The Legend of the Stardust Brothers DVD Review: ’80s Japanese Manic Musical

The Legend of the Stardust Brothers is overlong, amateurishly acted, and schizophrenically directed. It has several scenes that make no sense, and what little story it has is episodic. It comes together in a rudimentary fashion, but is neither stirring, nor intriguing. It’s basically a rude framework connecting a series of ’80s music videos of differing levels of quality. And in preparing this review, I’ve watched it twice, listened to the soundtrack more than once. I kind of think I love it.

That’s not a testament to its quality, but rather the depth of its oddity and commitment to a barely coherent premise. We begin in a nightclub, in black and white. The audience is dressed like it’s the ’50s, despite the robot waiter. Also, there’s a man with a lizard mask. I do not know why.

The curtain opens, and the Stardust Brothers come on, dressed in silver jumpsuits and singing the song of their ill-fated careers. When they finish, to a completely indifferent audience, they begin to tell their entire story. Originally in rival bands, Shingo and Kan are brought together by a mysterious record producer who will only take them as a duo. Immediately they rocket to stardom, with the head of their fan club Marimo in tow.

Marimo is a cute young girl who dreams of being a singer, and who at once falls for the cool Kan. Shingo longs for her from afar and begins to drink heavily. This leads to a bizarre horror sequence in the middle of the film, where he’s surrounded by liquor bottles and wooing a woman. Until her face splits open, leaving her head just a brain with lips protruding from them.

It’s the most startling image in the film, which is filled with a mix of odd images, dance sequences, and weirdly dichotomous scenes. Some scenes are highly choreographed dance sequences. Some are staid, single-camera extended scenes of bad actors performing badly. Fans of Japanese cinema are likely familiar with that culture’s particular brand of bad “comic” acting. It involves shouting and mugging for the camera, wildly unrealistic line readings, and absolutely no self-control.

It can be interminable. And Legend of the Stardust Brothers has well more than its share. A running gag about overzealous punk security agents made me want to shut the movie off. Even though they’re important for the plot, the scenes drag, and are never funny.

But there’s the music. Legend of the Stardust Brothers began as an album, a soundtrack for a movie that didn’t exist by Haruo Chikada, who had a TV show. One week his guest was student filmmaker Macoto Tezuka, son of Osamu Tezuka who (to over-simplify things, but not too much) essentially single-handedly invented Japanese commercial manga and anime. So blame him.

The two connected on shared interests, and so the album was set to become a film. Part typical music bio-pic and industry satire, Legend of the Stardust Brothers owes a lot to A Hard Day’s Night and perhaps more to The Monkees. Between the histrionic scenes of “acting” there are several music videos. And the music is pretty good.

It was recorded in the early ’80s in Japan, and has the synthetic pop feel of so much music of the era. But it also has the catchy melodies and heartfelt performances. I’ve listened to several of the songs away from the film, just ’cause they’re good, fun tunes.

The movie’s story is mostly thin, but it also takes some wild turns. When the Stardust Brothers have their inevitable fall from grace, their place is taken by the David Bowie-like Kaoru. He has a politician father, whose reveal is incredible. It should only be known by people who brave the entire rather too-long film.

Legend of the Stardust Brothers also has the Japanese cultural peculiarities which do not translate well. The entire third act is predicated of a long foot and car chase because Kaoru believes, in order to keep his profile up, it might be a good idea to rape Marimo. She doesn’t like the idea and runs away. Wackiness ensues. It’s the most extended scene in the film, covering about three songs, and ends in a wild party at the politician’s house. All kinds of secrets are revealed, and though they don’t make a lick of sense. I wouldn’t lose these scenes for anything in the world.

The Legend of the Stardust Brothers is not a good film. An audience who just wants a good entertaining time would probably bounce off of the first non-musical sequence, where the supposed acting takes place. But to those willing to endure, there’s treasures in this weird little film. There’s visual inventiveness, and some of the musical sequences are bursting with energy. This is especially true near the climax, where the best song, “Crazy Game”, propels a car chase and a wild party to the ending of the film. Watching this can be work, but it’s rewarding work.

The Legend of the Stardust Brothers has been released on Blu-ray and DVD by SRS. The film is in Japanese with English subtitles. Extras include a recent interview with director Macoto Tezuka (25 min); an apparently contemporary making-of documentary (45 min) with interviews and behind the scenes footage, and a trailer.

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Kent Conrad

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