KISS, the never-ending merchandising machine, is still relatively popular in Japan and periodically releases Japan-exclusive products. In the past we’ve seen black KISS spicy steamed buns and just recently we were treated to a KISS collaboration music video with popular Japanese idol group Momoiro Clover Z. But if you aren’t satisfied merely eating or watching the band, you now have a chance to transform into one of its members in mere seconds using the newly released KISS Face Pack.
Face packs are a part of the beauty regime of many women (and men) in Japan. Filled with collagen, hyaluronan and other hard-to-pronounce words that are supposedly good for you, face packs promise to revitalize even the driest of skin. They usually come in plain white, making the wearer look like some kind of ghost, but recent updates have brought us kabuki, cat, and panda varieties.
But these KISS-inspired face packs are by far the coolest ones we’ve seen. Here’re the Starchild (Paul Stanley) and Spaceman (Tommy Thayer) versions, sold in a two-pack for 900 yen (US$7.57).
The Demon (Gene Simmons) and Cat (Eric Singer) are also available for 900 yen.
Since face packs aren’t widely used in the United States and Europe, Isshin, the creators of these fancy face packs, wanted to bridge the gap by printing a popular Western image.
Western readers, what do you think? Have these KISS face packs convinced you to try out a new beauty regime? Although face packs are supposed to revitalize the wearer’s skin and reveal a more beautiful complexion, you’ll just have to settle for looking like a make-up-wearing rocker until it’s time to peel the face pack back off.
As one of the world’s biggest rock stars, Yoshiki Hayashi is at his most comfortable playing stadiums, basking in the adoration of tens of thousands of screaming fans. On a scorching-hot day in August, though, a thousand or so curious folks at the Baltimore Convention Center would have to do. Yoshiki had flown from Los Angeles, where he lives part-time, to perform at Otakon 2014, the country’s second-largest anime festival. The event was an opportunity for attendees to promenade in costume as their favorite fictional characters and for the Japanese musician to chip away at the tough-to-crack American market.
Wearing a gray frock coat and leather pants, Yoshiki, 48, strode onstage at the center’s drab ballroom a little after noon, taking a seat behind a piano. The audience, teeming with girls dressed as sorceresses and boys decked out as inter-dimensional manga ninjas, sat politely attentive as he and a string quartet performed selections from his recent highbrow foray Yoshiki Classical. The album had gone to No. 1 on iTunes’ classical charts in ten countries, none of them the United States—not bad, but ho-hum for Yoshiki, bandleader and drummer for X Japan, a heavy-metal group that’s sold 30 million singles and albums worldwide (and a mere 3,500 or so here). There was pleasant applause for the song he’d written at the request of Emperor Akihito and the romantic tune he worked on with ex–Beatles producer George Martin. Then Yoshiki raised his hand for silence. “X Japan,” he said in his high-pitched voice, “have decided to rock Madison Square Garden.” Fans shrieked as X Japan rhythm guitarist Pata and bassist Heath, fresh in from Tokyo, both resplendent in ruffles and studs, walked onstage. (Singer Toshi and lead guitarist Sugizo were at home dealing with other promotional duties.) Three-fifths of X Japan unleashed a few minutes of bombastic hard rock, a teaser for their October 11 concert at the World’s Most Famous Arena, the 32-year-old outfit’s biggest-ever U.S. headlining performance. As Pata and Heath took their bows, Yoshiki made the kind of request he wasn’t used to making. “If you’re around,” he said, “please come to our show.”
“I live a double life,” says Yoshiki, sitting in his dressing room later. “It can be very strange. Though I like having a country to go where I can buy groceries and no one notices.” The quantitative facts of Yoshiki’s career are irrefutably impressive—he and his band have sold out the 55,000-seat Tokyo Dome 18 times, for example—but to an American interviewer, it’s still cognitively wonky to hear this unassuming guy in lipstick and a leather jacket say things like “I remember asking David Bowie about the best way to draw the line between real life and onstage life” and “I tried to book a studio but I couldn’t do it because Metallica was using it, so I bought the studio for several million dollars.” In Japan, “it’s a Michael Jackson level of insanity around Yoshiki,” says Guns N’ Roses guitarist Richard Fortus, who has played with X Japan. “It was shocking to witness.”
