Film Review: ‘We Are X’

We Are X Sundance 2016
Courtesy of Sundance Film Festival

This glossy, superficial doc profiles the three-decade-plus existence of Japan's premier metal band.

Nearly as long-running as the U.S. punk-rock band from which their geographic designation distinguishes them, X Japan have been a huge success on their home turf for nearly three decades. But they’ve never really conquered America, something “We Are X” treats as a mystery, but which is pretty easy to explain: Their brand of highly theatrical glam metal was considered passe by the time they first attempted to conquer these shores in the early 1990s. Stephen Kijak’s documentary duly captures the many pyrotechnical, elaborately groomed moods of their “visual rock,” but this glossy history feels like another highly packaged stab at world domination. No doubt a major event for fans, this very authorized, unrevealing look is unlikely to win any new converts not already inclined toward instrumental-solo-heavy prog metal, lachrymose power ballads and ’80s-style hair bands.

Childhood schoolmates Yoshiki (drummer/keyboardist/principal composer) and Toshi (lead singer) were still in their teens when they formed X in 1982. Six years later their first album was released, reflecting an early emphasis on punk-influenced speed metal that soon expanded to encompass dollops of strings, piano and other sweeteners — no doubt a big factor in their success in a market that previously had limited use for heavy music. So did their doll-like personal presentation, with sky-high coifs and no mascara spared. But despite soon reaching enormous popularity, there were problems: A permanent rift with bassist Taiji, and a long-term one with Toshi, whose 1997 departure under the influence of a cult (not named or otherwise detailed here), suspended X Japan’s existence for a decade.

These and other crises are treated with solemn import, but little real insight — the band members (often shot in heroic, full-on-rock-star postures) aren’t about to dim their carefully constructed mystique by offering much in the way of down-to-earth personal disclosures. This comes off as more than a bit evasive, since two past members committed apparently suicide — surely something a documentary ought to address more penetratingly than the subjects allow here. Other omissions are just silly, as when the pic shows two young blonde women who seem to constantly be in Yoshiki’s orbit, yet shrinks from telling us what their professional or private roles (even their names) are.

The film is structured around the days leading up to the current edition of X Japan playing Madison Square Garden — a climactic triumph that seems as thoroughly stage-managed as anything else here. (It’s worth noting, as the film’s publicity materials do, that the docu’s own American director, a rock-doc specialist, had no idea who the band was before being hired to the project.) One can admire their showmanship (also glimpsed in plentiful archival PA, concert and music-video clips) without embracing the humorless, sometimes near-messianic grandiosity of their image, which “We Are X” dutifully reproduces in pseudo-verite form. Packaging is sleek, pacey and colorful.

Film Review: 'We Are X'

Reviewed at Sundance Film Festival (World Cinema — competing), Jan. 23, 2016. Running time: 93 MIN.

Production

(Documentary — U.K.-U.S.-Japan) A Passion Pictures production in association with PrettyBird Pictures. Produced by John Battsek, Diane Becker, Jonathan McHugh, Jonathan Platt. Executive producers, George Chignell, Nicole Stott, Patrick Nugent. Co-executive producers, Kerstin Emhoff, Andrew Ruhemann.

Crew

Directed by Stephen Kijak. Camera (color, HD), Sean Kirby, John Maringouin; editors, Mako Kamitsuna, Maringouin; music, Yoshiki; sound, Theresa Radka, Adrienne Wade, Avi Zev Weider, Adam Drakewolf, Marc Hoppe, Dustin Pero, Alex Ramirez, Robert Bourke; re-recording mixer, Mark Rozett; supervising sound editor, Trip Brock.

With

Yoshiki, Toshi, Pata, Heath, Sugizo, Taiji, Hide. (English, Japanese dialogue)

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  1. shinnokina says:

    Reviewer knows shit about visual kei or Japanese music history or anything beyond his narrow-minded American musical taste but feels entitled to lecture us about it. Dude, at least do some research before reviewing something you have no foundation to review. Like, open the wikipedia article and READ. Or at least try to understand it before speaking.

  2. Kongfuzi says:

    First if you had any measure of understanding of the bad you would realize already that they did begin to break into America just before hide died. Second and perhaps more to the point of your lack of knowledge and your inability to keep from spewing nonsense out of your mouth like a elephants ass post laxatives: they do not dress that way anymore and haven’t for a very long time.

  3. zaiten says:

    I find it kinda suspicious how Yoshiki is the sole fixture in all trailers, events and media coverage. Pata, Toshi, and Heath are nowhere to be found. Unlike Billy Corgan or Dave Mustaine’s band, he’s not the sole remaining founding member of X Japan, these guys where there from the beginning. They are conspicuously absent and it seems undignified to me. It’s one thing being bandleader or benevolent dictator but this is overthetop.

    • Ljufa says:

      From watching over the years, I think they just don’t want to be in that spotlight. I’d like to know more about them and hear more about them, but they’re just people…like anyone else. It’s something to question, but I wouldn’t call it suspicious. The band is Yoshiki’s love and I believe he greatly values everyone he asks to be a part of it.
      “Yoshiki: First of all, all X Japan members were leaders of the band. I wanted to have the strongest band. I was always looking for the strongest characters.”

