Sunday, October 16, 2011

REVIEW: Godspeed You! Black Emperor

ゴッド・スピード・ユー! BLACK EMPEROR

Released: 1976

Mitsuo Yanagimachi

Taro Akashi
Katsutoshi Iwanaga
Makoto Sugiura
Kimio Tsukamoto
Yoshibumi Yokoyama

Running time: 90 min.

Reviewed by Chris MaGee

The older generation has always looked at the younger generation with a mix of hope and fear. More often than not fear outpaces hope. Their children don't play by their forebears rules. In most cases they aren't even aware of them, or they disagree with them on some fundamental level, or in some cases they don't care enough to acquaint themselves with them. This eternal generation gap has manifested itself in various ways in film. The dark end of this spectrum is a genre of film that is best described as "youth gone wild". Hollywood excelled in these kind of productions during the 1950's with Laslo Benedek's "The Wild Ones", Richard Brooks' "Blackboard Jungle" and Nicholas Ray's "Rebel Without a Cause". It seemed that, at least according to these films, enemy number one during this superficially sunny and oppressively conservative post-war decade wasn't the Russians or domestic communist sympathizers, but our own children. This phenomena wasn't exclusive to the United States though. Japan during the 1950's was also looking aggressively forward, and anyone who wasn't on board with distancing the country from its crippling defeat in the war was a liability. Once again the youth were targeted in film as being one of the greatest dangers to this post-war reconstruction. Films like Takumi Furukawa's "Season of the Sun", Ko Nakahira's "Crazed Fruit" and Yoshishige Yoshida's "Good-for-Nothing" started a whole trend of "zoku" or "tribe" films, where unruly and bored youth rode roughshod over Japanese tradition. These "youth gone wild" films never really went away in notoriously homogeneous Japan. Teens and young adults continued to be portrayed in film as "the nail that sticks up and needs to be hammered down", as the old Japanese proverb goes; but only a handful of filmmakers chose to meet Japan's younger generation on its own terms. One of the most famous and accomplished examples of this is indie director Mitsuo Yanagimachi's debut 1976 documentary "God Speed You! Black Emperor".

Over a two year period Yanagimachi, then working as an assistant director at Toei Studios, assembled a guerrilla crew of cinematographers and set out to chronicle the lives of the teenage members of the Black Emperor, one of Tokyo's bosozoku, or "violent running tribes". These 17 to 20-year-olds make it a mission to tear through the streets of Japan's capital on their motorcycles blasting their horns, declaring their gang name through megaphones, scrawling graffiti on walls and generally misbehaving in the streets of Shinjuku. In our age of metal detectors in high schools and youth packing semi-automatic firearms, the antics of the Black Emperor seem tame, but in 1970's Japan they inspired outrage amongst good Japanese. Instead of taking the moral high ground position on these teens Yanagimachi decided to speak to them, and their -harried parents, individually. The true face of the bike gang is represented by 17-year-old Decko, a boy, who like so many in the gang, take on a lawless pose, but who are at heart just wayward kids who live at home with mom and dad. In Decko's case his parents have been a safety net, someone to come and make bail if he's taken in by the police for trashing a taxi cab (something Decko says he had no part in) or illegal gathering with the other Black Emperors. Scenes shot in Decko's parents' modest apartment don't show the fatigue of dealing with an out of control child... but again, by our present day standards, Decko is hardly a criminal sociopath.

This innocence mixed with antisocial tendencies is really where the electric charge of "God Speed You! Black Emperor" comes in and makes this a film that continues to stand the test of time 35-years after its production. Yanagimachi and his crew of five cinematographers splice together scenes of the Black Emperor members with the same reckless energy that they live their lives. Shave away the drug addiction and nihilism of the punk revolution that was happening in New York and London at around the same time and you have basically the same organic youth revolution -- one deeply suspicious of their parents authority and influence, one drunk on hormones, boredom and seemingly limitless possibility. Like the UK punks the Black Emperor employ the swastika (which was lifted from Asia to begin with) as a means to shock authority figures, and like the filmmakers who captured the US and UK punk phenomena Yanagimachi injects raw power into his film with inky black-and white footage and the latest rock n' roll. The Black Emperor aren't musical revolutionaries though. They are self-admitted "loafers" who, if they even have a social or political agenda at all, make their point by being absolutely non-contributing members of society.

Eventually the story of the Black Emperor gets dark, at least in terms of its members growing up and wishing to leave the gang, and its leader trying to prevent them with volleys of punches and kicks. Something in these boys knows that they can't stay outlaws forever. They probably realize that being penniless forever won't exactly bring them much luck with girls, who are entirely absent from gang life. It feels that if Yanagimachi had showed up a couple of years later he would have missed this explosion of rebellion. Thankfully that wasn't the case, and now we're left with this film that shows us that these kids aren't the enemy of society at all, but just a stage of societal growth. "God Speed You! Black Emperor" is not so much a documentary, but a timeless cinéma vérité drama that shows us a group of children teetering between ruin or the rest of their lives.

1 comment:

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