they might not be used to or expecting to be pulled in closely to an artist like Yoshiki, but we needed to do that. And yes, we locked up!
The soundtrack for We Are X was released worldwide on March 3, 2017 via Sony Music’s Legacy Recordings (a division of Sony Music Entertainment) and is available for pre-order now at AMAZON.
We Are X will be released on DVD, Blu-ray and digital formats on Monday, 1st May 2017.