America, meet Yoshiki
The scene was one of barely controlled rock ‘n’ roll excess. In early January, 8,000 screaming fans mobbed the streets surrounding the Hollywood & Highland complex for a multimillion-dollar video shoot featuring one of Asia’s top-selling pop acts: the hard-rocking quintet X Japan.
With helicopters circling, the feathery-haired band members ascended to a stage atop the venue to lip-sync new songs. Guitars screamed and drums pounded; pillars of fire erupted from cannons. Technicians deployed fireworks and Hollywood Boulevard traffic was brought to a standstill for more than six hours in the name of a singularly Japanese brand of heavy metal thunder.
Despite the scene’s garish bombast — with its echoes of rooftop rocking by the likes of U2 and the Beatles — X Japan’s drummer-pianist, Yoshiki, became choked up by the turnout, with fans traveling all the way from Japan for the event and no small amount of American J-Rock enthusiasts in tow.
“It almost made me cry,” said Yoshiki, Japan’s biggest rock star and a corporate pitchman for a staggering array of products, including the Yoshiki Visa card and Yoshikitty, the first product the beloved Japanese toy line Hello Kitty has ever made in the likeness of a human being.
He continued: “It was a touching moment. It gave us confidence to go forward, to tour in America and want to release an album in the U.S.”
Talk about a confidence booster. X Japan will make its debut U.S. performance next month at Lollapalooza in Chicago. While the festival is known for featuring the cream of American alterna-rock, with this year’s lineup including MGMT, Arcade Fire and Green Day, no J-Rock act has played the Chicago event’s main stage à la X Japan. An album from the group featuring 80% to 90% English-sung lyrics is also in the works, Yoshiki said.
Never mind that acts from across the Asian pop diaspora have tried and failed to infiltrate the American mainstream — among them the singer-actor known as Rain from South Korea, Canto-pop sensation Coco Lee and Japanese singer Toshi Kubota. The plan is for X Japan to cross over, not simply as world music performers but as a legitimate pop act in the vein of Slipknot or Metallica.
Jonathan Platt, founder of the website JrockRevolution.com, characterized the group’s appeal in terms of other Western bands, at a time when he says the popularity of the J-Rock genre is quietly skyrocketing in the U.S.
“I would look at them like Kiss,” Platt explained of X Japan. “They are the ultimate arena rock band with high style. Their music is anthemic with amazing ballads. And they have an amazingly loyal fan base who get very into the movement. It’s like the Grateful Dead, where fans will travel and dedicate their whole summers to seeing X Japan as many times as they can.”
X Japan’s other members (mono-monikered, all) include Toshi on vocals, Pata and Sugizo on guitars and Heath on bass. But Yoshiki — who drums with the aggro-vehemence of Alex Van Halen but is also an accomplished classical pianist who composed a concerto for the emperor of Japan — is the one who remains singularly focused on making it big in America.
He’s lived between Tokyo and Los Angeles for more than a decade and made significant inroads here with soundtrack contributions to such less-than-stellar American movies as " Saw IV,” the 2007 horror flick “Catacombs” and " Repo! The Genetic Opera.” Then there’s Yoshiki’s well-entrenched habit of networking with high-powered Hollywood entertainment executives (his manager Marc Geiger co-founded Lollapalooza and was instrumental in getting the band booked for the fest) and even the launch last year of Yoshiki’s boutique label of Robert Mondavi-produced wines.
As a fevered multitasker and established brand unto himself in Asia, Yoshiki, 44, has also won the confidence of a number of music biz shot-callers. “He knows how to build a fan base,” said Neil Portnow, president of the Recording Academy, who has known Yoshiki for several years. “Given the sophistication of his organization and entrepreneurial spirit, as well as him having been in this country to personally experience how it works — that may give him a bit of an advantage in the American market.”
But even while functioning as X Japan’s co-founder and chief creative force, Yoshiki is prepared to go it alone. Asked if his band mates are as fired up as he is to win over the West, the drummer-pianist said, “Some of them are, some of them are not.”
“I say, ‘I’ll do it with or without you guys,’” Yoshiki said at his North Hollywood recording studio recently. Attired in bondage trousers and a frilly pirate shirt, with winklepickers on his feet, he recalled leveling a hard question at his X Japan confreres: “‘Are you following me or not?’”
High school pals Yoshiki and Toshi formed the group in 1982, when social conformity still gripped Japan. X — as it is known in its homeland despite the L.A. punk band of the same name — played slashing heavy metal, wore eyeliner and embraced a look of androgynous steampunk, resembling leonine aliens from anime films more than anything the Japanese rock firmament had ever produced. Yoshiki (full name Yoshiki Hayashi) remembers being rejected by every major record label and facing the slings and arrows of critics in the early years.
“There were all these rules: if you play super-fast heavy metal, you cannot wear makeup,” he said. “Critics said X are crazy looking. They can’t play music. So I just went completely against everything.”
In the process, the group launched a movement called visual kei that rocked Japanese social mores by infusing a fantasy-based look with the standoffish individualism of glam-rock and punk. Over the years, X Japan has become the biggest act ever spawned by the Land of the Rising Sun (where chirpy J-Pop and even hip-hop abide but nearly a dozen visual kei bands pay fealty to X Japan); it has sold more than 30 million units — albums, singles, DVDs and videos — and sold out the 55,000-seat Tokyo Dome no fewer than 18 times.
Moreover, Yoshiki became synonymous with anime moviedom by providing the soundtrack for several popular Japanimation features you’ve probably never heard of. Which may explain what the guy touted as “to Japan what Bono is the to U.K.” was doing at downtown Los Angeles’ Anime Expo earlier this month.
The scene: a fundraiser for the unveiling of the Yoshiki Foundation America featuring a rock performance-cum-fashion show. There, many of the band’s fans milled about dressed as their favorite anime avatars: Sailor Moon lookalikes, young women dressed as French maids and guys dressed in plastic Voltron armor. Upstairs in the VIP section, Yoshiki directed a scene for a music video starring none other than comic book legend Stan Lee as Satan.
Lee explained how he had become buddies with Yoshiki over the last two months, hoping to enlist him to help with a show “like Cirque du Soleil” that Lee’s Pow! Entertainment has in development. “I learned he’s the rage of the Orient, musically, and a classically trained pianist,” the 84-year old Lee said. “So we felt Yoshiki might be perfect to create music for this spectacular show.”
Despite X Japan’s prominent performance spot at Lollapalooza, not everyone surrounding Yoshiki shares his enthusiasm. Not that it fazes him.
“Japanese management, a lot of people said, ‘You’re not going to make it in America or outside Japan,’” Yoshiki said. “That makes me want to do it even more.”
He continued: “People say, ‘You cannot get to the moon.’ I want to get to the moon! The moon being the American market.”