December 1, 2023
by Helen McCarthy.
Classical pianist, hard rock drummer, guitarist, composer, songwriter, producer, visual kei pioneer, founder of two record labels, fashion designer, collaborator with brands from Baccarat to Hello Kitty and beyond, keynote speaker at a Stanford University conference on the future of social tech – all this, plus a 13-year partnership with a Napa Valley producer on his ‘Y by Yoshiki’ range of wines, appearing at Otakon 2006, and inspiring a comic book superhero for a comic he co-created with Stan Lee and Todd McFarlane, adds up to a career for which the word eclectic is wholly inadequate.
This is aside from Yoshiki’s recorded output on vinyl, CD and video: eleven solo albums including tributes and compilations, four solo singles, and over 30 singles and albums in his career with groups Violet UK, L.O.X. and Globe, and the 40-plus albums and 20-odd singles he made with X Japan. He formed his first band aged 11 with his school friend Toshi; X/X Japan came a decade later.
Given this work rate, it’s hardly a surprise that Yoshiki hasn’t had time for his feature film directing debut until his sixth decade. Or, more accurately, until a global pandemic pressed pause for everyone and stop for far too many.
Full disclosure: Yoshiki fangirl, here. I reviewed this film with my Starlight Yoshiki doll beside my monitor. While acknowledging the flaws in a rookie director’s first film, I’m perhaps more inclined to put them into context than another reviewer. All artists work within their context, and Yoshiki’s context is a dark and glittering mix of classical elegance, rock stardom, and sudden early death.
So it’s not surprising that he spends time in this film talking about the loved ones who took their own lives: his father when he was just ten years old, his former bandmates Hide and Taiji, both to apparent suicide by hanging. Then a pandemic piled new loss on remembered loss for people all over the planet. He is very aware that his fans mourn personal losses. Extracts from a video conversation with a recently bereaved fan form some of the most moving segments of the film.
It’s not uncommon for directors to centre their own experiences in their films. The decider is how well they do it. Yoshiki’s constant return to the losses that have both defined and scarred him is not a drawback to the film, but lends it a reflective, intimate quality. Those moments cut though the superstar glamour and showmanship to the baseline of humanity: no-one here gets out alive, the lucky ones just get a little longer. I was reminded of Shigeru Mizuki’s belief that, as the only member of his platoon to have survived the Pacific War, he had a duty to live for all those who didn’t get the chance.
In the same way, the reliance on similar staging and shooting for the musical segments is only a drawback if you want a playlist of music videos with constantly switching styles and backgrounds. The overall style is one familiar to anyone who watches classical concert videos. The environment, with Yoshiki and his orchestra on a rooftop, either working live with his co-stars or intercut with their performances elsewhere in the world, imposes its own constraints, and the artists and director work within them.
Yoshiki’s showmanship is as solid as his musicianship, both earned over decades. Apart from brief archive clips showing himself and his bandmates in all their crazy glampunk pomp, the Yoshiki we see in the film is calm, reflective, soft-spoken; but he still hits his drums like a boss and makes playing classical piano with a guitar slung over his shoulder then swinging it into his lap to play a rock interlude look effortless. His perfectionism, constantly revising scores, reviewing plans, checking and rechecking every element, emerges from the sneak peeks into his working process that thread through the other segments, the music and the fan engagement. The work itself is the third strand in the braid that ties everything about Yoshiki together: the other two are his constant awareness of loss, and his constant gratitude for his fans.
The editing leaves a few seconds of black screen here and there, and smoother segues between sequences might have been better, but it didn’t bother me. The sequences themselves are terrific. All the musicians involved, from relative newcomers like boy band SixTONES (pronounced ‘Stones’) to divas Sarah Brightman and Nicole Scherzinger, give it their best. SixTONES deserve extra kudos for performing ‘Imaginary Rain’ on a rooftop under very real Tokyo rain. Sugizo, St. Vincent, violinist Lindsey Stirling, veteran German rockers The Scorpions, and the Chainsmokers all deliver solid performances.
Hyde performs ‘Red Swan’, the theme song Yoshiki wrote for the first 12 episodes of Attack on Titan season 3, in stunning voice, and the song’s popularity is underlined by video snippets of fans from all over the world giving their own performances on YouTube, including one version in sign language. Yoshiki was apparently unaware of all these unauthorised cover versions of his hit until he began to make the film, and seems genuinely delighted to draw them into his world.
Yoshiki: Under The Sky is more than a music documentary or a concert film. It began as a project to thank his fans for all they have given to him, a concert with some of the Japanese and international stars he has worked with. That plan came to a halt in 2020 when international travel was no longer possible, and was revived in a new form, as a film for fans to watch and enjoy whenever they wish. Whatever any critic may say, this film will find its audience: among them, the guy taking his wife’s ashes to a Yoshiki concert, the girl signing Red Swan on YouTube, and me, sitting at my monitor with my Starlight Yoshiki doll beside it.
Helen McCarthy is the author of A Brief History of Manga. Yoshiki: Under the Sky is released in UK cinemas today.