London Film Festival 2016:We Are X dir. Stephen Kijak (+Interview)

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X Japan is probably one of the biggest bands you’ve never heard of. And no wonder, as you’d probably only know of them if you happen to be into the J-rock scene. We Are X is here to change that, and shines a light on the quirky, weird and wonderful people that make up X Japan.

We Are X opens on X Japan’s Madison Square Garden gig in 2014. The camera focuses on band leader and drummer Yoshiki, hypnotic and completely into the song he plays before the film launches into a fantastic anime-inspired opening sequence (to X Japan’s ‘Jade’). We travel with X Japan to Comic Con, meeting Stan Lee, who created a comic with and to help promote X Japan, and throngs of fans yelling for the band, not to mention whipping out phones to take selfies with them while doing the iconic ‘We Are X’ pose.

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Leader and drummer Yoshiki, doing the iconic ‘We Are X’ pose

We Are X isn’t all gigs and fans though. Yoshiki remains our focal point and heart of the band as we follow him around and he explains, in a somewhat uncanny and unnatural language, about his and the band’s history, and it’s a dark one. Losing his father at a young age and with an aggrieved mother, Yoshiki has had his share of depression and brushes with suicide, betrayed by his strawberry blonde hair and grin as he gets a checkup at the doctor’s (who explains that his drumming method has caused severe wear and tear to his body). Down the road, Yoshiki visits his father’s grave, and it’s followed by fellow mourners who approach him for selfies and autographs as well, and one wonders how strong Yoshiki must be to put on that face amidst all the tragedy.

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Cover art for Jealousy, X Japan’s best-selling album featuring Yoshiki on the cover.

For diehard fans of X Japan, there’s probably not much new information We Are X, often scratching just the surface of this intriguing glam rock/J-metal band. J Rock fans will be pleased to know that various bands also make cameos and talk about X Japan’s influence on them, such as Dir En Grey. We Are X certainly has emotional arcs, such as discussing the band’s origins and how Yoshiki and lead vocalist Chiba grew up together, as well as gone but not forgotten bandmates Taiji and hide, who are still introduced as members during concerts, but often it’s not quite enough to sustain a particularly strong narrative.

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However, for new inductees to the J Rock/Visual Kei world, We Are X is essentially a portal into a whole new realm of music, making up for its weaknesses with some of the most exciting visual sequences, not to mention high energy concert footage of the band themselves. Across the years, we see how X Japan’s aesthetic and look are so alien, so different that we can’t help but marvel at and appreciate this space oddity of a band. Coupled with the great music, and it’s no wonder I found myself entertained and very much enjoying myself throughout the watch and with a thirst for more knowledge of this parallel universe of music.

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Stephen Kijak is a bit of a music man. He’s best known for doing music documentaries, kickstarting his documentary career with a documentary on Scott Walker, before hitting the big names with the Rolling Stones in Stones in Exile and more recently the Backstreet Boys. We got some time with him to talk about his career and filmmaking:

BCM: How did you get started on We Are X and why?

Stephen: My producer asked me to get on board! It was a call out of the blue and I’d never heard of X Japan before being asked to make the film so deciding to do it was very easy. Once you meet Yoshiki and get photos of X Japan in the late 80s looking like some kind of new wave explosion between KISS and David Bowie. It was so intriguing, so fascinating to learn that there was this whole world of music and music culture that I never knew existed. so in a way I felt compelled to do it to learn more about Japanese music and culture that I never knew existed and I think that’s important to always expand your cultural horizons or any other facet of life. And the story is just extraordinary, really pulls you in.

BCM: How did you get started on doing music documentaries in the first place?

