Bōsōzoku: The Rebellious Movie Legacy of Japan’s Unruly Biker Gangs
From Akira to Loopy Thunder Street, Japan’s delinquent biker films gripped post-war Japan. Right here, James Balmont unpacks the legacy left in their tracks
Revving engines and rebellious attitudes are hallmarks of any respectable motor-fetishising counter-culture. However in mid-Twentieth-century Japan – a nation steeped within the lore of samurai warrior philosophies and famend (on the time) for industrial and technological development – a subculture of biker gangs grew to become so vividly disruptive that they have been allegedly the nation’s primary supply of juvenile delinquency. The press dubbed them bōsōzoku (actually “running-out-of-control tribes”), and their wild legacy would encourage all types of vibrant visible media throughout the many years.
Biker gangs first emerged in Japan following the nation’s destruction on the finish of World Conflict Two, as army veterans together with non-deployed kamikaze pilots struggled to regulate to post-war society. With many nonetheless harbouring ultra-nationalistic tendencies and striving for adrenaline and neighborhood, the streets quickly grew to become a discussion board for subversion and new concepts at a time when American occupation was bringing movies like Insurgent With no Trigger (1955) and The Wild One (1953) into the nation. Because the likes of James Dean and Marlon Brando grew to become icons, greaser fashions like leather-based jackets, metal toe-caps and jellied quiffs have been reappropriated to kind the crux of a brand new subculture.
By the late ‘60s, following the sudden success of Roger Corman’s 1966 biker b-movie The Wild Angels, Japanese studios grew to become alerted to the potential of a brand new sub-genre – and started placing their very own delinquent biker films into manufacturing. Toei studio’s Delinquent Boss was one such success, however it was Nikkatsu studio’s Stray Cat Rock collection that cemented the feminine outlaw biker film as a cinematic sensation.
The primary movie, 1970’s Stray Cat Rock: Delinquent Woman Boss, serves as a becoming introduction. A feminine biker wearing double denim races throughout the asphalt within the opening shot, surrounded by male riders in leather-based jackets and shades. As they weave out and in of site visitors, chaotic camerawork soaks up disorientating views of Tokyo, whereas the sounds of burning rubber fill the audio area.
Ako (Akiko Wada) and the Stray Cats gang – led by the tassel-jacketed Mei (rising icon Meiko Kaji) – interact in knife fights on the street and stunt-laden bike chases thereafter, with 60s psych-rock and hippie fashions accentuating the movie’s wealthy sense of favor. The movie was such successful that it spawned 4 sequels in exactly a yr, as a brand new cinematic pattern took the nation by storm.
Administrators like exploitation king Teruo Ishii would ship their very own grindhouse variations on the components as the last decade went on, with 1976’s Detonation! Violent Video games – a violent and bloody riff on West Facet Story by which bikes are used as weapons – a notable instance.
It was that very same yr that arguably a very powerful documentary movie on Japan’s real-life biker gangs was additionally launched. Mitsuo Yanagimachi’s black-and-white 16mm characteristic God Velocity You! Black Emperor (the inspiration for the Canadian post-rock band of the identical title) stays an obscurity within the west, however is a vital historic doc that additionally highlighted a growing pattern in low-budget, impartial filmmaking.
The movie follows the real-life Chiba Black Emperor gang – a bōsōzoku faction marked by their strict governance, tight infrastructure, and a daring visible identification that features bandanas, shaved eyebrows and the usage of the swastika as insignia. They’re launched with footage of a real-life confrontation with authorities earlier than the engines hearth up and a storm of shiny headlights fills the display to the sound of searing guitar riffs and drums.
Whereas this posturing defines the evolution of the subculture, much more revealing is how the movie captures the younger members’ lives behind the scenes. At a big indoor gathering, new recruits talk about their backgrounds: they’re virtually all jobless, working-class boys below the age of 20, searching for a way of neighborhood and identification. “I reside in a tunnel. No residence,” says one; “I’ve by no means been to highschool,” says one other.
The bōsōzoku subculture reached its peak within the early 80s, with membership rising to an estimated 42,500 members throughout a whole lot of gangs in metropolises everywhere in the nation. They have been, by now, extensively recognisable for his or her customized Suzuki, Kawasaki and Honda bikes, that includes bent-down handlebars, large seat-backs, decals bearing tribal insignias, and flying colors just like the well-known rising solar flag.
Carrying boots, boiler fits and bandanas – dubbed tokkō-fuku, which means “particular assault uniform” – they roamed the streets wielding baseball bats and Molotov cocktails on weekends, inflicting public nuisances and fascinating in violent turf wars. Their affiliation with Japan’s infamous crime syndicate, the yakuza, reportedly grew to become so pronounced at one level that as much as one-third of yakuza recruits have been coming from bōsōzoku gangs. In a 2015 documentary by Vice, in the meantime, one former gang member recalled that being a bōsōzoku member was “like being within the army. It was like being drafted into conflict.”
