Yoshiki Hayashi is the most famous person you’ve never heard of. Known simply as Yoshiki by his legions of ardent fans, the 57-year-old is one of Japan’s most celebrated musicians, having sold 30 million records with the rock band X Japan and sold out the Tokyo Dome—the city’s colossal 55,000-seater baseball stadium—a record 18 times. Besides personifying the genre of Visual Kei—Japan’s answer to glam rock—as the drummer, songwriter, and ultimate leader of X Japan, he’s also a classically trained pianist and composer. In 1999, Yoshiki swapped out platform boots and heavy makeup for a tie and tails to perform his own classical arrangement for former Emperor Akihito on the 10th anniversary of his enthronement. Add to this his own Hello Kitty doll, kimono line, perfume, and credit cards, and you may start to get a sense of the size of Brand Yoshiki.
But Yoshiki’s fame stretches beyond the borders of his home country. After moving to Los Angeles in the 1990s in pursuit of international recognition, the musical enigma has made his mark in the U.S. He’s sold out places like Madison Square Garden, collaborated with Gene Simmons and legendary Beatles producer George Martin, and even been immortalized by late Marvel legend Stan Lee in Blood Red Dragon, a comic book series starring the rockstar as a superhero. On Nov. 5, he’ll present the music documentary Yoshiki Under the Sky in Los Angeles. Recently, he played a series of shows in celebration of the tenth anniversary of the album Yoshiki Classical.
“I’m ready to rock,” he told TIME in October amid rehearsals for a performance at Carnegie Hall. It was a classical music show but Yoshiki couldn’t resist throwing a little drum solo into the mix.
In a life marked by tragedy, both emotional and physical, the artist puts his whole self into performance. Yoshiki has endured unfathomable loss. His father died by suicide when he was 10-years-old as did his former bandmates Hideto “HIDE” Matsumoto and Taiji Sawada. He’s lived in near constant discomfort from injuries caused by his sometimes self-destructive devotion to his art. He wears a neck brace when he drums due to years of head-banging, has severe pain in both hands that is exacerbated by playing piano, and has undergone two major back surgeries since 2009. “Some people say the way I play is suicidal,” he told TIME in a 2019 interview.
Yet surrounded by plush toys, mini macaroons, and what must be 150 long stem roses in the sprawling penthouse suite of Shanghai’s Shangri-La hotel, Yoshiki showed little sign of trauma, other than a discrete skin-colored wrist support under his wet look pleather blazer. While his ever-present sunglasses obscure his heavily made-up eyes, he was all smiles, hair-flicks, and selfies as he worked his way through a full morning of local press interviews. He’s expert at answering the frivolous questions — “What’s your favorite thing about Shanghai?”; “The xiao long bao soup dumplings, of course.” “What animal would you most like to be?”; “A panda, what else?”. As he toured the world promoting Stephen Kijak’s 2016 award-winning documentary We Are X — in which Yoshiki opened up about parts of his past for the very first time — Yoshiki Under the Sky, was being filmed.
When Yoshiki spoke with TIME in 2019, he had just returned from a red carpet event simultaneously promoting X Japan’s first studio album in 22 years (Toshi eventually became estranged from the cult and two new members joined the band), the We Are X documentary, and the animated film Spycies for which Yoshiki wrote the score. After 15 minutes freshening an already-perfectly made-up face, he was ready to meet my questions, the lights, and the lenses. Explaining why he embarked on another documentary so soon, the petite and softly spoken man across the couch says that while We Are X “only touched the surface,” opening up on camera was the best therapy he’s ever had. “The tears I shed were kind of like washing my past and my pain away,” he whispers. “Maybe I want to feel even better.”
So we talked about his childhood. How his father, a tap dancer and a jazz pianist, showed no signs of depression, showering him with presents and attention until the day he took his own life. Yoshiki recalled returning home from band practice to find his father laid out on the kitchen floor surrounded by family members. They told him and his younger brother he had died of a heart attack, but Yoshiki overheard the truth. To this day, he still does not know what triggered the suicide. “It’s like my family started living our lives as if he didn’t exist,” he says.
We talked about HIDE’s death and his own subsequent thoughts of suicide and retreat from public life until the performance for Emperor Akihito finally forced him out of the shadows. But when I asked why he fired Taiji in 1992, five years before the band played a New Year’s Eve farewell concert at the Tokyo Dome, a slow tear cuts a path down his face. While he eventually answered, he did so on the condition that he can retract the statement at a later date. Yoshiki ultimately exercised that right. “Some things I may want to take with me to the grave,” he said.
Whether or not he will ever be able to open up entirely about the most mysterious parts of his past, Yoshiki believes his life’s mission is to help others in dark times, either through his music or his story. As his fingers ripple across the keys to the tune of X Japan’s 1996 hit ballad Forever Love at a small concert earlier in the day, it’s clear that the 200 or so surprisingly young fans in attendance connect deeply with the song’s mournful sentiment. Yoshikitty dolls and phone torches are held aloft as the crowd gently sings, sways, and weeps.
But for a man who claims he’s wanted to die since that pivotal day when he was 10, Yoshiki still has one big life goal to realize. Just like his eclectic influences of Mozart, Tchaikovsky, The Beatles, and Queen, he is determined to see his undeniable talent be recognized worldwide in his lifetime. “I’m very confident about every song I write, but if I become more famous and influential, I want to feel that fame before I die,” he says with no hint of false modesty. “I just want to create music that will last hundreds of years.”
If you or someone you know may be experiencing a mental-health crisis or contemplating suicide, call or text 988. In emergencies, call 911, or seek care from a local hospital or mental health provider.