Stephen: I started simply because the core of everything I do is related to music. I wanted to be a musician, I collected records, music is very important to me in my life. I was also very intrigued by the creative process. I was fascinated by how musicians write, create, record, perform…the whole world is just extremely intriguing to me. Not to mention there’s an infinite number of subjects and ways to tell these stories. It gets me close to the thing that I love. The first one that I did, Scott Walker, I decided to do it because he’s one of my heroes. He’s a brilliant solo artist and heard that he was about to make his first album in a decade, so it seemed like a perfect opportunity and circumstances worked out, so I just went for it. It was my third film, but my first music doc and first film that was solely about musicians, and I haven’t looked back. It’s become my thing, once one is successful and they keep coming at you. You can either choose to do something different and explore different kinds of stories, but I’m comfortable here, I love these stories, I’m always surprised ad intrigued by the variety of subjects that are offered me. What is nice then is to shift your attention away from things that you like and know, and into the unknown, for which X Japan was a great pivot. The challenges kind of multiple, and you’re out of your comfort zone and you need to figure out how this is going to work as an alien to the subject, and it’s a good challenge.

BCM: Was language a challenge?

Stephen: A little bit, but Yoshiki speaks good English and we had good interpreters. By design, the less we would get from the others, it made it really the default option to lean into Yoshiki’s story which is kind of the heart and soul of the film and band right now anyway. After about 6 months to a year of working on it, you stop thinking about it. Because it’s really all about the music and experience, and the language just becomes secondary. It’s about the cultural experience and how to translate that to people who might not be so familiar or even want to explore it. We wanted to create a film that would just draw you in even with a language barrier, but I really did not think it would be an affect at all.

BCM: Did the project start because of X Japan’s gig at Madison Square Garden?

Stephen: That was kind of an entry point, we start there and document that and use it as a springboard into the past.

BCM: You’ve worked with some really great bands out there already. Is there any band you’d like to work on you haven’t already done so?

Stephen: I get that question a lot, and it’s hard to say. If I had my way I’d love to do a film about Siouxsie and the Banshees. Siouxsie Sioux is an absolute f*cking goddess, one of my absolute favourites in the world, I was a huge fan. I could practically do a whole series on my goth rock 80s favourites, so that includes The Cure and more. I’ve been chasing Depeche Mode for a while now, hasn’t worked out quite yet but you never know. It’s kind of like fanboy chasing his favourite bands around, so I’m open to other opportunities that may be coming my way to do stuff again like X which puts me in a different place unfamiliar with my subject. But yeah Depeche would be great wouldn’t it? I’d love to do Bowie but it would be too much of a challenge, it’d probably take 5 or 6 different films to get to the heart of it, and I don’t think you ever could.

BCM: I heard you’re working on a feature film next, entitled Shoplifters of the World. Any reason why you’re returning to a non-documentary form?

Stephen: Well I’ve always been trying to return to it. Documentary was kind of an accident, I didn’t intend to be a documentary filmmaker, so it’s gotten in the way of me doing narrative features and I have delayed that for a good decade. I’ve always written, always developed script material and this script finally feels like one of the best I’ve done in a long time and it’s the perfect bridge from the music documentaries into a narrative. It’s based on the music of The Smiths, on a little story that takes place in 1987 when the band broke up. It’s kind of a legend that a fan from Colorado held up a radio station in his despair and forced them at gunpoint to play The Smiths, a mainstream station that would never play alternative music so it’s finally a tribute, a violent tribute to his favourite band, and we turned the incident into a sweet little film that takes place in the 80s. We’ve got a great young cast, some talent like Joe Manganiello, Sasha Lane from American Honey. Cross fingers we’re trying to get that of the ground, still in the financing  stages.

BCM: Are there any directors who inspire you?

Stephen: Lots! I could spend a whole day talking about my inspirations. As I said, documentary was never my initial focus so at first I was turned on by directors like John Cassavetes, David Lynch, John Waters, Rainer Werner Fassbinder. I love Billy Wilder, Hitchcock, all the greats. I got really tripped out on some of the European filmmakers as a young film student. And then there’s the documentary filmmakers, great verite filmmakers. Chris Blaine is great, and of course Werner Herzog, he’s done all films all styles, he’s probably the most diverse and interesting and totally f*cking weird director out there. He’s a towering figure. That kind of frames my whole inspiration.

