The essential X Japan

When I talked about visual kei recently, it was impossible to not talk about X Japan. During the sub-culture’s beginning, this band was one of the first acts to achieve mainstream success, paving the way for others to follow suit. Though visual kei has changed massively since its early days, X Japan remains one of the biggest names.

Sometimes a band needs its own spotlight to really take in what makes them so special, so this week we’re going to celebrate one of the biggest names in Japanese metal for over thirty years. This is everything you need to know to get started with X Japan.

Who is X Japan?

X Japan

X Japan (originally just known as X) released their first record in 1988. Vanishing Vision was released by indie label Extasy Records (founded by X Japan’s drummer and lead songwriter Yoshiki) and quickly rose the to top of the Oricon Indie charts, even peaking at number 19 on the main charts. This marked one of the first times that an act not signed by one of the major labels cracked the top 20 in Japan’s mainstream charts.

The band quickly followed this by touring and recording almost nonstop for several years, knocking out numerous albums that climbed higher and higher in the Japanese charts. They signed with a major label and eventually found success overseas. This prompted them to change their name to X Japan to avoid confusion with American punk band, X. As X Japan, they released more and more creative and unusual music, including Art of Life, which consisted of a single 29-minute title track.

X Japan

X Japan would eventually break up in 1997 so that members could pursue their growing solo projects. Tragically, long-time lead guitarist, Hide, took his own life in 1998. His death sent shockwaves through the Japanese youth and sparked widespread discussion of the rise of celebrity culture in Japan. His funeral was attended by more than 50,000 people and caused massive problems for the small town it was held in. It was a moment that has been cited as “the end of an era” in Japanese music, a testament to X Japan’s influence and popularity at the time.

Following this tragedy and lead vocalist Toshi’s widely reported brainwashing at the hands of a religious cult, X Japan would remain on hiatus until 2007 when they would reform with a combination of new and old members to become one of the biggest rock acts in Japan once again. They’ve toured and recorded consistently since then, though certainly not at the same pace as their earlier career — and with a more subdued look.

What made X Japan so successful? Its tough to really say. Their music has changed over the course of their long career. Originally it was very heavily influenced by the glam metal scene that dominated first Los Angeles and then the rest of the American metal scene in the 80s. In keeping with the visual kei philosophy of freedom of expression, they quickly branched into numerous sounds. From their more orchestral outing in Art of Life to a more ballad heavy sound later in their career. They would eventually drop many of the visual kei elements to their look but never stopped performing and recording with that core philosophy in place.

X Japan in 2017 Wembley Stadium announcement

X Japan appealed to many young people in Japan for their rejection of the strict expectations of Japanese society. Their look was outrageous and androgynous, and their music spoke of frustration and anger at being put into a box that didn’t fit them. Their passion came through from every member of the band, and hasn’t slowed down even as they approach forty years of touring together. As recently as 2017, Yoshiki drummed so hard during a performance that he nearly broke his neck, requiring surgery to fully recover sensation in his left hand.

If you’re looking for a metal band to dive into and haven’t dived into the X Japan back catalogue before, they are worth checking out. Their music changed Japanese metal forever and helped establish visual kei as a subculture to be reckoned with.

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