The sentiment was not misplaced on impartial filmmaker Sogo Ishii, who, in 1980, utilised his college’s 16mm cameras to create the pioneering dystopian thriller Loopy Thunder Street. With inspiration taken from the 70s punk motion, and the ferocious biker gangs in Tokyo and elsewhere, the movie may be seen as a Japanese counterpart to Australia’s Mad Max – one other biker-fuelled dystopian motion movie, itself impressed by the uncooked violence seen at Australian fuel stations within the wake of the 1973 oil disaster. Set in a dilapidated near-future wasteland, Ishii’s biker battle royale even featured real-life bōsōzoku members as fired-up extras. “We had no alternative — we didn’t have any bikes ourselves,” he informed Dazed in 2022.
Loopy Thunder Street was such a singular and energetic piece of labor that main Japanese studio Toei opted to choose it up for nationwide distribution – launching Ishii’s scintillating director profession straight out of movie college thereafter. It additionally laid down the groundwork for Japan’s vibrant and cerebral cyberpunk subgenre, which regularly fused the flesh of man with twisted scrap metallic in science fiction tales that warned in opposition to the hazards of latest applied sciences.
Some of the outstanding of those movies, in fact, was the worldwide anime sensation Akira (Katsuhiro Otomo, 1988) – itself closely influenced by the real-life actions of the bōsōzoku, who’re depicted within the movie as rebellious clans throughout the lawless metropolis of ‘Neo Tokyo’.
The bōsōzoku would even arrive in Hollywood round this time by way of movies that bore related aesthetics. Just some years after releasing his personal cyberpunk masterpiece by way of Blade Runner (1982), Ridley Scott delivered Black Rain (1989), a macho and considerably racist blockbuster starring Michael Douglas as a motorcycle fanatic detective who journeys to Japan after turning into embroiled in a yakuza conspiracy in New York.
The movie opens with Douglas’ character participating in a testosterone-fuelled drag race beneath the Brooklyn Bridge, however it’s Japan’s biker gangs who make heads roll in a while. They’re a recurring supply of intimidation in violence on behalf of their yakuza buddies in Osaka, exhibiting up carrying bandanas and bearing flags down neon-soaked again streets, embodying what had clearly now grow to be stereotype.
Extra sympathetic explorations of those rebellious bikers could possibly be present in Japanese cinema by this time, as effectively. Nobuhiko Obayashi – director of the psychedelic horror cult traditional Home in 1977 – would ship a major instance in 1986, by way of the romantic melodrama His Bike, Her Island. Just like the aforementioned Loopy Thunder Street, it’s launched exterior of Japan for the primary time ever this yr by way of cult distributors Third Window Movies.
The story of a loveable rogue (performed by future straight-to-video icon Riki Takeuchi, famed for his pompadour coiffure and zany roles within the works of Takashi Miike) consists of bare bike using and gauntlet duels atop dashing motors – however Ko’s beloved blue-and-black Kawasaki W3 is extra of an emblem for freedom than anarchy. From the opening photographs, by which the digicam fetishises the bike chassis in close-up because the engine gently purrs and rumbles, the bike is a beloved object that brings Ko in contact with the resplendent pure environment of Japan’s countryside in addition to stoking a blossoming romance.
By the ‘90s the bōsōzoku subculture was already in decline. With the bursting of Japan’s financial bubble (the inspiration for 3 many years of financial stagnation thereafter), there was much less disposable earnings for the gangs’ signature bike modifications. Police crackdowns, recent laws and new surveillance know-how for the reason that early ‘00s have additional restricted the bōsōzoku presence and affect on visible tradition, as different kinds of juvenile delinquency cinema would trigger a storm as a substitute.
They didn’t disappear completely. In an article titled ‘Bike Gangs Journey Roughshod in Japan’ in 2000, The Telegraph reported a infamous case by which a dentist misplaced an eye fixed after being attacked by a Tokyo biker gang throughout a theft. The culprits have been three boys aged 16 and 17. However documentaries like 2012’s Sayonara Velocity Tribes, which follows “an ageing Japanese bike gangster and the crop of halfhearted children he mentors” would, nonetheless, paint the bōsōzoku as a dying breed.
By 2017, fewer than 6,200 members remained in Japan. However the subculture has endured as an inspiration on every thing from Harajuku excessive avenue fashions to up to date arts and media, with manga collection Tokyo Revengers one of the vital fashionable vessels of latest biker fiction with over 65 million copies in circulation as of July 2022 (it’s additionally been tailored to anime and live-action movie).
Whether or not the engines will proceed to roar for for much longer stays to be seen — however with a visible legacy as dynamic as this, it’s secure to say the bōsōzoku have left a vivid impression of their tracks.