Yoshiki is used to his humbler status on this side of the Pacific—sort of. “I was at the Golden Globes in 2012,” he says, waving away a handler’s offer of a sandwich wrap (he’s on a no-carb diet). “One of the red-carpet interviewers said, ‘Who are you? I don’t need you.’ ” He grins—what a world, right? “That would never happen in Japan.”
So why bother with America? The Madison Square Garden show is not part of any larger tour, and while it should satisfy the band’s tiny U.S. audience, it’s hard to see it creating many new fans. (Yoshiki estimates that half of the ticket buyers are Japanese expats living in New York.) Then there’s the music—ridiculously over-the-top heavy metal—which doesn’t sound like anything on domestic radio. And sure, Yoshiki has been called the “Bono of Japan,” but the other Bono—see the underwhelming response to U2’s recent Songs of Innocence—isn’t exactly at a peak of cultural relevance.
Yoshiki knows the odds, and he doesn’t care. “When I was 18, I said we would sell millions of records and fill the Tokyo Dome, and we did,” he says matter-of-factly. “For a new goal, I realized that every band in the world wants to play MSG, so it’s time to do that, too.”
This isn’t the first time the band have tried to break Stateside. In 1992, X Japan signed with Atlantic Records and came to Rockefeller Center’s Rainbow Room to announce the deal. The press conference was a disaster. “We didn’t speak any English,” says Yoshiki. “We had no idea how to communicate. I like to be mysterious, but no one cared.” A planned album was quickly scuttled.
It wasn’t until 2010 that X Japan again ventured westward. But rather than road-dog their way to new fans, Yoshiki & Co. played a mere seven North American cities, all with large, presold Asian populations. So how does X Japan plan to make headway in America when they have no tour dates outside of Manhattan and haven’t released an album of new material in 18 years? Speaking over the phone and through an interpreter, Toshi answers obliquely and optimistically. “We are a band,” he says, “that looks forward to challenges.”
They’ve had plenty. X Japan’s back story is a Behind the Music narrative blown up to epic proportions. When Yoshiki was 10, his father committed suicide. To help him cope, his mother bought him a drum kit. At a record store in his home city of Tateyama that same year, he had an epiphany. “I saw a Kiss album cover,” Yoshiki remembers, still lounging in the dressing room, fiddling with his crucifix-and-handcuffs necklace. “I asked the people at the store to play it for me.” He nods. “That was,” he says, eyes gleaming, “my entrance to rocking.”
Inspired by Kiss’s theatricality and the Sex Pistols’ anti-authoritarian sneer, Yoshiki and his friend Toshi formed X in 1982. (The “Japan” was added in 1992 to distinguish the band from the Los Angeles punk stalwarts X.) Taking as their motto “the violent crime of visual shock,” Yoshiki, Toshi, bassist Taiji, and guitarists Pata and Hide became, in Yoshiki’s words, “human animation characters,” teasing their hair into elaborate gravity-defying structures, donning makeup and gender-bending outfits. “At the time,” recalls Yoshiki, “cabs wouldn’t stop for me because I had spiked blond hair. Now they would—if I took cabs.”
The band performed pummeling songs with titles like “Orgasm” and “I’ll Kill You” that quickly placed the quintet at the forefront of a flamboyant new movement dubbed “visual kei,” which is essentially Japanese glam rock. “The Japanese can be very conservative,” explains Ryu Takahashi, a former publicist for Sony Music’s Japanese division, “but there’s a long tradition of androgyny and extremism in the culture, and X Japan tapped into that.”
Then—cue ominous voice-over—everything went wrong. In 1997, Toshi left the band and joined a mysterious community called Home of Heart. “I don’t call it a cult,” he says, “but they did brainwash me and con me out of money.” In 1998, the charismatic Hide reportedly committed suicide, hanging himself in his apartment following a night of heavy drinking. X Japan split up. “It was too painful to carry on without my friends,” admits Yoshiki.
