From the production team behind the Oscar-winning “Searching for Sugar Man” comes “We Are X,” a documentary about the rock-and-roll band, X Japan, the world’s biggest and most successful band you’ve never heard of…yet.
We sat down with “We Are X” director Stephen Kijak, best known for the documentaries “Scott Walker: 30 Century Man” and “Backstreet Boys: Show ‘Em What You’re Made Of.” You can also read more about the documentary here.
Interview questions by ChinLin Pan and Catherine Gutierrez and other publications
I had read that you didn’t know about X Japan. How did this project come to you?
Stephen: It was my producer–she wanted the film made and [Yoshiki] finally agreed to do it. Yoshiki wants the best of everything. He said “Who has an Oscar?” John Battsek has an Oscar–he won one for “Searching for Sugarman” so they got him involved and he called me. I’m the music guy and I’ve done a lot of music films. John and I have done a few projects together. This was a perfect fit. This was a unique way to start a project: it’s like planning an expedition to an unknown land. In this case, it was Japan. It was more than the country and culture. It was this vast unknown story about this person—the emotional landscape of Yoshiki and his life.
It seems like such a massive project to take on. How did you begin the process?
Stephen: These kinds of stories are daunting. It’s a whole life–it’s not just one person’s life, it’s a band’s life. The choice to focus on Yoshiki and his journey was kind of by necessity but also by fate in a way. The rest of the band didn’t really want to talk. The language barrier was difficult too. Yoshiki was more available. He was the source of all of it. He was the one driving [the band] forward. If you think about it, it stems from this young boy’s wound of losing his father and figuring out how to deal with the pain through music. Everything was born from that. So that was your focus. The rest was just trial-and-error. The good thing is: the history is written. It’s feelings over facts. [The audience needs] to be moved through the story emotionally. Luckily, we have this incredible wealth of music to use as your score and soundtrack to help tell the story. [X Japan] has such a range of emotion and dynamics.
Was it challenging to meet Yoshiki and having him to trust you to tell his story?
Stephen: They gave us free-range. Yoshiki never really came into the edit. It was nice to film [the band’s] rehearsals. It started in a very observational kind of way. But this was a man who has been filmed for the past 30 years. We didn’t approach him as the Japanese Rock God. We were like “Oh it’s this guy who wants us to make a him about him.” There was no pretense. If he gets off stage to brush his teeth, we were in there! One of my favorite shots in the whole movie. There were no boundaries. In the finishing process, it was very liberating. Once we got it all shot, he let us go. That’s an incredible amount of trust.
What was the most challenging thing?
Stephen: The edit itself was the most challenging process. There are little tiny challenges along the way, like getting kicked out of parks. We were trying to get cherry blossoms to film [but we came across] samurai warriors. That wasn’t planned; they were just there. The challenge I think was being open to chance and NOT wanting to control everything so much. The challenge is to create a safe quiet space where you can let authentic things happen. One of the biggest challenges was shooting at Hide’s grave. Yoshiki wasn’t in a great mood; he almost didn’t want to come. We get there and there’s a million people around him. I’m like “We’re at Hide’s grave. Everyone needs to chill out. Yoshiki needs to have a moment here. And it needs to feel real.” Managing these kinds of experiences is difficult but that’s part of the job. When we finally settled down, it was one of the most special days of the whole shoot.
At the grave?
Stephen: Yeah. I couldn’t believe it. We were right there, you know? Hide had become our guardian angel. He had pictures of him in our editing room and our offices. He was like our guiding force for everything.
What do you hope audiences take away from the film? Since most people didn’t know about the group.
Stephen: It’s not like we’re making this to turn on new fans. But really, in the core, it’s a film about how art can save you. It’s a redemptive tale of triumph through art. In this case, the art is music. After seeing the film play out and seeing reactions, it’s very much Yoshiki’s story. It seems to move through the music. This is a man who has come from the darkest of despair and it seems to keep coming at him. He’s a warrior fighting through it. His swords are his drumsticks. But he’s still doing battle and continues to survive and I think a lot of people are inspired by that.
“We Are X” opens in theaters in Austin on Oct. 28. Check out the trailer below.