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Review © Alex Apple, 2005.

Directed by Mitsuo Yanagimachi, 1976, 90 min.

Youth culture? What's that then? Nowadays, you might consider youth "culture" to be represented by the surly, be-hoodied creature sitting next to you on the bus, swearing at some unknown caller on his mobile phone while simultaneously swigging from a bottle of alcopop and smoking a joint.  Kids these days, huh?

Fine, except the problem is by no means a new phenomenon.  Ever since teenagers found themselves a voice (and found they could piss off their elders by aping the behaviour those same elders indulged in in their youth) society has been bemoaning the fact that, well, kids these days are just so out of control.

Which brings us nicely to Godspeed You! Black Emperor, Mitsuo Yanagimachi's debut feature and, of all things to feature on this site, a documentary.  Although filmed over 1975-6, a time when in Europe disaffected youth was starting to gain its true voice of revolt in punk, GY!BE feels almost timeless - it could have been filmed twenty years earlier or later.  It charts the life of young men in their late teens or early twenties, all members of the Black Emperor motorcycle gang, a grouping which desperately wants to shock by showing its swastika logo but which at the same time, with its hierarchical structure, its fund-raising drives, its determination not to be seen as a bunch of gangsters or junkies, desperately wants to find its own semi-conformist niche. 

The group is in crisis - its numbers are dwindling, the regulars showing up to its regular club meetings are shrinking alarmingly, yet the grandees have such a sense of tradition (derived from all 8 years of the club's existence) that they feel they just cannot allow the Emperors to die gracefully.  Sure, the sense of adventure, of rebellion, are still there, but it's well reined in.  Confrontations with the police are usually ineffably polite; drug use is pretty much frowned on; they don't even speed all that much.  Maybe it's indicative of Japanese society at the time that the Black Emperors are far more restrained in their behaviour than the British mods and rockers were in the fifties and sixties. That said, most of the activities of the Emperors seem to be riding motorcycles about in large groups and goofing off in the way that teenage boys always seem to do, talking up their achievements, miming to pop records, pretending to be anti-establishment.

In the first few minutes of the film, we see the Emperors' clubhouse, their Hanaya, as a swathe of members introduce themselves to the rest of the group and the camera. Already you can smell the machismo, the pervasive stench of excessive testosterone, as each talks himself up. They say they're jobless, homeless – yet it's Yanagimachi that proves otherwise by depicting these some of these kids' family lives. And it's hugely noticeable that the only women to feature in the movie are the Black Emperors' mothers. No girlfriends.

As things move on, it becomes clear there's no central driving narrative to GY!BE. The closest Yanagimachi comes to one is his long conversations with Decko, one of the Black Emperor grandees, who's about to appear in court for being with a group that smashed up a taxi. His parents are clearly at their wits' end with their pocket rebel of a son, to the point that Decko's dad, sick of being made to write countless apology letters to the police, has had him arrested for hanging around with some no-good hoodlums. Nevertheless, despite the bravado Decko really, really doesn't want to go to jail and virtually begs his mum to accompany him to court. This is the side of Decko that, you can't help but feel, would really quite like to conform, even if only to get himself out of trouble. However, when we see him emerge from the court hearing, devastated at the prospect of losing his licence for 125 days, he's resolutely parent-free and runs straight into the metaphorical arms of another Emperor. Still, you can't help but wonder how much he is in thrall to his parents.

Once this central narrative concerning Decko semi-resolves itself, Godspeed You! Black Emperor does start to wander. There's only so much riding about on motorcycles in the middle of the night that you're able to watch without some degree of overkill setting in, and while Yanagimachi knows it's a powerful image, it's just about the only powerful image he has at his disposal. You can't help getting the feeling that he wanted to show much more, but was stymied. If the Emperors are such a tough gang, why don't we get to see a ruck, rather than the odd minor run-in with the police? And, if these Bousouzoku motorcycle gangs are truly a gateway into the Yakuza, why is that barely hinted at? Granted, ostensibly they do fashion themselves as a "touring club", rather than full-out gangsters, but you can't help wonder if that's just a front for the film makers: we see a little defiance in front of the police, we hear about how liars are punished by having their eyebrows shaved off, how punishment beatings are common. Only once do we actually see this alleged brutality, when one member has embezzled funds he raised on a fund-raising drive, and even this just amounts to random slaps in front of everyone in the Hanaya.

In the end, though, really this is a movie about young guys riding motorcycles, no more, no less. The latent cool factor is high, but palls after a while: Wild Zero, or even Easy Rider, this is not. Grainy, technically flawed and woefully low-budget, it's irritating in places, and could do with losing ten minutes or so to tighten up the pace a little. Certainly towards the end, the documentary starts to wander and you wonder if the last few scenes are just padding designed to bump the movie up to the required running time of ninety minutes. Nevertheless, as a reminder of classic teenage rebellion, of the sheer joy that can be gained from riding a motorbike round with two hundred other people next to you, of a now semi-extinct phenomenon, of just being young, Godspeed You! Black Emperor cannot be recommended highly enough.

Snowblood Apple Rating for this film:
Entertainment Value: 7/10
Violence: 1/10 - one (1) hand on one (1) policeman's shoulder, and a bit of slapping a debtor about
Art: 8/10
Sex: 0/10
Motorcycles: several hundred
Girls: 0
Mothers: plenty
Oedipus Complexes: probably loads

Films in a Similar Style: very, very few.

*** Recommended!***

Godspeed You! Black Emperor Wallpaper
please note: the actual paper does not have the Snowblood Apple logo on it.

You can download this wallpaper here: [800x600] [1024x768]
Wallpaper credit: Alex Apple, 2005

Snowblood Apple Filmographies

Mitsuo Yanagimachi

Links

Very little seems to exist on the net about this admittedly obscure movie, and most searches give up thousands of links to the Canadian post-rock band of the same name. It's meagre pickings, and this is all we turned up:
http://www.superhappyfun.com/product.cfm?whereme=157
- SHF have had the movie translated and subbed for the Western fan market
http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0261555/ - IMDB page on the film
http://www.jmdb.ne.jp/1976/cz002020.htm - the JMBD entry
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bosozoku - interesting article on Wikipedia about the Bousouzoku motorcycle gangs and their links to the Yakuza

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