For a while, anyway. In 2007, he says, “we decided to bring back the dream.” The reunion peaked with concerts at the largest venue in Japan, Nissan Stadium in Yokohama (capacity: 72,327), during which Taiji, who’d been kicked out of the group in part for his alcoholism, was welcomed back. But things took another tragic turn when the bassist was rendered brain-dead after a failed suicide attempt. He died in 2011. “Our band has been so full of drama,” Yoshiki says quietly. “It’s almost like it’s too bad to be true.”
That drama has helped keep X Japan famous at home when most other visual kei groups have faded away. “There’s always some People magazine story with them,” says Takahashi. “The gossip keeps people interested.”
For now, things seem to be trending in the right direction. “Only four years ago we played in the United States for the first time, and now we are playing Madison Square Garden,” says Toshi. “That’s proof we’re rising in popularity.” Yoshiki is optimistic, too. “Fifty thousand people in Tokyo or 20,000 people at MSG,” he says, “the size is not the point.” He leans forward. The point is that “X Japan,” he says, grinning, “must keep trying to rock the world!”
On Saturday, Aug. 9, more than 40,000 people descended upon Montreal‘s Parc Jean-Drapeau for the first day of Heavy Montreal, North America’s biggest heavy metal festival. The main draw was headliner Metallica; respected veterans in Anthrax, Voivod and Overkill; and upstarts like Municipal Waste and Protest the Hero featured on the eclectic undercard. Early in the day though, it was a performance by a trio who performed a confounding, surreal fusion of bubbly Japanese pop and edgy heavy metal that attracted the crowd’s attention.
The metal scene loves to wring its hands over anything that upsets the status quo, and Babymetal have been especially polarizing in 2014. After all, co-opting metal music and juxtaposing it with J-pop melodies and Japanese “idol” fashion, choreography, and marketing will do that. The cries of foul have been predictable, skeptics up in arms about the act’s seeming lack of sincerity, its “corporate” approach, its prefab quality. It’s a common complaint in an era when the mainstream side of heavy metal is stuck between the nostalgic and the milquetoast. The best-selling metal acts of the past 12 months are a hodgepodge of old-school heroes (Black Sabbath), late-’90s holdovers (Korn, Godsmack), younger bands that pander to the lowest common denominator (Avenged Sevenfold, Five Finger Death Punch) and the odd mild bright spot (Volbeat). It’s as if post-millennial mainstream metal doesn’t know where to go next. There’s little galvanizing the entire metal scene anymore: The older metal crowd has its favorites, the kids have theirs, the underground carries on and never the twain shall meet. The fact that the sudden notoriety of this shrewdly marketed trio of teenaged Japanese singers has brought people together in a combination of excitement, confusion and revulsion is not a bad thing at all.
What Babymetal’s naysayers tend to forget is that heavy metal is no stranger to contrivance and gimmickry. Some of the most popular heavy metal albums ever released were awfully contrived, whether the carefully honed sleaze of Mötley Crüe’s Shout at the Devil and Guns N’ Roses’ Appetite for Destruction, Metallica’s made-for-the-masses Black Album and Def Leppard’s similarly intended Pyromania, or the calculated cathartic sounds of Pantera’sVulgar Display of Power and Korn’s Follow the Leader. Even today’s extreme metal is laden with gimmicks; just look at the cartoonish Satanism of Watain and the Viking shtick of Amon Amarth. Heavy metal is as much about contrivance as it is about substance, and often its best bands have been able to skillfully combine the two. What makes metal so uniquely charming is that the bands and their audiences buy into those contrivances and gimmicks fully, without irony.
Babymetal doesn’t hide its contrivances at all. A product of the Japanese pop idol stable Sakura Gakuin and the vision of producer and longtime metal fan Key “Kobametal” Kobayashi, the project embraces metal’s most enduring and endearing tenets — fantasy, escapism, theatrics, bombast and sheer volume — and that solid, skillfully played metal foundation cleverly grounds a wildly eclectic sound that incorporates elements from trance to synth-pop, to dubstep, to reggae, to J-pop at its most manic and overtly “cute.” It’s also brilliantly self-referential, the group’s manga-style fantasy storyline involving some wonderful parodies of metal’s “Big Four” of Metallica, Slayer, Anthrax, and Megadeth. Speaking toMetal Hammer magazine, Kobayashi eloquently explained the method to his madness:
“As a longtime metal fan, I always used to say ‘That’s not real metal so I’m not listening to it!’ I’m a metal purist too, to be honest. But I realized that the scene isn’t really getting any bigger. All the old-school metal bands are still around and there’s still a fanbase, but it’s all getting smaller. So to bring Japanese metal around the world, it has to be something different and original. It’s like sushi! Sushi came from Japan and people had never eaten it before, and now everyone eats sushi all over the world.”
