Like so many authors of cult movies, Macoto Tezka didn’t set out to make a commercial bomb. His debut feature, “The Legend of the Stardust Brothers” (“Hoshikuzu Kyodai no Densetsu”), was widely lambasted upon its release in 1985, but over the years it has steadily acquired a reputation as a delightful curio — a quirky rock musical that also serves as a microcosm of Tokyo’s pop cultural milieu on the cusp of the bubble era.
This month, the movie was reissued on Blu-ray and DVD in Japan, along with its 2016 sequel. It has also been touring the international festival circuit, with an overseas Blu-ray release due later in the year from Third Window Films, a distributor specializing in atypical Japanese cinema.
Starring real-life musicians Shingo Kubota and Kan Takagi, the movie tells the story of a pair of rivals from the Tokyo band scene who are turned into pop sensations by a shadowy Svengali (played by singer Kiyohiko Ozaki). But after a fleeting taste of success, they soon discover that, in the words of one song: “Once you reach No. 1, you just go down.” This isn’t really the kind of film that you watch for the plot, mind you. It has some killer songs, for starters, courtesy of idiosyncratic musician Haruo Chikada, which range from punk and new-wave to retro kayōkyoku (Showa Era Japanese pop) and rock ‘n’ roll.
Many of the tracks originated on the eponymous album that Chikada released in 1980, an “imaginary soundtrack” inspired by The Who’s “Tommy.”
“Nowadays, idols often keep going for a decade or so after making their debut,” Chikada says, discussing the overarching theme. “Back then, people would be popular one minute and then they’d vanish.”
The title came from a wisecrack by actor Shingo Yamashiro, who liked to joke that he wasn’t a “star,” he was just “stardust.” Besides, “Stardust Brothers” had a nice ring to it.
The task of translating Chikada’s album to the big screen fell to a film school prodigy with a familiar surname. Tezka (born Makoto Tezuka) is the son of Japan’s most famous manga artist, “Astro Boy” creator Osamu Tezuka, but rather than follow his father into the animation industry, he’d plunged into the world of 8mm filmmaking.
He made his first short film when he was 17 years old and picked up a prize in a contest judged by renowned director Nagisa Oshima, who became an early champion. His next two shorts were both accepted into the precursor of today’s Pia Film Festival, gaining him wider recognition within the industry and extensive media coverage.
Chikada first encountered Tezka’s work when it was featured on the TV show he presented. When he later talked with a producer friend about making a “Stardust Brothers” movie, the young filmmaker was the first — and only — name that came to mind.
“We didn’t know anyone in the movie industry,” he says. “So we were totally reckless — we asked the one person we knew who had a foot in that world, which was Macoto Tezka.”
Despite only being 23 at the time, the 8mm whizz was impressively well-connected. “I’d come in contact with a lot of people, but more from the worlds of music, fashion and design than movies,” Tezka says. “When we got together, I’d talk about this film I was making, and everyone would offer to help out.”
This explains the movie’s eclectic cast, which includes comedians, novelists, musicians and manga artists, though only a smattering of professional actors. Kyoko Togawa, one of the few seasoned performers, is a standout, and there’s a scene-stealing turn by future visual- kei star Issay. Watch closely and you may also spot cameos by director Kiyoshi Kurosawa, manga artist Kazuhiko “Monkey Punch” Kato and professional wrestler Akira Maeda, among many others.
Tezka and Chikada shared an appreciation for “Phantom of the Paradise,” Brian De Palma’s camp 1974 rock musical, and “The Legend of the Stardust Brothers” ends with a dedication to it’s protagonist, Winslow Leach. As Tezka notes, De Palma cast his former college roommate, William Finley, in the role — reaffirming his belief that personality counted for just as much as professional bona fides.
On a more practical level, his exploits in 8mm film had taught him how to splice his way around his performers’ shortcomings.
“My style at the time made a lot of use of editing and montages, so I didn’t really need people to give sustained performances,” he says. “Even if they couldn’t act, as long as they could express themselves in a unique way, and there was a sense of rhythm or tempo, I knew I could put something together in the cutting room afterward.”
Tezka also managed to create some impressive set-pieces using limited resources, most memorably in a chase sequence full of Looney Tunes-style sight gags. Yet while modern audiences are likely to warm to the film’s spirited DIY aesthetic, critics at the time were less generous.
Even now, Tezka sounds hurt by the backlash — saying it “made me want to stop making films like this” — and it would be over a decade before he released another theatrical feature. As multiple projects failed to get off the ground, he started calling himself a “visualist” and looking beyond the movie industry: to music videos, TV commercials, even video games.
The belated acclaim for “Stardust Brothers” is cause for celebration, but also a bit of ruefulness.
“People are watching it with fresh eyes now, and I’ve had lots of positive comments,” he says. “But I wonder about how I could have taken those ideas further, and all the films I might have made, if people had responded like that at the time.”
Chikada, on the other hand, seems to have been unfazed by the film’s frosty reception. “I’d seen the same thing happen again and again with my music,” he says. “Even though I had a lot of confidence in what I was doing, other people didn’t seem to get it. I figured it was the same case here, so I just waited: I knew they’d come round eventually.”
“The Legend of the Stardust Brothers” is out now on Blu-ray and DVD.