Yoshiki Hayashi, drummer and creative mastermind behind Japan's biggest rock band, X Japan, is calm amid the chaos in the VIP Room at L.A.'s Club Nokia, where he is both directing and starring in the video for his band's upcoming single, "Born to Be Free." He floats past a horde of extras dressed in Hot Topic Goth and stops to examine a skyscraping woman in black vinyl leggings, her face pancaked in white foundation. He says, "The corset on the vampire needs to be tighter." No sooner does a P.A. give the corset's three belts a good yank, prompting its wearer to gasp for air, than another one approaches Yoshiki with two pairs of fangs, and offers, "This one's more jagged, this one's a little sexier." The story line calls for the vampire-cum-dominatrix to track down Yoshiki in a crowded nightclub and to sink one of these into his neck. Yoshiki studies the fangs intently. "I'll take the sexy ones," he says.
Since the 1980s, X Japan has sold more than 30 million records and packed out the Tokyo Dome 18 times, comfortably eclipsing Bon Jovi. (And you know Bon Jovi is Big in Japan.) Now, with their first-ever U.S. tour kicking off this month, to be followed by an English-language album due early next year, X Japan's legendary frontman—who endorses a plethora of products, from energy drinks to a credit card bearing his likeness; who even has his very own Hello Kitty doll, the Yoshikitty—is plotting his American rawk offensive. "Born to Be Free," which blends operatic Freddie Mercury-like vocals with the propulsive force of Metallica circa ... And Justice for All, is his opening salvo.
And yet the song still needed tweaking as recently as 4 a.m. this morning, and after 18 hours of shooting at Club Nokia, Yoshiki's lack of sleep is starting to show. Wearing tight black pants, a white wife-beater, and oversized aviators, Yoshiki settles into the director's chair and calls "Action!" The vampire, seething with anger and lust, strides purposefully through the packed club, pushing people out of the way; she's bearing sexy fangs, she's looking for Yoshiki... who, though he isn't supposed to be in this shot, suddenly bounds out of his chair without saying cut, quickly getting the rapt attention of the DP. "The shove at the end needs to be more dramatic and forceful," he says. The shot is restaged. Then, when the song starts up again over the set's sound system, Yoshiki's face looks stricken. "It's the fucking wrong version!" he screams. The sound man looks on helplessly as Yoshiki cues up the right one. "This is it," he says, punctuating his words with a jab at the button.
It seems like everywhere you look on set, there's a rock cliché being used without irony: leather-clad band members; women dancing in elevated cages; cannons shooting off pyrotechnics. Later, while reclining in a makeup chair in his dressing room, Yoshiki acknowledges that X Japan may become critical laughingstocks. "If they want to nail us to the ground, nail us," he says with a shrug. "We were always the black sheep in Japan. No one thought we could go mainstream. But we did. And now we're ready to rock the world."
From left: Guitarist Tomoaki "Pata" Ishizuka, bass guitarist Hiroshi "Heath" Morie, and vocalist Toshimitsu "Toshi" Deyama, playing at Club Nokia in Los Angeles. Yoshiki is not pictured.
Yoshiki turns 45 in November, and if he wants to become a worldly rock god, it had better happen soon. "I feel like I'm a time bomb," he says. "Besides, I've always wanted to conquer the U.S. Why not now?"
It probably can't go any worse than his first attempt. In the early nineties, after rising to the top of the charts in their homeland with hit songs like "Stab Me in the Back," "Endless Rain" and "Sadistic Desire," X Japan set their sights on the United States—first by changing their name from "X" (they didn't want to get mixed up with the L.A. punk band), then by signing a multi-million-dollar deal with Atlantic Records and holding an elaborate press conference at the Rainbow Room in Rockefeller Center. But the high-concept album that followed, Art of Life—comprising a single track inspired by Schubert's unfinished Symphony #8—held no appeal for an American teenaged public that had just been punched in the face (and liked it) by Nirvana's Nevermind. Then there was X Japan's wild, androgynous look, which, despite having spawned the popular, equal parts cute and threatening Visual Kei movement (which in turn would help launch the anime craze), only made them seem more out of touch. "None of us spoke the language then," Yoshiki recalls. "It's one thing to cultivate mystery, but it's completely different when you're mysterious only because you can't communicate properly."
Today the barriers to translation may not be as great, as social-networking tools have made it easier for bands to communicate directly with their fanbase. (While he professes no interest in Facebook or MySpace, Yoshiki finally opened a Twitter account during the run-up to X Japan's U.S. concert debut at Lollapalooza in early August—and garnered more than 12,000 followers in less than 12 hours.) Another reason for optimism lies in a larger cultural shift, wherein Japanese artists have proved ever-more adept at appropriating bits and pieces of American culture and returning them in new and exciting forms. "We're in an age of mashups, fan sites, bit torrents and YouTube," says Roland Kelts, author of Japanamerica: How Japanese Pop Culture Has Invaded the U.S. "A culture that mastered the art of imitating and copying original ideas is right in tune with the 21st century."