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Sundance Review: Moving Doc ‘We Are X’ Chronicles the Tragic Story of Japan’s Biggest & Boldest Band

Sundance Review: Moving Doc 'We Are X' Chronicles the Tragic Story of Japan's Biggest & Boldest Band

“English is the language of rock,” was the restrictive motto
used by some to predict the impossibility of a Japanese band being successful in
the genre, but, as Stephen Kijak music documentaryWe Are X” proves, they were all
wrong. Following last year’s “Backstreet Boys: Show’Em What You Are Made Of,” Kijak’s latest rock-doc centers on X Japan, the most important
Japanese musical act in existence. Although for most of our ignorant Western ears their
extravagant and fascinating reinvention of rock and roll might be unknown, the
power of their anthems is similar to a transporting religious revelation for millions.

Considered today as some of the most legendary performers in
any language, X Japan was formed in the early 1980s when drummer Yoshiki, the
absolute pillar and leader of the band, and vocalist Toshi were just teenagers
making sense of their less than ideal lives through the angry energy in their
composition. Stylistically, both in their attires and sound, they were the
pioneers in the Visual Kei musical movement. Makeup, outrageous hairstyles,
colorful clothing, and an overall sense of theatricality to their presence
became their signature and what differentiate them from other artists in their
local industry. Though they have often been compared groups in Glam rock scene, X Japan is
in a category on its own due to the way they incorporate cultural authenticity
into their flamboyant personas.

Noticeably embracing these attributes in the making of the
film, Kijak takes advantage of the built –in narrative structure that the days
leading up to the bands first epic presentation at Madison Square Garden
provide. While counting down the days to this monumental event, both the
current state at the band and their unbelievably tragic history are revisited in
what seems like a painfully constructed scrapbook that holds many wonderful
memories of friendship and success next to genuinely touching anecdotes about
their bleakest episodes.

Centered on Yoshiki as the driving force of the band, “We
Are X” chronicles his rise to superstardom at home while struggling to make an
impact abroad as well as the personal battles such as his father’s death that
have lead him to write songs that speak to the defeated by revitalizing them
with hope. Kijak intelligently sprinkles the engrossing story with Yoshiki’s
spiritual beliefs, which constantly lead him to think that all the recurrent
calamities that wreck him are cause by an inexplicable curse. His soft-spoken
personality and delicate mannerism clash with the commanding and ravaging character
he plays on stage.

Watching Yoshiki’s masochistic devotion to his craft – to
the point of nearly dying after each show and enduring tremendous muscular pain
with every movement – is horrifying and galvanizing at once. He is a man that
doesn’t brag about putting his life on the line, but who does so every night to
transcend via his music. Is as if with every stroke of the drums Yoshiki
attacks his ingrained demons, destroying his body but freeing his soul.

Witnessing the amount of reckless vigor he exudes, despite the
injections, the neck-brace, medications, and therapy he must submit himself to,
is one of the purest examples of art surpassing the human body to become something
divinely heroic.

Death is a relentless villain in the story of X Japan.
Throughout the film, Yoshiki is seen visiting the cemetery on multiple
occasions to honor the departed. One of the most overwhelming sequences takes
place following the accidental death of the band’s guitarist Hide. His importance within
the band and among their fan base was immeasurable. Thousands of girls breaking
down in the streets of Japan and some even taking their own lives, was the
aftermath. That’s the degree to which those who are inspired by their songs
idolize X Japan. They replicate their outfits, they have their own hand gestures
that resembles the letter that gives name to the band, they have a chant that
is closer to a battle call and which exclaims “We are X!’ euphorically, and
most importantly they have a sense of family – one that will never judge them
based on their quirks.

Proficient and occasionally above the norm, like in the
visually enticing opening credits, the documentary itself doesn’t go beyond
traditional devices such as intimate interviews, archive footage, and recorded
performances Nevertheless, Kijak’s proven affinity to interestingly portray a
variety of music-related non-fiction tales shines here partly because of the
exuberance of his subjects. The story is bigger than film, especially because
the filmmaker’s objective was not only to capture the essence of the band, but
also to inform those unfamiliar with X Japan about who they are and why their triumphant
return matters. Their accented English lyrics and dramatic approach to performance
were never an obstacle for those able to look into the more profound aspects of
their work.

By the time the credits roll one feels for Yoshiki’s exposed
vulnerability and the initial curiosity of watching a film about obscure
Japanese musician transforms into admiration and respect for their loyalty to
each other and their inspirational hymns designed to light up packed stadiums. Kijak’s
entertaining and potent portrait is bound to become a favorite among fans and
to persuade others to join the ranks of those under the loud spell of X Japan.

“We Are X” premiered at the 2016 Sundance Film Festival and it’s currently seeking distribution.

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