We Are X Stephen Kijak

We Are X Stephen Kijak
Photo by Hideo Canno / Courtesy of Sundance Institute
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Yoshiki describes the act of creating art as "war," and that couldn't be more clear when watching him perform. As the co-founder, main composer and otherworldly drummer of X Japan, he manifests complex compositions that fuse classical music, metal and arena-ready rock 'n' roll. By the end of most X shows, he's played piano lines so difficult that his wrists need medical attention. His main live duty is the drums, however, and he usually pummels his equipment so fast and hard that he collapses onstage and must be carried out.

There's simply no denying Yoshiki's drive, but after all of these years (and 30 million albums sold) X Japan are hardly a household name in North America. We Are X succeeds in rectifying this, showcasing the band's storied legacy and singular sound while they prepare for their first live appearance at the familiar rock-doc mecca of Madison Square Garden.

X are pioneers of Japan's "visual kei" rock scene, a genre of music that's big on theatrics, makeup and theatrically made-up hair. Unlike American counterparts KISS, whose main musical export is good-times rock 'n' roll, Yoshiki's arrangements stem from a deep internal pain both physical and emotional. Aside from his many bodily ailments, Yoshiki's father committed suicide when he was a young boy, and he's never really recovered emotionally.

Yoshiki's story is one that he's (almost literally) dying to tell, and director Stephen Kijak mostly rises to the occasion. Having completed culture docs on everything from creepy cinephiles (Cinemania) to Scott Walker (30 Century Man) and the Backstreet Boys (Show 'Em What You're Made Of), Kijak has proven that he knows his way around any kind of story.

If anything, there's just too much story to be told in a standard runtime. Yoshiki first met his lifelong friend and vocalist Toshi when they were both four years old. They formed the band at 17 in 1982, and by the time they called it quits in 1997 they had reached an unprecedented level of fame in Japan. When they finally disbanded, they provoked a series of suicide attempts along with at least one death — their beloved guitarist hide.

The reason for X's departure? Toshi was brainwashed by a cult. His exit and reutnr is discussed in the film, but feels far too tangential considering its inherent intrigue. Similarly, the other members of X could use a little more screen time, particularly bassist Taiji who was booted from the band (we never learn why, though Google suggests it's because he asked for more money) and later took his own life. That's not to say Yoshiki isn't a suitable protagonist. Aside from his role in the band, he speaks in parables and often gets choked up about his painful past.

Another niggling problem with the film is its subtitles, which feel a little thrown together. Not only are the English translations occasionally awkward, but there were a handful of real typos onscreen, including the words "Toyko" and "dissappear," and a lower-case spelling of "english." These are minor quibbles, to be sure, but they distracted from the film's extremely slick production value.

The only reason these small complaints are worth noting is because We Are X is an otherwise outstanding rock documentary. Long-time X fanatics will marvel at the storytelling and behind-the-scenes access, while newcomers will leave theatres with a new favourite band. (Passion Pictures)