Film Review: ‘We Are X’

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

We Are X Sundance 2016
Courtesy of Sundance Film Festival

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: <strong>93 MIN.</strong>

  • 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)