Sunday, 5 April 2009

Godspeed You! Black Emperor (Japan, 1976)

Famous nowadays for lending its name to the Canadian post-rock collective, Mitsuo Yanagimachi's 1976 documentary follows a Tokyo motorcycle gang called the Black Emperors. Unlike the outlaw gangs of Hunter S. Thompson's Hell Angels, the Black Emperors are depicted as bike-obsessed male teens indulging in a bit of anarchy - painting their logo on a wall (in English with a swastika nestled between the Black and Emperor); there's talk of rallies and rumbles with rival groups, but the most heat the gang catch is from the cops breaking up their meeting or frisking them down for weapons and drugs. Early on in the film one of the Black Emperors pleads with his mother to go with him to court, as a character witness so he might escape a jail sentence. That said, the film includes a rather edgy sequence where a young Black Emperor is punched and kicked in the face as a punishment for some transgression against the group. Its a key sequence in the film as Yanagimachi seems to have caught the group in perhaps the death throes of its 8 year existence - early on in the film, a senior Black Emperor appeals to the riders for greater unity, but by the end of the film, the group is facing an uncertain future and tries desperately to cling onto departing members.

Marking their territory: the Black 卐Emperor logo

Biker movies had been popular in Japan in the early 70's, and Yanagimachi's independently produced film was picked up for distribution by Toei to some considerable success. The film, shot in 16mm black & white is appropriately grungy looking with inky dark visuals and the ever constant whirl of the camera on the soundtrack. The soundtrack itself features a pretty good sampling of 70's Japanese rock and proto-punk. The film is available on DVD in Japan, (sadly unsubbed), and in various grey market editions elsewhere. My copy was put out by Superhappyfun, and while it looks great - sourced from a clean print, the subtitles never quite seem to be in sync with the action.


  1. Wow - after all the jokes about bad dubbing of Japanese movies - now someone's figured out how to put the subtitles a little out of sync too? Masterful! I'm not sure this one would be up my alley - but under the right circumstances and without too much effort needed on my part I could sit down with this one.

  2. Yeah, the version I saw was a fan-made edition so I shouldn't complain too much. It's a good documentary though, I like those kind of shadowy subcultural worlds. It would make for a nice double-bill with Scorpio Rising