In his previous seven feature films as sole director Watanabe Hirobumi stayed close to his home in Otawara, a city in Tochigi Prefecture, north of Tokyo. (Watanabe also contributed to the 2020 omnibus Kamata Prelude, but his segment was again set in Otawara.)
For his eighth, the musical comedy Techno Brothers, he finally leaves Otawara for the open road – or rather the highway to Tokyo, where the title group played by Watanabe, brother Watanabe Yuji and pal Kurosaki Takanori, go to find fame and fortune.
It’s more accurate, though, to call it their manager’s plan. Named Himuro and played by newcomer Yanagi Asuna, she channels the look and attitude of famed Vogue editor Anna Wintour, the inspiration for The Devil Wears Prada, from her bobbed hair and ever-present sunglasses to her commanding air and iron will.
Another obvious influence on the film is the 1980 John Landis musical comedy The Blues Brothers, with the Techno Brothers adopting the dark glasses and deadpan expressions of Jake and Elwood Blues. Still another is Leningrad Cowboys Go America, the 1989 Aki Kaurismäki comedy about an oddball band from the Russian tundra who travels to the United States, where the members meet more with disaster than success. And musically, the film references the German techno group Kraftwerk.
But there are also elements familiar to Watanabe fans, from the flat, featureless Tochigi landscape to the imperious, mysterious Boss Riko played by Hisatsugu Riko, a girl who has appeared in many of Watanabe’s films and serves as his pint-sized muse. Sitting on a folding chair in the middle of a field and speaking through a burly assistant (Watanabe), she tells Himuro that the Brothers’ techno sounds are “not fit for the modern age” but to try her luck in Tokyo. When Himuro asks her to fund the trip, Boss Riko says “You’re musicians, aren’t you? Make your own money!”
Somehow Himuro has the wherewithal to hire an elderly driver and with the Techno Brothers piling silently into a mini-van (in fact, they are silent for the entire film), they begin their journey to the nation’s capital, and the center of its music business.
On the way, Himuro gets them gigs and enters them in contests, where they play their techno tunes. All are composed by Yuji, who has supplied the otherwise non-techno music for all of Watanabe’s films. Played by the Techno Brothers in identical outfits and with the same blank expressions, the music recalls the clean, catchy electronic sounds of Yellow Magic Orchestra in their 1970s and 1980s hit-making heyday.
In pandemic-era Japan, however, the reaction from their audiences, and one jury of middle-aged men selecting acts for a music festival, usually ranges from puzzlement to polite boredom. They do find a fan, however, in a greenhouse owner who has them play for his plants as a sort of horticultural experiment and compliments them afterwards: “I like crazy people like you.”
In between music numbers the film keeps the laughs coming with running gags – one being that Himuro orders only for herself at restaurants, while her mute charges subsist on tap water – as well disasters, from the mechanical to the medical, the water diet being to blame for the latter. All the while Watanabe keeps popping up in different roles, from a friendly local who is oblivious to Himuro’s insults to a concert hall manager whose motor-mouthed monologues, and ignorance of techno, exasperate her to no end.
As usual with Watanabe, the humor is on the self-deprecating side, with the Brothers getting no respect, though Himuro, for all her bossiness and callousness, never gives up on them, comparing them to the Beatles, Bob Dylan and Mozart, among others. And the Techno Brothers, hilariously and inspiringly, abide.