Three years ago, documentary filmmaker Stephen Kijak had never heard of a band called X Japan. Most Americans hadn't either, even with more than 20 million albums sold around the world, but Kijak was intrigued.
He learned of a sound that incorporated thrash metal and classical piano with big prog-rock flourishes and a flamboyant Japanese "Visual Kei" image of mascara, mohawks and neon attire. "Now I drive 90 miles an hour in L.A. whenever your songs come on," says Kijak with a smile, sitting across a table from bandleader Yoshiki Hayashi last week at the Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah.
The documentary "We Are X," which premiered at Sundance on Jan. 23, is the latest in a series of music films directed by Kijak. He's made documentaries on the Rolling Stones ("Stones in Exile"), the Backstreet Boys ("Show 'Em What You're Made Of") and collaborated with executive producer David Bowie on 2006's "Scott Walker: 30 Century Man." The new film had Kijak following X Japan around the world, from an explosive concert in Madison Square Garden to gravesites in Japan and back to Los Angeles.
"This allows me to indulge one of my great passions," says Kijak. "I'm not a social issue filmmaker. I like creative people. I like to know what makes musicians tick."
For the leader of X Japan, who usually goes by the single name Yoshiki or Yoshi, the film is another step toward the quintet's career-long goal of crossing over to American audiences. It's no accident that Yoshiki has lived in Los Angeles for nearly 20 years.
"Breaking the boundary is always our dream," says Yoshiki, the group's drummer-pianist-composer, preparing this fall to release the band's first new album in two decades. "X Japan was always breaking the wall — east and west, negative side and positive side, whatever the wall. I don't know how long it will last, but as long as we are alive, we are going to try."
He bought the North Hollywood studio where Metallica recorded the 1991 release known as "The Black Album." "I wanted to book the studio because every engineer in Los Angeles said that's the best drum-sounding room, and I'm a drummer.
"The studio was booked one-year straight, so the only way I could use the studio was to buy it," Yoshiki said. He's since moved into a different studio on the edge of Studio City and Hollywood.
Dressed in scarves, sunglasses and a leather coat, Yoshiki wears a black glove on his left hand. On his right wrist is a brace, the result of decades of punishment onstage. He will soon decide between surgery and therapy on the arm — one best for his drumming, the other better for his piano playing. He says he can't imagine slowing down on either.
The story of X Japan is more than musical, balancing career triumph with years of personal tragedy dating to Yoshiki's childhood, when his father committed suicide. That same year he discovered the band Kiss, and by 1982 started a teenage band that would become X Japan with friend and singer Toshimitsu Deyama.
Six years later, the group released a debut album, "Vanishing Vision," just as the Sunset Strip hair-metal scene was erupting across the ocean. While X Japan shared some surface-level sounds and hair products with their western contemporaries, it was only a starting point. X Japan incorporated Kabuki theater and musical influences stretching from Bowie to Iron Maiden.
"In my lyrics, I talk about death a lot. Somehow I make it positive," says Yoshiki. "Without music, I don't think I would survive. Instead of killing myself or jumping off a bridge, writing lyrics and melody really saved me."
In the film, Yoshiki recounts his message to the rest of the band: "I told them, 'Trust me, give me everything. I'll make everything happen.' It's like creating a new family."
During that initial wave of success, the band released five studio albums, six live recordings and more. But the band broke apart in 1998 after performing its "Last Live" farewell concert at the 55,000-seat Tokyo Dome on New Year's Eve. Later that year, lead guitarist Hide hanged himself. In 2008, the band re-formed, but in 2011 bassist Taiji died following a suicide attempt.
"You can scan the Wikipedia page and see the plot points: record-selling, death, death, suicide…," says Kijak. "All the ingredients are there: This is great stuff. But how do you tell it? How do you create empathy, how do you break down what is perceived as the surface?"
For most of his life, Yoshiki had avoided publicly speaking of the deaths and his personal history. For the film, he agreed to talk, but it took five interviews over two years to fully pull the story out of him.
"You see the surface, which is spectacular and dazzling and just bizarre," says Kijak. "The music does pull you in just because of its intensity and speed. And I always argue the compositional integrity of having speed metal composed by someone who is also a classical musician is also quite unique."
Kijak keeps a photo of Hide on his cellphone for inspiration. In the image, the late musician stares into the lens, hair wildly coiffed. "He seemed to embody some kind of spirit of rebellion that extended beyond the band," says Kijak, "and it still influences people today."
"You've got to connect on a human level to get these stories to make sense for an audience. I'm interested in the interior lives of artists, musical process, but it has to operate on a human level.... I just hope to spread the word. It's very simple."