An underrated film about teenage sub-culture, youth and defiance
Mitsuo Yanagimachi's Godspeed You! Black Emperor (1976) is these days more famous for having inspired the name of the celebrated Canadian post-rock band than for actually being seen by audiences as a great film in its own right. However, if you are at all interested in Japanese cinema and, by extension, Japanese culture, then it is really the kind of film that is worth tracking down. Though, admittedly, most current available versions of the film feature quite poor-subtitling, the themes of the film and the relationships between the various characters are all fairly easy to understand regardless of such limitations; with the film really being more about the mood and the atmosphere created by the filmmakers, as opposed to any notion of complicated plotting. If you can get behind this approach and appreciate the film for its exciting sense of energy, urgency, confusion and defiance - all central to the lives and interactions of these various characters - then you'll be able to enjoy the film as a purely visceral experience.
In terms of style, Godspeed You! Black Emperor is typical of the low-budget, street-level productions of the Japanese New Wave of the late 60's and early 70's; shot in high-contrast black and white with obvious cinéma-vérité like influences and a cast of young stars that seem suitably intense and charmingly inexperienced. The approach to the film adds to that rough rock n' roll, proto-punk-type appeal of the production, with the film standing as something of a Japanese precursor to Quadrophenia (1979); depicting the workings of a genuine sub-culture
in this instance, the bōsōzoku biker gangs that came to prominence in
the 1950's and evolved throughout the subsequent two decades - and the evocative creation of a grey and hopeless world of flat blocks, suburbs and backstreets where this rambling youth drama plays out. It is also sensitively rendered in regards to the characters - illustrating their hopes, dreams and ambitions - not to mention their various interweaving relationships and the sense that the escape and freedom presented by the thrill of riding a motorcycle through the late night streets of Shinjuku is really as life-affirming as anything else imaginable.
Beyond the obvious curiosity value for fans and admirers of the now iconic band, Godspeed You! Black Emperor is a window into a particular time in 20th century Japanese history; with the general attitudes of the characters, their defiance and sense of rebellion all being characteristic of the country before the economic rebirth of the following decades. The depiction of the country's youth and the general behavioural system as documented in the film is easily as fascinating as that depicted in a film such as 'If...' (1968), which presents a similar sense of generational defiance and the need for escape, as well as offering a similar window of experience for those of us that missed that particular time and movement. Not only that, but Godspeed You! Black Emperor can and should be seen as one of the truly great rock n' roll films; with the timely soundtrack combined with the scenes of group banter and those endlessly fascinating shots of the snake-like convey of motorcycles - with headlight glaring out in pristine black and white as they parade through the slumbering city - defining the film as something completely iconic and completely unique.
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