A Journey With X Japan at the Visual Japan Summit 2016 [Recap and Photo Gallery]
Loudwire was given an amazing opportunity to cover the Visual Japan Summit 2016, and it was quite the extravaganza. On the first night, every musician that had performed during the day—a group encompassing beloved Japanese rock bands X Japan, Glay and Luna Sea, as well as members of a dozen-plus more acts—crowded on the stage for a cover of Sex Pistols' "Anarchy in the U.K." The ramshackle jam session surged with snarling punk energy, thanks to the army of guitars and a rotating cast of howling vocalists. People waving flags emblazoned with the Japanese characters for the word muteki—which translates to "incredible"—added a celebratory vibe to the gloriously chaotic scene, which grew even more surreal when Gene Simmons was called to the stage to lead the crew on a cover of Kiss' “Rock and Roll All Nite."
The choice to cover "Anarchy In The U.K." was significant. For three years in the late '80s and early '90s, Extasy Records—the label run by X Japan drummer/pianist/co-founder Yoshiki—held its own summits in Japan. These concerts served as a showcase for bands associated with visual kei, a Japanese musical movement spawned in the ’80s that’s indebted to glam, hard rock and heavy metal, as well as the theatrical bent of acts such as Kiss, Motley Crue and Twisted Sister. Back in the day, the end of the Extasy Summit also featured a mega jam session on the Sex Pistols classic—which, as vintage YouTube video reveals, possessed bristling, bruising edges.
Unsurprisingly, Yoshiki was also the guiding force behind the Visual Japan Summit, which took place from October 14-16 and celebrated visual kei's rich history and promising future. Each day, 35,000 fans crowded into one exhibition hall of the Makuhari Messe, a sprawling convention center located roughly 30 minutes by bus from Tokyo, to experience non-stop music across three stages from 9 a.m. to well after 10 p.m. Bleachers for VIP ticket-holders lined the sides of the arena, but the main floor area was standing room only, which gave the cavernous indoor space the feel of a packed outdoor stadium show.
The diversity at the event was stunning, starting with band members' sartorial choices. Although many groups opted for straightforward rock and punk attire, some went more elaborate. The new electrorock band Speed of Lights dressed as astronauts, complete with bubble helmets, while flamboyant, prog-inflected Versailles and harder-edged Diaura sported ornate costumes with military flourishes. Zonbi's members stuck to matching horror-themed outfits with undead-looking make-up, while Psycho le Cému's look hewed toward traditional Japanese clothing styles, but also included one of the weekend's most memorable looks: bassist Seek dressing as a giant red cartoonish monster.
Musically, the Visual Japan Summit also had a little something for everyone. Veteran thrash-metal progenitors Tokyo Yankees pleased old-school fans, while LM.C and its laptop-augmented, razor-burned modern rock would fit right in at Warped Tour. As an added bonus, Glay and Luna Sea—two of the biggest Japanese mainstream rock bands of the last few decades—each performed twice.
For those unfamiliar, the former's music is a hybrid of glam legends T. Rex and blues-inspired hard rock and metal bands such as Guns n' Roses. On night one, the acoustic-leaning, dramatic "Beloved" set the stage for the 1996 hit "Glorious," a wistful song about teenage love and memories. Glay then launched into a trio of hard-charging, punk-injected rock songs that allowed guitarists Takuro and Hisashi—the latter sporting two-toned hair, with blonde on one side and black on the other—to stretch out and show off their monstrous skills and musical interplay. During the aggressive highlight "Acid Head"—which featured intense drum solos and generous pyro—vocalist Teru slung his arm around Hisashi as both stood on a speaker and faced the teeming crowd.
The set ended with the No. 1 hit "Yuuwaku," a snarling hard rock song with a glinting metal edge. Glay's second performance on Saturday featured a surprise appearance from former collaborator Daijiro "D.I.E." Nozawa, who also played that day with hide the Spread Beaver. With a huge smile on his face, he added keyboards to three songs, including "However" and "Ikiteku Tsuyosa."
Luna Sea's theatrical songs, meanwhile, often resembled AFI's brisk goth-punk (the wind tunnel-reminiscent "Time Is Dead") or glam rockers the London Suede (the evocative, acoustic-driven "In Silence," heavier "I For You"). Highlights of the band's set included "True Blue," which boasted a rockabilly-esque beat, whammy bar-bent guitars and the excited crowd moving like a buzzing hive of bees; "Face to Face," whose nasty, funk-inspired bassline, spurts of pyro and video footage of molten lava gave it a sinister vibe; and "Rosier," whose metallic, upbeat riffs and lilting vocals were the perfect way to end the set.