      • germanback says:

        shinnokina, Ljufa, you’re both right. I hadn’t thought of that and I can’t disagree. Although Pata was there before their debut Vanishing Vision and Heath was a mid-life member replacing the defunct Taiji right before Art of Life, neither would contribute anything if they are as reticent as you pointed out. Thanks for replying, I was looking forward to the blu-ray release since October and I hadn’t noticed it’s been out for a month.

      • shinnokina says:

        Toshi was there from the beginning, yes, but Pata and Heath especially, were not. Also, the latter two are not very talkative in interviews, either, why do people think they would suddenly open up and tell their life stories? Toshi gets his fair amount of screentime in this, but Yoshiki has alwys been the most open about his feelings, so from a filmmaker’s point of view, thats what you can use as material. What are you going to make a film about? Pata’s one liner yes or no answers to questions? I love the guy to bits and pieces but you cannot make a film about someone whose willingness to talk to you equals zero. He LITERALLY answers yes, no and I don’t know to most questions Kijak asks him in the DVD extra interviews. Heath also evaded questions about his life like the plague. They don’t want to sare it. Deal with it.

  4. Nathan Stars says:

    this review sucks,visual key and glam metal IS NOT THE SAME.

  5. apluslovemblaq says:

    gosh you are such an simpleminded ignorant person who tries to look smart giving school homewoork/like reviews on something that he/she even did not understand and look onto from another angle. this is Asian band and movie about Asian band who changed the music and Japan in those crazy ’80 and ’90 years and stayed the hostory and memory and example for future generations. This isn’t your thypicall Hollywood or EU movie about nothing that you could speak mountain of things about quallity about story line about that that etc.. this is just a story of an ARTIST. it’s not a band in genre like in USA and Eu consider bands in music. in asia and in Japan especially all of them are artists and X JAPAN was art beyond words for its time and until today. so yeah their story is dramatic is revolutinoary they aren’t vulgar they are romantics and natural creatures, humans as artists. we know how much humour they can get, and this movie absolutely didn’t need that this was just their history which was painful, and they can’t smile in the movie and act like idiots, they are grown up men who oercome many obstacles and hardlifes working in the field of music of emotions of stage of performance of creation and interraction with fans and music lovers over the world.
    your review is stupid and values nothing, you better listen to some X JAPAN music and watch their performances and interviews and other things and you’ll understand then what this film is. it’s not for entertaiment. it’s the memory on something they was and they meant for Japanese especially and then to the rest of world and that they are still here moving towards the light of music.

    I don’t know why we white people try always to define something into pieces and quallity and something and something which doesn’t matter if there is the big picture of greatness that you can feel when you know that music, band, story etc. why making it like a theory from school book? O.o

  6. AIKO Kobayashi says:

    Is there anything who professional writer need to understand about what is X Japan’ history more! He gave us some wrong information in the ‘Variety’ famous media.
    I’ve seen the band for more than 20 years, their movie is exactly truth beyond doubt!! The audience were moved by Yoshiki’s graceful piano performance at ASCAP music cafe.
    In the ASCAP Official video here, anyone can feel the audience applauded for Yoshiki’s beautiful talk and piano performance. Please Don’t import personal feelings into an official article! This Committee may call upon foreign experts.This Variety company may call upon international musical and movie experts next. I will visit to see the premier ‘We Are X’ at SXSW next March. The audience will be impressed to see the documentary ‘We are X’ movie fore sure!!

  7. JaneT. says:

    Seriously!? You needed someone to explain what those two blonde girls were all about? This is the ONLY movie I saw TWICE at Sundance for this reason – layers man, layers! I had heard a few songs and was intrigued but wow, I was blown away. The girls were like the twins from The Shining all grown up! Genius! (probably just his assistants – duh!) I love a film that makes me want to watch it again, pulls me deeper with each viewing and this feels like one of those. Super inspiring, a wild visual feast, amazing editing – one of the best things I have seen all week. I like to check out reviews, rarely if ever comment, but this just seemed so off base as to be offending to me, because I really just thought it was stellar.

  8. TheresaN says:

    I was actually at the Saturday afternoon screening and what this review doesn’t reflect is how well it played in the theater (packed!) to a crowd of non fans. It got a standing ovation at the end. Which I think speaks to how well it worked on the level of exploring the cost of artistic genius. We’re all adults enough to realize that the band obviously controlled the output, but there was enough genuine vulnerability here to overcome that. Bottom line as someone who had no prior knowledge, I was emotionally moved and thought it was a great film period.

  9. Jean says:

    Allow me to disagree with this review which totally misses the point. Granted, I like X and was aware of them before this doc. I don’t particularly care about rockumentaries, yet found this one successful. The format is rather traditional, agreed, but what it does beautifully is capture what this band is about. It’s actually very understated and is about inspiration and artistry rather than a straight history of the band. Spectacular facts from the band’s history seem to have been eschewed (Hide’s hologram playing on stage with them, Hide giving bone marrow to one of his fans and granting her many more years of life) in favour of understanding what makes a man like Yoshiki who he is. It’s highly emotional to anybody with empathy and somehow reminds me of Anvil, but for very different reasons (considering X are super successful to begin with). It’s also extremely well shot and beautiful. If you’re a fan you’re going to love this. If you’re not, you might become one. And if you’re so hardened that this documentary doesn’t move you, all is not lost, you can still become a reviewer for Variety.

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