A good number of those people singing Babymetal’s praises are old enough to remember when heavy metal was contrived and awesome because of it. Jeff Walker of death metal legends Carcass has been effusive in his praise, and Metallica are reportedly fans. In the metal media, veteran writers like Metal Hammer‘s Dom Lawson, Metal Rules‘ JP Wood and Metalsucks‘ Vince Neilstein have all gotten on board. Not all old-schoolers have gravitated to the squeaky voices of 16 year-old Su-Metal and 15 year-olds Moametal, and Yuimetal, but those who have recognize that undeniable element of fun that somehow has become lost over the years in a sea of equally contrived darkness, hostility and antisocial sentiment. The bearded dude in the patch vest might not want to admit it, but in metal, it’s okay to smile once in a while.
The broad appeal of Babymetal’s stylistic free-for-all to younger audiences is key. Having never known a world without the Internet, where every form of music is easily accessible in seconds, the millennial generation doesn’t give a damn about genre boundaries whatsoever, and that ultimately could fuel metal’s next sea change. With much of the genre recycling formulas, clichés, and tropes in ouroboros-like fashion, metal is poised to head in two opposite directions at once, splitting between becoming a strictly traditionalist genre, or completely embracing non-traditional styles of music and instrumentation. The latter is happening more and more, above ground and below: Finland’s Oranssi Pazuzu incorporates krautrock elements into its black metal sound. Tristan Shone’s Author & Punisher creates otherworldly industrial metal using his clever inventions. Deafheaven scored a crossover hit in 2014 by meshing searing black metal with contemplative shoegaze. Enter Shikari has attracted a large youth audience with its blend of metalcore and electronic music.
The traditional side of metal, whose myriad subgenres are separated by strict limitations, will always flourish, but metal’s future evolution lies beyond those self-imposed walls. While Babymetal’s shelf life remains to be seen — their swift success is also an apt reflection of contemporary pop music’s highly ephemeral quality — its emblematic of a mindset in metal that will only become more common in the years to come. This is only the beginning.
Many in the big crowd that Saturday afternoon in Montreal were mostly curious about what Babymetal would be like, how this music could be pulled off live. The feeling of uncertainty was palpable as the backing band, clad in robes and kabuki-style facepaint, strode onstage, followed by the three pixie singers. Clad in matching schoolgirl/warrior outfits that serve as an apt visual representation of that J-pop/metal hybrid, the trio’s playful yet badass choreography felt awkward initially. Like any band that emphasizes the more theatrical side of the music, it’s best experienced in a setting more controlled than an open-air festival. Plus there were a couple technical glitches, and poor Yuimetal was smacked when Su-Metal’s thrown fox mask boomeranged into her face, but the three young women didn’t miss a beat, remaining in character while the crack supporting musicians played some scorching music accentuated by backing tracks.
Before long the band and singers, the music and choreography, started to coalesce, and the crowd had bought into the gimmick of it all, jumping, raising fists, singing along to hit singles “Megitsune” and “Gimme Chocolate!!” In an inspired tongue-in-cheek moment, an accompanying video implored the mosh pit to stage a “wall of death“, stating wryly, “If you show true courage, we will show true metal.”
The crowd divided in two, the mellow intro to “Ijime, Dame, Zettai” started, and as soon as the speed metal riffs kicked in, both sides of the crowd sprinted into each other, bodies flying, thrashing, dancing. Only unlike a Lamb of God or Slipknot show, the aggression wasn’t negative, but a reflection of pure joy. Everyone had a smile on his or her face as a fire hose shot plumes of water high in the air, cooling off the euphoric throng.
“We are!” shouted the girls.
“BABYMETAL!” replied the crowd in unison.