In Sam Dunn and Scot McFadyen’s documentary Global Metal, ex-Megadeth guitarist and Tokyo resident Marty Friedman characterizes his favourite Japanese musical genre, visual kei, as merging “the fastest, heaviest music” with “sappy, sappy ballads”. In case that isn’t clear, think blitzkrieg speed metal happily coexisting alongside songs ripped from the songbook of Michael Bolton.
The style, which is associated with extravagant goth-glam costumes and David Bowie–like androgyny, was pioneered by X Japan in the 1980s. The band remains visual kei’s most successful exponent, having filled the 55,000-seat Tokyo Dome a staggering 18 times and sold over 30 million records and DVDs over its 28-year career. X Japan is so significant that bandleader, pianist, and drummer Yoshiki (like his bandmates, he goes by his given name) is one of only two Japanese musicians chosen to represent his country for Global Metal.
Perhaps a better measure of Yoshiki’s fame within Japan, however, is the concerto he composed for the Japanese royal couple when his band was on a decade-long hiatus he then believed was permanent. The soft-spoken rock megastar—who, despite a deft command of the English language, still drops the odd article—is humble and affable while relaying his story by phone from his home in Los Angeles, where he has lived for the last 10 years.
That X Japan is even together today is something of a surprise. Yoshiki notes that the group broke up 12 years ago, after which its guitarist Hide died in an asphyxiation incident that was officially ruled a suicide. For a while, the drummer thought seriously about whether he wanted to still play music.
“That was really shocking for me,” Yoshiki says of Hide’s death. “It was really depressing. So then I got some offers—do you wanna perform for this? Do you wanna perform for that? And I was declining every single offer. Then two years after that incident, Japanese government asked me if I wanna compose and perform for emperor. Like, hmm!”
For leverage, the government also asked his mother, who said, “Yoshiki, you have to do it!”
“That was actually the turning point, so I ended up composing piano concerto, then performing for them at the 10 years’ anniversary for the new emperor and first lady,” Yoshiki says. “One year later, they invited me to their palace, so I brought my mother. I had become a rock star, but she didn’t quite get it. But when I invited my mother to emperor’s palace, she was like, ”˜Whoa.’ She was very proud of me!”
“That’s also my comeback,” he adds. “I was like, ”˜Okay, I should be an artist again.’ ”
That decision was essential to his band’s 2007 regrouping.
Given his superstardom in Japan—Yoshiki even has a Hello Kitty doll modelled after him, the Yoshikitty—it’s surprising that so few North Americans have heard of X Japan, but the band’s first-ever North American performance at Lollapalooza in Chicago in August sparked considerable buzz.
“It gave us more confidence, actually, because the reaction was pretty good,” Yoshiki reveals. “At the beginning of our show, there were few thousand people, and by the end—we performed one hour—more than 10,000 people were there, and they were rocking! I don’t think they were X Japan fans before, but they were very passionate and enthusiastic. Maybe they’re X Japan fans now!”
To date, most of the Japanese bands that have toured North America—Boris, Acid Mothers Temple, Boredoms, Shonen Knife—have been underground acts in their own country, nearly unheard of by your average Japanese person, whereas superstar acts there—Glay, KinKi Kids, SMAP—are unknown here, perhaps due to the “sappy” (or call it what you will—clichéd, saccharine, naive) aspects of their music. Since Yoshiki is quite aware of western tastes, is he strategizing about what elements of X Japan’s music will go over best in North America, to reduce the J-pop cringe?
“Good question!” he says. “Ahh”¦ We are not changing that much, because we have, like, heavy metal or hard rock background. At the same time—you are right, we do have pop songs as well. So we may be playing a little harder—a little heavier, edgier songs than we play in Japan. It’s not going to be a hundred percent different; maybe 20-percent different, something like that.”
Playing smaller venues on its first North American tour will be a big change, however.
“We are used to playing maybe 50,000-seat arenas, so we are trying to figure out how to downsize,” Yoshiki says. “Some of the halls have restrictions, so we may not be able to do full pyrotechnics and full lighting. But we’re talking about a few thousand people, so it’s going to be very intimate. That’s where we started, but we have not played that kind of small crowd for a long time, so we are very excited. We are very looking forward to it.”
Sounding like a man who is smiling on the other end of the line, the Japanese icon continues: “This western market is always our dream. I always wanted to go outside Japan. But these days, it’s more like a worldwide thing, because it’s all connected by the Internet and everything. So I’m not really thinking about trying to get successful in America. I’m trying to get successful in the world!”
X Japan plays the Queen Elizabeth Theatre on Sunday (October 3).