By Robert Ham, Doc - Mitsuo Yanagimachi: Godspeed You! Black Emperor (1976)
In his book Retromania, peerless cultural critic Simon Reynolds spends an entire chapter talking about a particularly "Japanese sensibility": "the way that [they] would curate, assimilate and reprocess Western popular culture.
"According [journalist W. David] Marx, in Japan style is not personal, a matter of cultivated quirks and differences, but impersonal, an external standard to which you have to measure up."
While Reynolds was used the above points to frame his discussion of Japanese music and its tendency to reflect back on sounds and ideas from the American and European counterparts, they just as easily port over to another facet of Japanese youth culture: bosozoku motorcycle gangs.
These teenage bike enthusiasts first sprung up within the country during the 1950s, the same time that
hundreds of young people in the U.S. were being similarly inspired to buy their own motorcycles, all thanks to the Marlon Brando film The Wild Ones.
But, like the music of Japan, these gangs spent as much time trying to meet up with the aesthetic standards of their Western counterparts, rather than initiating their own style. And like many of the current crop of Japanese bands still hearkening back to sounds of yore, the bosozoku bike gangs haven't changed styles and attitudes in the 50+ years since.
It's to the point that, as writer Alex Apple writes on his blog Snowblood Apple about the 1976 documentary Godspeed You! Black Emperor, i"[the film] feels almost timeless - it could have been filmed 20 yeas earlier or later."
Apple is absolutely spot on in that assessment. The look of the film—choppy black and white with sharp edits and long sequences of bike rides through the city streets of Tokyo—could have come out of the early French nouvelle vague world, and the slight narrative pieces that are threaded through the early part of the film are likely conversations and scenes that could be happening right now.
This brings us back to Reynolds/Marx's point that most Japanese styles are created out of already-existing archetypes but recreated in quaint, borderline ersatz way.
Hence if you're watching Godspeed for the first time, you might balk briefly at the Black Emperor's use of the swastika as their key trademark. But to these kids—and they are all kids in their late teens—it is the epitome of danger and badassedness, reminiscent of a precocious 13-year-old drawing one on his Trapper Keeper just to see what kind of reaction it will provoke.
The ultimate signifier of toughness -- violence -- is, too, only discussed in passing throughout the movie. The Black Emperors talk a big game about beating members or shaving off their eyebrows as punishment, but the closest you get to seeing any of that is when one member is slapped for stealing money from the gang's fundraising drive (You read that right: this is a bike gang that has fundraising drives). And as far as run-ins with other gangs, the Black Emperors only seem concerned with the number of bikes each has out on the road.
I also kept mentally coming back to what I had read in Retromania while watching the one storyline that the film sticks with, that of gang member Benzo.
Benzo is already established early on in the film to be something of a poseur, having proclaimed to one of the newest members of the gang that he is homeless and lives under a bridge. Director Mitsuo Yanagimachi then cuts to Benzo having a quiet breakfast in the kitchen of his family's apartment. He's all toughness and bravado until it comes down to actually facing some real trouble.
In the film, the issue at hand is Benzo's arrest as a suspect in the trashing of a taxicab. He's facing a court date, which to the rest of his gang is likely a badge of honor. But in one-on-one conversations with the director and a particularly harrowing scene where he discusses his court appearance with his mother while she makes origami flowers, Benzo vacillates between machismo and fear. He practically begs his mother to go with him to the trial, but then seems vaguely annoyed at the notion of getting up early to get to the courthouse on time.
Once the Benzo situation is resolved (I'll leave it for you to watch and see how that happens), the film carries on for another 45 minutes or so. But those scenes with Benzo linger and color the rest of what the film depicts.
The long, meandering bike rides, and the playful and sometimes gruff interactions between the gang members...they all feel so transitory. Benzo and his cohorts feel like they are earning a teenage rebellion merit badge before settling into real life. As the photographer Masayuki Yoshinaga points out in his book on bosozoku gangs of the recent pastii, most of the members of these groups retire by the time they are 20 and move onto the conveyor belt of adulthood.
So, if anything Yanagimachi's film is a perfect snapshot of young men being young men, aping the actions and styles of their Western peers, before doing the same with the folks from their home country. It's not a cautionary tale, it's a beautiful sociological and anthropological document.