X Japan's Incredible Ride: Meet Rock's Most Flamboyant Survivors

30 years after forming in a suburb of Tokyo, the kings of Japanese glam rock are finally ready to take Madison Square Garden

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X Japan at Summersonic in Tokyo, Japan.
X Japan at the Summersonic Festival in Tokyo, Japan. X Japan

"We have too much drama..."

The genial, engaging voice of Yoshiki Hayashi, drummer-pianist-songwriter of Japanese rock icons X, softens and dissipates as if he's pausing to shake his head on the other end of the phone line. We've been talking about this Saturday's show at Madison Square Garden, only the second his band – now known worldwide as "X Japan" – have ever played in New York City. But then Yoshiki begins to revisit previous American incursions. Audible sighhh.

"It's almost unbelievable," he says, eventually. "It's almost too sad to be true." 

Over the band's 30-year history – Yoshiki and singer Toshi Deyama started the group as teenagers in the early 1980s – X Japan have sold more than 30 million albums and singles, packing the 55,000-seat Tokyo Dome 18 times. They are the avatars of Japan's most epochal rock-inspired youth movement, "visual kei," which reimagined Bowie, Iron Maiden, and the Sex Pistols as a fluorescent flowering of mascara sneers, severe frocks and skyscraper locks, all posing hard under the band's howling tabloid slogan: "Psychedelic Violence Crime of Visual Shock." Their first two thrash-metal singles were called "I'll Kill You" and "Orgasm," yet Yoshiki went on to compose and perform a piano concerto for the 10th anniversary of Japan's Emperor Akihito. 

Although there's a comic book, Blood Red Dragon, which features a superhero based on Yoshiki (developed with Stan Lee); there's a mournful, very human-size vulnerability to X Japan's career and to music. From the moment of their greatest fame at the start of the 1990s, they have been beset by, yes, an almost-unbelievable, almost-too-sad-to-be true series of misfortunes and tragedies. They have collapsed and been revived, with varying lineups, countless times. In many ways, their unkillable spirit has been the source of their mythological reputation and power. They are rock's most flamboyant survivors. They have a gripping, exultant 29-minute metallic opus entitled "Art of Life." Of course they do. And pity the cynic who begrudges them a triumphantly forlorn filigree.

The wounded catharsis that drove the group's definitive late-Eighties to early-Nineties lineup – Yoshiki and Toshi, lead guitarist Hideto "Hide" Matsumoto, bassist Taiji Sawada and second guitarist Tomoaki "Pata" Ishizuka – dates back to their founder's childhood in the Tokyo Bay beach town of Tateyama, Chiba. A piano prodigy who studied classical music at kindergarten age, Yoshiki saw his world collapse when his father committed suicide. He was 10. 

Yoshiki from Yoshiki Classical performs a classical piece in Paris, France on May 26th, 2014.
Yoshiki from Yoshiki Classical performs a classical piece in Paris, France on May 26th, 2014. David Wolf-Patrick/Getty

"That was the same year I found out about Kiss," he says. "I asked my mother to take me to the Kiss concert in Japan [Alive! had just been released], so they were kind of the entrance point for me for hard rock music. I also started listening to Led Zeppelin, then Iron Maiden, and then from there, pretty much every single hard-rock or heavy-metal or anything super-heavy band I was into. I also started playing drums the same year."  

When he and his kindergarten classmate Toshi later formed X in 1982, they wanted to do their version of Slayer and Megadeth. "But I always had a classical melody in my head, like Beethoven, Bach, Tchaikovsky or Rachmaninoff," Yoshiki says now, "so I started combining those two, then some people from Sony came to see our band play in a club, and while we were waiting to play, there was a piano there and I was playing Tchaikovsky. At that time, I was the drummer and had spiky hair and they were like, 'You can play the piano?' And then they asked me, 'Can you write a ballad?' I said, 'I don't want to, but I can.'" 

X Japan performing at the Summersonic Festival in Tokyo, Japan.
X Japan performing at the Summersonic Festival in Tokyo, Japan. Courtesy of X Japan

The resulting song, the towering power ballad "Endless Rain," became their first big chart hit. In its stately, pleading, live scream-along version, it stretches to well over 10 minutes of Queen-like majesty, with the crowd wailing the cleansing chorus: "Endless rain/Fall on my heart/Let me forget/All of the hate/All of the sadness." It's "November Rain," minus the bullshit.

But after the commercial and critical success of 1989's Blue Blood, on which "Endless Rain" appeared, X became undeniable superstars; upon returning from Los Angeles, where they recorded 1990's follow-up album Jealousy, the band was greeted at the airport by delirious throngs. Japan's Air Self-Defense Force was mobilized to protect them. The drama commenced.

X Japan fans in the Netherlands.
X Japan fans in the Netherlands. Courtesy of X Japan
  • In January 1992, bassist Taiji departed amid a whirl of "musical differences" and feelings about the band's finances.

  • In August 1992, after holding a lavish Rockefeller Center press conference to announce that they were leaving Sony for Atlantic Records and changing their name to X Japan (to avoid conflict with Los Angeles punks X), each band member signed a solo deal with a different label, Wu-Tang style. Subsequently, they played live very little and struggled to record a new album.

  • In 1997, singer Toshi left the group to join a religious group, Home of Heart, which in recent years he has renounced as a cult that "brainwashed" him.

  • In 1998, lead guitarist Hide hanged himself (though bandmates Yoshiki and Taiji disputed that it was suicide). There were three copycat suicides in Japan, 50,000 people attended his funeral in Tokyo, and two posthumous singles went to Number One.

  • In 2008 the band reformed, eventually playing Lollapalooza in 2010 and undertaking a seven-city North American tour, but went on hiatus again in 2011 when bassist Taiji (back for less than a year) attempted to hang himself, was rushed to the ER and died after being taken off life support.

Now, original members Yoshiki, Toshi and Pata (plus bassist Heath and guitarist Sugizo) are hoping to resurrect X Japan once again, for "another chapter," as Yoshiki puts it, expressing gratitude that he and his childhood friend Toshi also have been able to rekindle their 40-plus-year friendship. His love for all types of music – classical, Nirvana, EDM – is undiminished. Having lived primarily in Los Angeles for the past 20 years, Yoshiki longs for X Japan to have a serious impact in America. And despite talk of recording a new album that will be 80-to-90 percent in English – with Japanese lyrics that he jokingly refers to as like "Domo origato, Mr. Roboto" – the only way that impact can realistically happen is by playing live. In an arena, few bands can combine the frenetic and the poignant, the stoic and the ecstatic, so seamlessly and essentially as X Japan. 

"I've always had this huge screaming pain inside of my heart," says Yoshiki toward the end of our conversation. "And I didn't know how to express it or deal with it, so I started writing music and writing lyrics and that's why my songs are always about love and death and beautiful melodies. And whether it's super-heavy punk rock or super-heavy thrash metal, we always have beautiful melodies. And I think that's the thing about X Japan, no matter what. That's the thing that works."

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