At 22 years old, Macoto Tezuka, the son of legendary manga artist and anime director Osamu Tezuka (“Cleopatra”, “Metropolis”), was still a film-student who was yet to make his feature debut when he met musician Haruo Chicada, who had made a soundtrack; a soundtrack for a movie that didn’t even exist! Inspired by the record, Tezuka set out to adapt it into his first feature length film “The Legend of the Stardust Brothers”. Thirty-four years after its release, Third Window Films are set to release the film on home video with a brand new restoration and a fresh Director’s Cut of the film, in the process introducing a majority of the western as well as Japanese audience to the film.

“The Legend of the Stardust Brothers” is screening at San Diego Asian Film Festival (SDAFF)

The film begins with a stark black & white sequence in a futuristic nightclub where the host introduces the next performers- a singing duo that goes by the name of The Stardust Brothers. The curtains open and the video changes to vibrantly colourful as we are introduced to Kan and Shingo, the two silver jumpsuit-clad singers that form The Stardust Brothers. As they break into a song, the still-in-monochrome audience looks on uninterested, which prompts the two to tell their story to the audience and properly introduce themselves- the story of how they went from solo artists to being called up by a company called Atomic Promotions headed by Minami, who insists they form a duo and tells them that they’re actually brothers separated at birth, where they meet the beautiful Marimo, a wannabe singer who turns into their No. 1 fan as well as their contemporary and eventual competitor Kaworu.

Coming into this film, Tezuka had a lot of pressure on his young shoulders, chiefly due to having to live up to the “Tezuka” name. It was, then, quite a bold move on his part to choose a musical as his first film, a genre which isn’t really explored much in Japanese cinema. While “The Legend of the Stardust Brothers” sank without putting so much as a dent on the box office, to that point that it is largely unknown in Japan even to this day, there is quite a bit to enjoy in the film. Tezuka manages to get humour in the excess and the over-the-top. Everything from the acting, the make-up, the costumes, the dialogues as well as the lyrics are purposefully over-the-top, often to hilarious consequences. 

In spite of the mostly humorous script, the film does tackle themes of celebrity culture and the lengths that people will go to, to not only become popular but to stay relevant as well. Although jealous rivalries are accurately dissected, this is a film that doesn’t take itself too seriously and the cast and the crew evidently had a ball making it. It does, however, get painfully easy to see at times that this is a story written to fit the soundtrack rather than the other way around. A few loose ends in the story do not come to fitting conclusions, a fact which, in a very meta move, even gets mentioned in the movie itself, with a joke about Kaworu’s politician father.

Tezuka was able to enlist not only popular singers of the era for the film, but also big names in Manga, likely because of his father’s work in the industry, as well as upcoming directors like Kiyoshi Kurosawa (“Cure”, “Tokyo Sonata”) to feature in it. For his central titular pair, Tezuka chose newcomers Shingo Kubota and Kan Takagi to play their namesakes, both of who play their parts with wonderful excess, hamming almost every scene and dialogue. Although she doesn’t have a meaty role, Kyoto Togawa leaves her charm lingering in every scene she features. Legendary singer Kiyohiko Ozaki features as the serious, steely-faced Minami in a role that could only be described as an extended cameo. It is ISSAY though, who steals the limelight as Kaworu, whose brilliant overacting fits the look and the character perfectly. Veteran director Kiyoshi Kurosawa, who was then but a relative newbie with only one film under his belt, also features in a brief cameo.

The film makes some interesting visual choices like the aforementioned mix of monochrome and colour in the opening and closing sequences of the film, even paying reverence to anime, the genre Tezuka grew up around, in one sequence. There’s even influence of the elder Tezuka’s much-loved “Astroboy” series in some of the futuristic looks and sets in the film. Eichii Osawa’s camerawork is kinetic, moves with the same brisk speed as the story and is well represented in the new restoration. Haruo Chicada’s soundtrack, the very reason this film exists, is a delightful mix of pop, synth pop, soft rock and ballads with lyrics as bizarre and intriguing as the film itself. 

Third Window Films’s earnest effort in bringing unknown Japanese films, both vintage and modern, to a wider audience continues and “The Legend of the Stardust Brothers” is one of the best examples of this. A film that could well have been lost in obscurity if not for their committed efforts, “The Legend of the Stardust Brothers” is a loud, bizarre, over-the-top film truly deserving of cult status, for reasons good and bad.