Friday, October 7, 2022

Stephen Kijak Profiles Unstoppable Japanese Metal Musician Yoshiki Hayashi in We Are X

This review originally appeared in Bob Ham's Portland film screenings newsletter Daily Projections on November 21, 2016.

(Stephen Kijak, 2016, USA/Japan, 101 minutes)

Over the years, a few Japanese acts have found some degree of American success, from Boris to Peelander-Z. Until recently, however, X Japan were their country's best kept secret. Now they're playing major US venues, but they're still hardly a household name. Stephen Kijak (Scott Walker: 30 Century Man) uses their 2014 concert at Madison Square Garden as a structuring device for a look back at their rollercoaster career. 

With their glam-punk "visual kei" image and thunderous metal sound, it's hard to understand why they didn't cross over sooner. Gene Simmons, a native Hebrew speaker, blames it on a reluctance to sing in English. 

In their early days, they looked and sounded like a symphonic speed-metal cross between Hanoi Rocks and Metallica. Kijak tracks their rise to fame along with the Badfinger-sized setbacks that befell them in the process. 

He concentrates primarily on soft-spoken band leader Yoshiki Hayashi. The drummer, composer, and producer grew up as a sickly child, but he excelled as a classical pianist. Losing his musically-inclined father to suicide when he was 10 years old, however, made him angry and suicidal until his mother bought him a drum kit on which to bash out his frustrations. 

Yoshiki formed X in his teens, signed to CBS/Sony at 20, and then pulled the plug in 1997 after singer Toshimitsu Deyama, aka Toshi, a friend since preschool, left to join the Home of Heart cult. Things would get worse in the years to come, so much so that fans rioted in the streets in response to the more tragic developments. Several even attempted suicide (three died). 

If the band's reformation has allowed them to finish what they started, Yoshiki, who performs in a neck brace due to excessive head-banging, admits that he's in constant pain from tendonitis, carpal tunnel syndrome, hyperthyroidism, and other ailments. During the course of the film, he visits a specialist and receives a series of pain-relieving injections. 

As in his Scott Walker documentary, Kijak offers no details about Yoshiki's sexual orientation or romantic history, which plays more like a decision than an oversight. If he recounted Jaco Pastorius's relationships in the very fine Jaco, co-directed with Paul Marchand, that may be because he didn't need the bassist's permission to make a film about him (authorized biographies of living figures often come with strings attached). Whether the androgynous Yoshiki is attached or otherwise, Kijak gives the impression that music takes up so much of his time that there's little room for a partner of any kind.

If Kijak's documentary hits a few familiar beats along the way, it's hard not to be moved by emotional footage of fans across the world finding solace and support in the absolutely unstoppable Yoshiki's life's work.

We Are X, a Drafthouse Films release, is available to stream through Google Play, YouTube, and other digital pay operators. Images from Drafthouse / The New York Times (Yoshiki Hayashi),, and Vudu.

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