Suicide. Strange religious cults.. Brainwashing. Mayhem, destruction. A drummer wearing a neck brace while playing live because excess headbanging has damaged the top of his spine so badly it could snap at any minute. Big hair. A cosplay-like element of over the top outfits known as visual key that makes Sigue Sigue Sputnik look like a model of restraint. Throw in 30 million records sold, a beyond-devoted fanbase and the usual over the top heavy metal indulgences, and you're looking at a tale so far-fetched it would make even Spinal Tap blush.
The only thing is, the story of X Japan is true.
The take of the biggest band you've never heard of is faithfully told in the marvellous documentary - or, if you will, rockumentary, to borrow a Tap-ism - We Are X.
It's a story that's so outrageous that it's difficult to pick your favourite part (although your singer being effectively kidnapped by a weird cult for the best part of a decade tasks some beating).
It's easy to see what attracted director Stephen Kijak to the project. With a CV that boasts a raft of music-based work, including the excellent Scott Walker doc 20th Century Man, it must have been a dream feature to work on.
But, as he says, while in town to promote the film's UK release, pretty much the final leg of a worldwide tour that has taken in all manner of film festivals and premieres and a year of travelling, it was a snap decision based on the band’s distinctive look.
“There was no thinking about it,” he laughs. "I was asked if I wanted to make a film about them, took one look and said yes. If you Google Image 'X Japan', that does it.”
That the story was so fascinating, complete with band suicides, helped no end. “Underneath the stunning visal layer, there’s one of the most melodramatic, unbelievable story arcs,” he says. “The story is wild, it’s great, great material. Spinal Tap pales in comparison.”
Where it succeeds is in depicting a far more nuanced world than the average heavy metal film. These are sensitive lads, while their relationship with their fans is more complex than the normal headbanging fraternity.
“On the surface it’s this outrageous very visual rock band” he explains, “if you’re not familiar with them, you may just think it’s this over the top band. But there’s this cosplay element to it and the music is so heavy and over the top, but the reveal is that there’s something really human and relatable about them. It’s really just the story of loss, recovery and triumph.”
Kijak started filming the band during rehearsals for a planned gig at Madison Square Garden (“we just rolled the cameras, followed everybody around, it was very much an observational thing”) before heading into the archives, and lengthy interviews with the band and those closest to them.
“We filmed on and off for a year, but it was in bursts, little concentrated bursts, rather than following them around. There was a wealth of archival material too.”
The fans were key, as he notes: “It’s a cultural thing, the fan culture is very different, there’s a lot more respect, a lot more grace in the relationship between the band and the fans, it’s not like your average heavy metal cock rock thing of the west, the motivation is very different. They saw them as a reflection of themselves, they created this familial quality, they’re all in this together, there’s a worshipfulness.”
As one might imagine, the film was weeks and months in the editing process. “We worked with two different editors. I’ve never had an editorial arc like this. It was 32 weeks of agony, really trying to figure it out. We then decided to switch perspectives after working with another editor, we cracked it open and rebuilt it completely. Within a week and a half, we were up and running and it started falling into place.”
Key was getting the balance right between the look and feel, the band’s outrageousness and bombast, and the sensitivity of their story. “It’s visually immersive, there’s a great deal of artifice, a lot of imagery that’s very rich, but we also wanted to keep the emotional honesty.”
After a year or so of editing, the film completed, Kijak and co have been touring festivals and launching the film around the word. “Moscow was pandemonium,” he notes, “it’s almost as if the further afield you go, the bigger they are.”
The London date is one of the last legs on the year-long round of activity, but for Kijak, there’s no escaping his next musical project. And the next two subjects are equally enduring tales of both tragedy and sensitive souls – there’s one on Lynyrd Skynyrd (that’s your tragedy right there) and The Smiths, a long-gestating project that’s already been five years in the works...
WE ARE X will be released in UK Cinemas nationwide from 2nd March followed by On Demand and DVD 1st May.
The WE ARE X film soundtrack is available on 3rd March ahead of X JAPAN’s Wembley Concert on Saturday 4th March.
Enjoy this article? Want more?
You can support Ransom Note and independent journalism through our Patreon campaign now.
Become a friend of Ransom Note