God Speed You! Black Emperor

No, not anything to do with the Montreal post-rock band of the same name, this is the 1976 cult documentary by Mitsuo Yanagimachi that the Canadians took their name from.

Goddo supiido yuu! Burakku emparaa, to give it its Japanese title was director Yanagimachi’s debut feature length film. It was produced by his own independent production company, Purodakushon Gunrō.

Shot in 16mm monochrome, it examines a young Japanese biker gang and opens bang in the middle of a confrontation between the Black Emperors and the cops. The young bikers – or bōsōzoku, as motorbike gangs are known as locally – heavily outnumber them, so this is relatively easy.

Bōsōzoku roughly translates as ferocious speed tribes but ferocious might not be a word that would spring to mind in describing the young men here.

Gang names tend to be things like Pants and Vagabond and Beggar and at one point mention is made of a rival gang called the Pink Panthers. Not names that would even strike terror into the hearts of a bunch of bingo playing grannies.

God Speed You! Black Emperor - Bike

Decko claims to be their leader and to live in a tunnel. Cut to him eating breakfast and watching television in what I’d guess is his parents’ kitchen in a long block of brutalist apartments.

Education was never a priority for these bikers. One even claims he never went to school but it’s probably best not to believe everything they say. Teenage bravado is never far away as we observe them planning rides or discussing the future of their gang.

These bikers resemble their Western counterparts in many respects but there are just as many differences. For starters they have a very different look. While Hell’s Angels at this time favoured long hair and black leather, the Bōsōzoku often have short hair or pompadour cuts and nearly all shun leather. Rather than helmets they wear hachimaki headbands, the gang name written in English rather than Kanji, with a swastika decorating the space between Black and Emperors.

Maybe like earlier Hell’s Angels or early punks in London around the same time, this was adopted to piss off the older generation rather than as a way to signal their political allegiances. Maybe not, the swastika in Japan has many positive connotations and is commonly used on maps to denote Buddhist temples although with the upcoming Olympic games being held in Tokyo, this is to be phased out. I digress.

Anyway, the Black Emperors love being anti-social. They rev their engines at every available opportunity, the motorcycle’s roar being their favourite sound, possibly because it infuriates large sections of the public. Ditto tooting their motorbike horns.

They show off while riding en masse, swaying their bikes as they ride and weaving from one side of the road to the other. They get high. They fight. They goof around while listening to a morbid pop song on the radio.

If they watched the Roger Corman flick The Wild Angels, you could bet your bottom yen that they’d collectively nod their heads in agreement with the sentiment of Peter Fonda’s declaration: ‘We wanna be free. We wanna be free to do what we wanna do. And we wanna get loaded. And we wanna have a good time.’

Some Bosozuku

Not that being in the gang is always a blast. Problems surface with parents and court appearances are always a possibility. Even among their own numbers, punishment beatings are common enough if a member is perceived to have broken gang rules. This takes in slaps, kicks and forced eyebrow shavings rather than the sort of gruesome retributions portrayed in Sons of Anarchy.

Although quitting the gang isn’t approved of, I’m guessing that rather than adhering to the biker code for life like many in the West, these youngsters were only seeking some camaraderie, rebellion and a sense of freedom before adulthood in the shape of marriage and responsibilities beckoned.

In Tokyo, when Yanagimachi was shooting his documentary, the Bōsōzoku were much more common than they are today. In Japan around this time home grown biker flicks were proving very successful at the box-office, with 1975’s Bakuhatsu! Bōsōzoku (Detonation! Violent Riders) starring Sonny Chiba being one of the most popular. And you just know with that title, this has to be something everybody should see. Numbers swelled as the film craze peaked.

Almost forty-five years on, they’re a vanishing breed.

Black Emperor's Rally

God Speed You! Black Emperor is slowly paced to the extent that modern viewers may judge that some scenes drag on. There’s no huge climax or revelation like so many documentaries today. At times the sound of camera whirr is clear and in the version I watched, the subtitles are poor. But it’s highly watchable. A fascinating glimpse into a world I knew little about.

This is one of the last films to be classified as Japanese New Wave, along with Nagisa Oshima’s controversial In the Realm of the Senses – aka Ai No Corrida. Both released in 1976.

Japan’s ‘Nuberu Bagu’ kicked off around the same time as France’s Nouvelle Vague but lasted longer and judging by those two films, rather than fizzling out, it ended on a real high.

The Leather Boys (1964)

If you like God Speed You! Black Emperor, then you might also like The Leather Boys. It was made in 1964, as the mods versus rockers feud was making front page news in Britain with the two competing groups being seen as the country’s latest folk devils.

It’s the only British new wave film to focus on youth culture – and would make a great double bill with Quadrophenia. I do much prefer the ‘mod’ film, although The Leather Boys is more authentic. The Ace Cafe in North West London, for example, is an important location. This was where many real Rockers spent time drinking coffee, smoking and spinning the likes of Gene Vincent on the jukebox, with rows of Triumph and Norton bikes parked outside. Many of the extras you see are real ton-up boys and director Sidney J. Furie was keen to ask them for their advice on the rocker way of life.

Lead leather boy Colin Campbell featured on the covers of a couple of releases by The Smiths and snippets from the film were superimposed over Morrissey in the video for Girlfriend in a Coma. Doubtless the singer was attracted to the film as he’s such a fan of British movies of this era and The Leather Boys, like A Taste of Honey and The L-Shaped Room, also features a gay character – a relative rarity in the first half of the 1960s.

Campbell died last year, and a convoy of bikers who were Ace Cafe regulars joined the funeral cortege of the London born actor.

Finally, some music from the band God Speed You! Black Emperor. This is East Hastings as used in the soundtrack of 28 Days Later, a movie made when Danny Boyle was taking risks rather than directing cosy high concept cop-outs like Yesterday.