VOD film review: The Legend of the Stardust Brothers
Refusal to be pinned down to a genre8
More misses than hits4
Anton Bitel | On 31, May 2020
Director: Makoto Tezuka
Cast: Shingo Kubota, Kan Takago, Kiyohiko Ozaki, Kyoko Togawa
While some of the details may have been embellished over the intervening years, the story goes that, back in 1985, 22-year-old Makoto Tezuka ran into musician and TV celebrity Haruo Chikada. It would turn out that each had something the other needed: Chikada had made a soundtrack for a non-existent film, and Tezuka was a film student looking to make his name (and to escape the shadow of his stratospherically famous father, the manga artist Osamu Tezuka). So they collaborated on a film to be written, directed (and co-edited) by Tezuka that incorporated Chikada’s soundtrack. The result is the indefinably odd musical The Legend of the Stardust Brothers (Hoshikuzu kyôdai no densetsu).
In many ways, the film reconstitutes the story of Tezuka and Chikada. For it concerns the rise and fall of Shingo (Shingo Kubota) and Kan (Kan Takagi), two musicians from competing bands who are brought together by tuneful super-promoter Atomic Minami (Kiyohiko Ozaki) and refashioned as the manufactured pop group the Stardust Brothers – before being brought low by their own internal tensions and jealousies, and by the murder-happy interventions of well-connected, epileptic, Bowie-esque rival Kaoru (Issay). Along the way, they help, and are helped by, fangirl/aspiring singer Marimo (Kyoko Togawa), and learn that fame is fleeting. Meanwhile, it is never entirely clear whether their status as “brothers separated at birth” is truth or fiction, and whether Minami is merely their Svengali-like manager or also their actual father. Still, why adhere to the facts when you can print the legend?
The film is framed by scenes in the “Callus Salon”, whose interiors and even clients (including the director Kiyoshi Kurosawa) appear in a monochrome that contrasts with the colourful on-stage Brothers and their backing band. There, like a cabaret comedy duo, Shingo and Kan recount their formation and dissolution over the last two years, and ruminate on the way their own adopted name refers to both the stardom to which they have aspired, and the dust from which we all come (and to which we all return).
In between, there is a lot of singing and dancing, of variable quality (and in a number of styles, from rock to punk to classic crooning to the purest pop), and slapstick routines that feel very hit and miss (the recurring comic business involving Atomic Promotion’s two shaven-headed guards falls particularly flat) – but what is most appealing about The Legend of the Stardust Brothers is the sheer instability of its genre. There is no shortage of musicals that adhere to the narrative template of A Star Is Born, but how many of them include horror sequences, car chases, animated inserts, assassination attempts and satire of both the music industry and the fascism at the heart of Japan’s political hierarchies? Brian de Palma’s Phantom of the Paradise and Jim Sharman’s The Rocky Horror Picture Show are often cited as influences, although perhaps the closest analogue is Alan Parker’s Pink Floyd – The Wall.
Shot in what appears to be Academy ratio, The Legend of the Stardust Brothers plays out with all the desultoriness and dream logic of an 80s music video, while exhibiting a casual homophobia that similarly fixes it to its time. Featuring cameos from a range of contemporary musicians, manga artists and filmmakers, Tezuka’s oddball indie has all the makings of a cult hit, but did not take off domestically, and has never really been seen outside Japan.
This newly mastered director’s cut, coming for the very first time with English subtitles, lets international audiences catch a crazy cross-section of pop culture from a very particular time and place. “Please! invent a time machine for me” go the lyrics of one of the featured songs – and now Tezuka’s film has become its own time machine, retelling the legend in its own inimitably quirky style. It is broad as hell, but if you are looking for a camp-tastic 80s retrospective that is as mercurial as it is absurd, and if you do not mind failing to recognise most of the celebrity walk-on parts (unless you happen to be intimately familiar with Japanese subcultures of several decades ago), this may just be the cinematic UFO for you.