J-Cin Sundays: Godspeed You! Black Emperor – Biker Gangs and How to Get Angry in Japan

Title: Godspeed You! Black Emperor
Director: Mitsuo Yanagimachi
Year: 1976
Notes: This documentary was the inspiration for the name of post-rock band Godspeed You! Black Emperor, which honestly is the only reason I sought it out.

TLDR: A bunch of kids ride bikes around real fast and commit petty crimes.

Everywhere you look, some part of society is getting shit on. When it’s not based on race, it’s almost always driven by class.

In Japan, these guys are the Bosozoku – “the violent running tribe” – aka Japanese bikers, or “douches on bikes.”

Bosozoku work like soccer hooligans or French supermarket raiders: Strength in numbers. A group can go out and speed through suburban streets at 2 a.m. because one suburban cop can’t stop them.

They wear full-body jumpsuits and face masks – the same worn by sick Japanese folks – and they have tricked out bikes that look like they’re from outer space.

On summer nights I hear these guys, mufflers removed, breaking through the sound of chirping cicadas with the enormous buzzing farts of their engines. They ride without helmets (!), speed and weave in traffic.

Mostly, though, they wake me up.

The Heyday of the Violent Running Tribe
Back in the ’80s, these gangs had more power in numbers – their peak was 1982, when the National Police Agency cited their membership at 42,510 (though one has to wonder where they got such a specific number). With an army of bikers on the highways there was plenty of time for public disruption, including the charming bosozoku trait of riding at 5 m.p.h. on main roads just to cause traffic jams.

Since the 1990’s, the bosozoku have become a conveyor belt for alienated punk kids into the hands of the yakuza.

“Many bosozoku pay a tribute to yakuza gangs on whose turf they ride and in turn make money by extorting cash from other teenagers. In a notorious case [in 2000] a Tokyo gang ordered three boys aged 16 and 17 to obtain 120,000 yen (£750) for them. The boys committed 15 robberies to get the money, including one on a dentist who lost an eye in the attack.”
The Telegraph

The National Police Agency saw the gangs decline down to 9,064 members in 2011, a change from their heyday – when the gangs were responsible for a whopping 80 percent of juvenile crimes.

But as the numbers dropped, the gangs had more trouble fighting each other (and police). So as the gangs’ membership dropped over the 1990s, the weaker they got. The weaker they got, the more dependent they were on the yakuza for protection.

They’re still a bad-ass presence in major cities, especially Tokyo, where these guys look like they’re on light bikes from the year 20X5:

But Back in the 1970s
Godspeed You! Black Emperor is a documentary about the eponymous biker gang, the Black Emperors, based in Tokyo in the 1970s.

Back then, you could join a biker gang, trash taxi cabs and paint swastikas on your head to piss people off. It was punk – rebellious, but not particularly violent.

These kids were unemployed thrill-seekers and social dropouts, but in the film it’s hard not to like them, in part because their rebellion seems ultimately harmless.

We spend a lot of time watching kids act annoying on the streets of Tokyo without any coherent narrative, just revving engines and screaming through a bullhorn. It’s not an overtly political message, except that it is: “We are here.”

There’s no real story to tell; just short portraits of rebellion in Tokyo in 1976, Beautiful-Losers style:

One kid is short 100 yen for coffee, so he asks a stranger for it and then breaks into the park for a shortcut so he won’t have to get a train home.

One kid blasts some psych-rock to drown out the sound of his mom chanting in the living room.

They do drugs, they get into fights, and… they organize fundraisers selling stickers to school girls.

It’s standard entry level teenage delinquency. People liked the thrill of running from the cops for low-risk crimes. Like shoplifting or graffiti in the states, kids basically broke the law for the thrill of pulling something off. Because driving fast, breaking stuff and spray painting things is fun.

The kids in the movie don’t seem like “bad guys,” just bored kids with no hope or pretense of being anything else.

And like everything that’s a little rebellious and a little fun, it blew up in everybody’s faces.

Angry Japanese Guys
When the second act of a biker documentary is an argument about where the raffle ticket money went, you know we’re not dealing with the Hell’s Angels.

But the confrontation plays out in a very Japanese way. The leader sits and calmly berates the deadbeat, who looks four feet ahead and silently listens.

“I beat you up many times because you didn’t keep your promises!”

And then the leader, looking sullen, punches the guy in the head. There’s no reaction, just looking four feet ahead as the leader looks sad. He gives words of encouragement and then kicks the guy in the face, twice.

I’ve noticed this a lot in Japanese discipline. Whenever a teacher disciplines a kid, it’s a lot of calm, quiet conversation, interspersed randomly with loud, angry barking – sometimes just one word out of every five is shouted or growled.

It keeps the kid’s attention. It’s a really unsettling way to conduct that sort of business, because it just makes things tense for everybody involved. I think I’d actually prefer the non-stop screaming of American discipline. I don’t want to relax and think we’ve sorted things out just to get arbitrarily kicked in the face after being told I need to work harder.

Which makes the first act a little more understandable – a kid is about to go to court. He’ll go to reform school unless his mom tells the judge she won’t kick him out of the house. The dad has a very sink-or-swim attitude about his son, but believes the kid didn’t commit the crime. But you’ve got to assume that when the camera isn’t running, something else is going on. That “something else” probably looks a lot like the beating in the ramen shop.

The guys who stole the raffle tickets get a beating. We never see it. We only know this because a biker henchman comes over to their apartment to have a casual chat about how the last time he beat the shit out of him it wasn’t good enough because his face wasn’t deformed.

The conversation seems longer and more painful than a real beating, and the victim looks more annoyed about the endless, boring lecture than scared of a consequent face kicking.

As a story goes, it’s boring watching two guys get lectured at by some douche. But it’s a really good look at how Japanese people get angry and negotiate conflict.

Which, in Godspeed You! Black Emperor, involves people talking about their hurt feelings, with short bursts of violence, until one party gets so bored that they give in just to end the conversation.

In Summary
Godspeed You! Black Emperor is a cool movie to watch when you’re doing something else, but the film seems aimless and meandering after the first 50 minutes, and by then you have another 40 to get through. I can’t say this was worth the struggle of tracking it down.

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1 Response to J-Cin Sundays: Godspeed You! Black Emperor – Biker Gangs and How to Get Angry in Japan

  1. Roberto says:

    I always wondered where that awesome band got their name. I will definitely get my hands on this documentary!

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