However, for many in attendance, the main attraction of the Visual Japan Summit was X Japan. Although a cult band in America and massively popular worldwide, the quintet—whose lineup, besides Yoshiki, features vocalist Toshi, guitarist Pata, guitarist/violinist Sugizo and bassist Heath—is one of the most popular acts of all time in Japan. In that country alone, X Japan has sold more than 30 million albums, singles and videos, and sold out the 55,000-seat-capacity Tokyo Dome a whopping 18 times.
As befitting its stature, X Japan headlined all three nights of the event, with a stadium-caliber show with stadium-caliber trappings: a streamer cannon, confetti showers, lasers, fireworks-like pyro and flames of pyro. During each performance, audience members held up red, blue and white glow sticks that looked like tiny light sabers. (Many had also purchased the X Japan-branded, rose-shaped glow stick on sale at the merch booth; this item had sold out by Sunday.) Those who had a light in each hand frequently raised them over their head in the shape of the X; during certain songs of X Japan's set, they tossed their arms forward while holding the lights, creating a dazzling, unified display that augmented the band's stage effects.
X Japan generally stuck to the same setlist each night. These selections were well-paced, and illustrated the group's seamless mix of classical and hard rock influences. The cinematic strains of "Miracle" segued right into a chugging "Jade," which itself boasted nearly operatic vocals from Toshi, and then into a careening, chaotic take on the beloved hard rock classic "Rusty Nail." Next came a conversation-driven section which found Toshi and Yoshiki alone together on stage, improvising chatter amongst themselves.
The latter perched at his gleaming crystal piano to perform a stirring take on the Broadway-esque ballad "Forever Now" and the start of the roiling hair metal throwback "Kurenai," before switching back to drums to finish off the latter song. Yoshiki then returned again to the piano to play a snippet of new song "La Venus" from the forthcoming documentary We Are X, before things picked up again with the guitar-heavy anthems "Born To Be Free" and "X." The encore once again stuck to this pattern: Yoshiki took to the piano for a disco ball-aided power ballad "Endless Rain" and then returned to drums for a set-ending "Art of Life."
Despite the similar setlist, each X Japan performance was slightly different. Saturday night's set was probably the most cohesive and accomplished, although the loose atmosphere of Sunday's closing-night appearance also had its charms. In fact, the latter night brought a surprise during Yoshiki and Toshi's first solo appearances together. As the latter talked, the former absentmindedly played piano—which, Toshi joked, distracted him and made him want to sing. That led to a brief, unexpected medley featuring snippets of the X Japan songs "Dahlia," "Unfinished" and "Say Anything," much to the crowd's delight.
Toshi and Yoshiki's friendship and musical partnership was one of the most touching (and, at times, hilarious) aspects of X Japan's sets. Not only did their banter have the comfort and affectionate vibe that's only present when old pals are together, but their interactions amplified how much the members of X Japan support one another and clearly enjoy performing live. During night three's "Kurenai," Toshi crept behind Yoshiki's drumkit and made faces over his right shoulder. When Yoshiki whipped his head right to see what was behind him, Toshi had quickly moved left. The vocalist repeated his antics again, which caused Yoshiki to break into laughter (though not miss a drumming beat). During the weekend, Toshi often held up the mic to Yoshiki's face while he was drumming, so he could talk or sing; at another moment, the former poured water over the latter's head.
Plus, it was clear the members of X Japan don't take themselves too seriously. Before starting "Forever Love" on Saturday, Yoshiki amusingly realized he hadn't yet taken off the neck brace he wears while drumming, and therefore couldn't actually see the keys. He also tumbled off his drum kit every night during the encore due to exhaustion and exertion, but let the crowd know he was okay by mugging for a nearby camera, flashing a peace sign and then a crossed-arms X. And, to the delight of fans, band members often ended the night by chucking water bottles into the crowd, as if competing to see who could throw it the farthest.
Yet, X Japan's set balanced such levity with plenty of serious notes. The encore version of "Endless Rain" was subdued and emotional, with Yoshiki conjuring the Phantom of the Opera due to his intense playing, while a keening violin solo coda from Sugizo cemented the song's mournful edge. At one point, Yoshiki noted that Pata is "much better now"—a reference to the guitarist's serious health scare early in 2016, which caused the band to cancel shows and delay the release of its first studio album in two decades. And X Japan's former members—including and especially guitarist hide, who committed suicide in 1998, and bassist Taiji, who passed away in 2011—were omnipresent during the band's sets.
During "X," the names and birth and death years of each man were projected on the video screen, and they also received booming emcee introductions along with the rest of the band. Prior to the aforementioned Saturday performance of "Forever Love," Yoshiki said, "Let's do our song that brings back memories," and specifically mentioned hide. Perhaps as a result, the version of the song that night felt more delicate, careful and meaningful. "Thank you," Toshi even mouthed at the crowd after the song ended. Fans too honored the deceased members: Dozens waved stuffed hide dolls replete with his signature shock of red hair.
