The Black Emperors were formed in Tokyo in the 1960s and disbanded officially in 1992. Originally based in Kunitachi, Tokyo, the gang became notorious for their exploits around the city, which included violence and theft, as well as more subversive links to organised crime. Between 1975-1976, film director Mitsuo Yanagimachi made his debut feature, God Speed You! Black Emperor, a documentary which chronicles the lives of the gang members as they try to come to terms with the responsibility of being a part of a gang with rigid hierarchal structures. The film is a stark portrayal, not just of a generational sub-culture, but of Japanese society itself. The disenfranchised nature of the Black Emperor’s membership sees teenagers who have been misunderstood by parents and abandoned by the authorities. But what was it that drove these kids to reject a normal life, and join one of the most hardened bōsōzoku gangs in Japan?
Japan of the mid-1970s was a country coming to terms with the internal violence of the previous decades. The 1960s saw multiple issues affecting Japanese society; political scandals, public demonstrations against government policy and the Vietnam War. Add to this, a continually growing nationalist movement, internal fighting between political parties, students, and various pressure groups which led to violent incidents and multiple deaths. One cause of the violence was the U.S. Japan Security Treaty, which was initially signed in 1951 but, despite attempts to stop the ratification, was revised and resigned in 1960. Throughout the 1960s, there were multiple demonstrations against the treaty – these included the organised student and political groups, but for the first time ordinary citizens had mobilised to vent their anger at, what they saw as, a threat to peace and the possibility of being involved in a regional war with the U.S. This, as far as the activists were concerned, was a flagrant disregard of democratic ideology.
“Even government treated them with a certain degree of respect, deeming that they were fighting to create a better society.”
Up until the early ’70s, there was a considerable amount of sympathy towards the activists, particularly the student movement. Even government treated them with a certain degree of respect, deeming that they were fighting to create a better society. However, as the decade wore on, violence escalated as groups became fragmented. This was mainly due to splintered ideologies within the various factions who vehemently disagreed about courses of action. Some members favoured peaceful demonstrations, whereas others demanded violent opposition. The situation escalated with the advent of the Vietnam War, and saw prominent groups emerge, such as Peace for Viet-Nam! and Citizens Union (Be-hei-ren) and the Committee of Anti-War Youth (Hansen Seinen linkai). However, the separation of groups brought with it various problems, such as the lack of a common goal and, more importantly, an increase in confrontation and violence. This resulted in a loss of public and political support, and due to the frustration of many at the lack of direct action, some student organisations turned to more extreme measures. This led to the formation of communist militant terror groups such as the United Red Army (Rengou Sekigun), and the Japan Red Army (Nihon Sekigun), both advocating violent protest and imminent revolution. The groups went on to commit terror acts such as the Lod airport massacre in 1972 and the Asama-Sansou hostage incident in Karuizawa in 1972. Both incidents resulted in the death of both police and terrorists, but most importantly, the incidents had pushed public patience to the limit, and any support that these groups may have had disappeared as the public became weary of this constant violence. Also at this time, crucially, the Japanese economy had begun to boom, and as people began to experience a relatively comfortable lifestyle, their thoughts drifted from the complex political ideologies of those who, just a few years previously, had been in positions of relative power.
In the ’70s, Japan had the third largest GDP, mainly due to economic restructuring which saw a swing away from the reliance on imports and an increase in exporting. However, in such cases, and as people become more affluent, a division was created between those that were part of this upturn. This issue is arguably where Yanagimachi’s documentary truly focuses. God Speed! features a social class produced from the ashes of Japan’s troubles. These are people who belong to neither the political intellectuals or protesters, nor the new prosperous Japan. Within the film, we are witness to families who are in a kind of ‘social-limbo’. They exist in a fragmented and ignored underclass, and are stranded in a country where being part of a group is an expected social norm. The director examines how these people grapple with life, and the measures that they will go to be part of something, no matter how distasteful it may be.
The Black Emperors are far removed from any stereotypical representations of motorcycle gangs which are seen in western cinema. There is no sense of the violent but sensitive Brando in The Wild One (Benedek, 1953), or the freedom and hedonism of Easy Rider (Hopper, 1969). In contrast, God Speed You! Black Emperor is a soulless, claustrophobic commentary on the rigid hierarchal social structures, and the lengths that people will go to belong.
“Of course, it is probably fair to assume that the director needed (or was ordered), to be discreet.”
Yanagimachi’s film is considered to be the definitive bōsōzoku documentary. He chronicles the life of the Black Emperors, following various members around the streets of Tokyo. Filmed in a cinéma vérité style, the director resists camera movement choosing to just ‘point and shoot’ the action. Gang members bicker, argue and fight about all manner of issues and at times, these confrontations become extremely uncomfortable. However, despite the film’s stark portrayal of social issues, there is a sense that something is missing, and we are left with a feeling that we are being denied full access to the inner workings of 1970s bōsōzoku life. Of course, it is probably fair to assume that the director needed (or was ordered), to be discreet. Links with organised crime, for example, are non-existent, but it is a commonly known fact that the gangs were working under the auspices of more violent well-organised criminal organisations. There is also the notion that once a member reaches a certain age, he is then promoted from a jeans and leather biker, to a sharp-suited ‘mobster’. A recent conversation with a well-respected ex-bōsōzoku member, who rode in Hiroshima in the late ’70s, revealed that, for many members, the promise was often better than the reward, “it was about what could be … of course we made money doing various jobs, but really it was all about power … to make the leap from the one who executed orders, to one who gave them”. Yanagimachi stops shy of a full exposé, we are left wondering ‘who is actually pulling the strings’? One of many examples occurs when two Black Emperor members go to buy a new motorcycle. Armed with cash, we are not given any kind of clue as to where this money came from.
What is most confusing, however, is the hierarchal system, which is employed by the gang. The Black Emperors seem to rely on a well customized and severely rigid ‘Feudal type’ social hierarchy. The importance of ‘member order’ is highlighted throughout as bosses reprimand lower order members (often with violence), and younger members stray. For example one junior steals money, a crime which is seen as deeply offensive to the older members of the gang, and we are present at his ‘trial’, where he is barraged with questions, advice and physical abuse. Ultimately, one wonders why anyone would want to forsake one constricting social order, to be a part of another which, for the most part, inflicts more stringent rules with much more severe punishments.
God Speed You! is a documentary, which both fascinates and infuriates. The plight of the kids – the lack of hope, the need to belong – comes across extremely clearly, as does their position (or lack of it), in society. However, the actual inner workings of the gang, where the money comes from, who is funding the Black Emperors, the crimes committed, is completely ignored and leaves you wondering ‘what exactly is going on here’?