BCM: I really liked the opening of We Are X, it looks really anime inspired and I’m just very impressed by the production quality of it all, even getting people like Marvel’s Stan Lee into it!

Stephen: Stan and Yoshiki made a comic together, Blood Red Dragon, and there’s bits of it in the film as well. There’s a cartoon made of Yoshiki as if he becomes a superhero. It’s very crazy. But just one look at them and they’re like, the world of visual kei, anime, J-rock, there’s all kinds of mergers and crossovers. And they were a huge inspiration on that style, and they love anime so we didn’t just want to use anime in the movie per se, but we wanted to anime a lot of it and use their kind of visual expression and create a visual language based on their aesthetic and visual world. The opening credits just blow my mind; the designers (Blue Spill) is so good. The band had that slogan in the early days: ‘psychedelic violence crimes’, just great Japanese-English construction. What does that even really mean? I just said d0 that, whatever that is, make me an opening sequence that’s psychedelic and violent and insane. We’ve worked together with Blue Spill on the last four of my movies, and we have great rapport, so I’ve had to tell them less and less and then they end up giving me more and more. The communication is almost psychic at this point, and I think they like working with me because I don’t give a lot of direction, just some imagery and some ideas and they’re free to do whatever they want, and it always gets better and better. We won an award for the titles at SXSW for Excellence in Design, and that made me very happy.

BCM: Was there any moment during filming where you had an Eureka moment?

Stephen: Absolutely. It’s a shot we use very early on in the film. I was beside my DP Sean Kirby, and I leaned in and told him ‘this is the weirdest sh*t I’ve ever seen in my life’ and we just had this tingle that this was going to be amazing. And it’s this shot of Yoshiki with no shirt on, a surgical mask, sunglasses and a swirling backdrop behind him that looks like he’s lost in the universe. It’s not framed, so you have no context of what’s going on. And in a way, it almost says everything you need to know about his experience. He’s like The Man Who Fell To Earth, it’s like the aliens have landed and here he is, this weird god-like creature who’s also child-like and alien. He gave us a lot to work with. Usually it’s an image and you just think yeah, that’s going in, that’s amazing. And then there’s him doing his exercises in his tight little pants. That’s hilarious, I can’t believe he’s doing push ups and squats 2 seconds before he gets on stage, in pleather pants. What a rock star.

BCM: That’s insane, isn’t he like 50?

Stephen: Yeah. He keeps saying that at any moment he’s going to crumble and fall to pieces but he’ll probably live to at least 100.

BCM: Which X Japan songs are must listens?

Stephen: My favourite song of all time is Standing Sex. It’s a single, wasn’t on an album, they played it a lot in the early days in a big stadium and it just rocks, it’s just so good it’s got weird lyrics and it’s got this unbelievably great riff. And it’s just like he’s bathed in red light while he’s jamming on his guitar, it’s got a great baseline, super fast. It’s just one of the coolest things I’ve ever heard. I also can’t get enough of Jade, which is the opening song, no matter how many times you hear it you still sing along with it. That’s the thing: because Yoshiki is a classical composer, he’s built all his songs under this foundation of classical music. So his compositional integrity, it’s gonna be high level, and whether it’s a ballad or a speedy metal song, he approaches it with the same approach, melodically. These things are so tight that they enter your brain and just stay there forever. It’s just really tightly composed, so whether it’s super headbangy, it’s still melodic. You never get sick of it. They’re brilliant

BCM: If you could live your life over, would you change anything?

Stephen: Oh yeah, I’d be in a rock band. Probably not as heavy as X Japan, but I just would love to be more immersed in music in some ways. I think that was what I was supposed to do. I can still buy the drums, it’s not too late, plus I already know how to play the drums. I think I might be a frustrated crooner, but hey we’ll see!

We Are X is available on exclusive Steelbook and DVD on 22nd May http://wearexfilm.co.uk

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