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America, meet Yoshiki

In Japan, the heavy metal drummer-pianist is so big that Hello Kitty released a likeness of him. He and his band, X Japan, play Lollapalooza next month. He wants to keep building on that.

July 25, 2010|By Chris Lee, Los Angeles Times

High school pals Yoshiki and Toshi formed the group in 1982, when social conformity still gripped Japan. X — as it is known in its homeland despite the L.A. punk band of the same name — played slashing heavy metal, wore eyeliner and embraced a look of androgynous steampunk, resembling leonine aliens from anime films more than anything the Japanese rock firmament had ever produced. Yoshiki (full name Yoshiki Hayashi) remembers being rejected by every major record label and facing the slings and arrows of critics in the early years.

"There were all these rules: if you play super-fast heavy metal, you cannot wear makeup," he said. "Critics said X are crazy looking. They can't play music. So I just went completely against everything."

In the process, the group launched a movement called visual kei that rocked Japanese social mores by infusing a fantasy-based look with the standoffish individualism of glam-rock and punk. Over the years, X Japan has become the biggest act ever spawned by the Land of the Rising Sun (where chirpy J-Pop and even hip-hop abide but nearly a dozen visual kei bands pay fealty to X Japan); it has sold more than 30 million units — albums, singles, DVDs and videos — and sold out the 55,000-seat Tokyo Dome no fewer than 18 times.

Moreover, Yoshiki became synonymous with anime moviedom by providing the soundtrack for several popular Japanimation features you've probably never heard of. Which may explain what the guy touted as "to Japan what Bono is the to U.K." was doing at downtown Los Angeles' Anime Expo earlier this month.

The scene: a fundraiser for the unveiling of the Yoshiki Foundation America featuring a rock performance-cum-fashion show. There, many of the band's fans milled about dressed as their favorite anime avatars: Sailor Moon lookalikes, young women dressed as French maids and guys dressed in plastic Voltron armor. Upstairs in the VIP section, Yoshiki directed a scene for a music video starring none other than comic book legend Stan Lee as Satan.

Lee explained how he had become buddies with Yoshiki over the last two months, hoping to enlist him to help with a show "like Cirque du Soleil" that Lee's Pow! Entertainment has in development. "I learned he's the rage of the Orient, musically, and a classically trained pianist," the 84-year old Lee said. "So we felt Yoshiki might be perfect to create music for this spectacular show."

Despite X Japan's prominent performance spot at Lollapalooza, not everyone surrounding Yoshiki shares his enthusiasm. Not that it fazes him.

"Japanese management, a lot of people said, 'You're not going to make it in America or outside Japan,'" Yoshiki said. "That makes me want to do it even more."

He continued: "People say, 'You cannot get to the moon.' I want to get to the moon! The moon being the American market."

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