Yoshiki also nodded to X Japan's legacy at other moments. During a Saturday set from hide with Spread Beaver, Yoshiki paid a touching tribute to his departed friend and bandmate by guesting onstage and adding guitar to "Pink Spider" and lovely piano accompaniment to hide's 1996 single "Goodbye." The vocals from the latter song wafted out into the hall, as photos of hide from throughout the years flashed on the video screen. During the jam sessions, Yoshiki also honored X Japan's former members: On Saturday, he played hide's guitar—a bright yellow electric with red hearts— while he used Taiji's signature, rose-accented black bass on Sunday night.
Other bands at the summit also acknowledged X Japan's place in Japanese music history. Glay covered the band's "Joker" twice, bringing a high-energy, raucous edge to the proceedings. And on day three, Golden Bomber nearly stole the show. A visual kei "air" rock band—which means the members mime playing instruments to pre-recorded music—the quartet incorporated slapstick choreography and goofy stage props (such as a guitar made out of hot dogs and giant Cheetos, or a CO2 extinguisher) during its set. The quartet paired its jokey veneer with serious (and seriously catchy) music written by vocalist Shō Kiryūin, who also sings live. Even a visual kei-spoofing music video for the epic glam-metal song “Yokubo no Uta," which the band projected while performing the song, transcended its humorous foundation.
Even more amusingly, Golden Bomber performed this set while cosplaying as X Japan from its big-hair heyday: Kiryūin replicated Toshi's skyscraping, teased coif, while Kyan Yutaka adopted Pata's gigantic red mane and Utahiroba Jun's honored Taiji's more casual L.A. rocker look. To take the transformation one step further, Golden Bomber opened the set by covering X Japan's "Rusty Nail," and after the song, the band admitted to the crowd it was "renting" Yoshiki's "actual drumkit" for the set.
This casual aside would prove to be important later: Near the end of the band's last song, a high-energy performance of the hit "Memeshikute," Yoshiki suddenly appeared behind the drums and started pounding away at a frenetic pace. A gigantic, ecstatic roar emanated from the crowd, which was already a frenzied, frothing mass of synchronized headbanging and dance moves. To everyone's joy, Yoshiki led the band and crowd in a couple of "We are—X!" chants to end the set.
Yoshiki's support of the other artists on the bill was overt and consistent throughout the weekend. On Saturday, he and Vamps' Hyde (who's also in the beloved group L'Arc en Ciel) collaborated for a striking, brief duet performance. Hyde sported an all-black outfit capped with a fedora with a peacock feather for a two-song set that started with L'Arc en Ciel's "My Heart Draws A Dream" and ended with X Japan's "Say Anything." The former song featured Yoshiki's Elton John-esqe piano and Hyde's impressive vocal range; on the latter song, Hyde tackled the beloved staple with equal vocal confidence.
And during Sunday's extended jam session finale, Yoshiki took a copy of the weekend's schedule and carefully read aloud each and every artist which performed at the Visual Japan Summit. That acknowledgment was not only classy and absolutely thrilling for many of the bands—it reinforced how X Japan is using its influence and high profile to elevate other Japanese artists. Yoshiki said this himself from the stage during the third night. "Being able to get together like this is really overwhelming," he noted. "Please root for these bands you love from the bottom of your heart."
But what stood out even more is the connection X Japan had with each and every person in attendance. Each time the band performed "X," it included an extended bridge that featured call-and-response interactions with the audience. "We are—" the band members (mostly Yoshiki and Toshi) would shout. "X!" the crowd would scream back in response. Each time a musician uttered the phrase, his voice would grow increasingly desperate and cathartic, which no doubt explains why Yoshiki was completely hoarse by the Visual Japan Summit's end.
Occasionally, however, the initial entreaty from X Japan members would switch to "You are—" instead. It wasn't entirely surprising: X Japan's lyrics touch on universal themes—loss, beauty, love and memory—which means the barrier between artist and audience has always seemed to melt away, especially live. However, the phrase change was also an enormous nod of respect to fans, as well as a significant acknowledgment of how important supporters are to X Japan's enduring success—something Yoshiki also mentioned near the end of the final performance.
"Thanks for always rooting for us," he said. Later, he added: "Keep doing your best. I love you all."
However, it was easy to love not just X Japan, but all of the artists performing. Save for the first night, each day of the Visual Japan Summit ended with a jam session featuring "Anarchy in the U.K." and then an equally spirited version of "God Save the Queen," which found everyone on stage howling the latter song's rallying cry ("No future!") at the top of their lungs. This negativity might have seemed incongruous with the weekend's generally positive tone. However, the mass of artists transformed the sentiment into a positive: The Visual Japan Summit was all about enjoying the present—and embracing the fact that the future of both visual kei and Japanese music actually felt unwritten and wide open to possibility.
If you'd like to experience the phenomenon that is X Japan yourself, check out the new documentary We Are X, playing in select theaters nationwide. For more information, click here.
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