Yoshiki seeks global rock glory for X Japan

The Associated Press
Tuesday, March 8, 2011; 10:41 PM

TOKYO -- Yoshiki has sold more than 30 million records. Concerts by his heavy metal band X Japan pack stadiums. Everywhere he goes, he is trailed by screaming fans. But that's just being big in Japan.

Yoshiki has his eyes on bigger horizons: fame in the global music industry.

It's not enough he has his share of followers in neighboring China, Taiwan and South Korea. What he wants is stardom in the U.S., the home of rock 'n' roll.

"I want to be a household name," Yoshiki told The Associated Press in a recent interview. "If you're going to do something, there is nothing but reaching the very top."

A Los Angeles resident for more than a decade, Yoshiki, 45, has carefully planned his international debut, studying not only the Western music scene but also the English language.

A new album of X Japan hits - tailor-made for American listeners, with lyrics translated into English and the tracks heavier on the bass - is set for release this year, complete with a U.S. tour.

Last year, X Japan made its American performance debut at the Lollapalooza music festival in Chicago, alongside established artists including Lady Gaga and Green Day.

Still, Yoshiki, whose surname is Hayashi but goes by one name, knows he is aiming for a success that has long eluded Japanese pop artists.

The only exception has been Kyu Sakamoto, whose hit song "Sukiyaki" topped the 1963 Billboard charts. No one has come close since. Acts such as Puffy and Shonen Knife drew some attention, but mostly for their quirkiness.

Yoshiki believes X Japan's chances for international glory have never been so good, given the foreign interest in frilly "costume-play" fashions, "manga" comic books and animation - all key parts of so-called "cool Japan" cultural exports.

So, can X Japan join sushi, video games and Hello Kitty as a Japanese gift to the world? Are Americans ready for X Japan?

"I'm not sure," said Yoshiki, who is soft-spoken and polite offstage, hiding behind dark glasses, in contrast to his fierce, trancelike stage persona. "In the U.S., anything can happen. I think we have a chance."

X Japan was founded in 1982, when Yoshiki was still in high school. The band went on to pioneer an entire genre in Japan called "visual rock," characterized by doll-like makeup, flashy costuming and spiky, colorful hair. X Japan disbanded in 1997, but has periodic comeback concerts.

Yoshiki, who started studying piano when he was 5 and drumming at 10, writes the X Japan scores, which juxtapose pensive balladic moments with the frantically throbbing beat and energy of rock.

American musician Marilyn Manson compares Yoshiki with rock icons like Mick Jagger, Iggy Pop and David Bowie.

"They can make it wherever they want," Mason told the AP when asked of X Japan's chances for success outside Japan. "His music is very, very strong. It is important. It is very American."

Izumi Narita, an 18-year-old high school student from suburban Tokyo, is another believer.

"There is no other band like X Japan," she said. "It's fantastic how Yoshiki stoically pursues what he believes in, without ever compromising."

Less optimistic is pop music critic Steve McClure, the former Tokyo bureau chief for Billboard magazine, who doubts X Japan's appeal can extend beyond a niche audience.

"Good luck to Yoshiki. But don't hold your breath," he said.

To duplicate the kind of fame Yoshiki has achieved in Japan would be a challenge for anyone.

He has glossed the covers of dozens of magazines. He has his own line of jewelry, his own video game, his own wine. At a recent fashion show, he showed "Yoshikimono," a punk-inspired kimono. Former Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi is among his fans.

When X Japan guitarist Hideto Matsumoto, 33, nicknamed Hide, was found dead in his apartment from an apparent suicide in 1998, the nation went into mourning. A teenager died in one of several copycat suicide attempts that followed.

Over the years, Yoshiki has expanded into producing bands for his label Extasy Records, and writing movie scores such as "Saw IV." In 1999, he wrote and performed a classical piano composition for Emperor Akihito and Empress Michiko.

Yoshiki acknowledges that if he becomes famous in the West, he might miss the anonymity he now enjoys in the U.S. to go grocery shopping without getting mobbed by fans.

"I'll deal with it when I get there," he said.

Fame is important because music saved him, Yoshiki says. The root of his creative drive is a hidden rage inside, the anger and loneliness he felt growing up, not understanding why his father committed suicide when Yoshiki was 10, leaving him, his mother and his brother.

"I had nowhere to turn" except for music, Yoshiki said. "Then, I realized there was no need to suppress my feelings in music. Music is wonderful. I want to help others, too, and give back to music."




© 2011 The Associated Press