Filmmakers Aaron McCann and Dominic Pearce knew exactly what they were doing in the years leading up to the completion of their latest SBS webseries-turned-feature debut, Top Knot Detective. It took a bit of effort and evolution, for sure, and indeed it’s paid off something fierce in terms of influence, having become one of the biggest and most well-received cult hits of our time.
Narrated by Hercules Returns screenwriter Des Mangan, Top Knot Detective goes full-tilt in its satirical endeavors to tap into the oddities of early 1990s Japanese TV lore and celebrity. Delivered with a mix of dated footage from an early 1990s TV show along with old and recent interviews with the cast along with an assortment of 90s-era pictorals, it brings little wonder as to why some folks who’ve seen this mockumentary thought that everything elucidated was true, no matter how good or juicy it was.
Top Knot Detective (otherwise known as Ronin Suiri Tantei or Deductive Reasoning Ronin – a.k.a. Detective Detective Ronin) was a hit commercial television samurai show in 1991, shepherded by Japanese megaconglomerate, Sutaffu, and fronted by eccentric television star, Takashi Takamoto (Toshi Okuzaki). The show itself enlists Takomoto in the role of Sheimatsu Tantei, a samurai who buries his murdered master and relinqueshes himself to become a wandering ronin detective. His pursuits soon find him at odds with former childhood friend-turned-enemy, Kurosaki Itto, played by the much more amply-talented Haruto Kioke (Masa Yamaguchi).
Aliens, monsters, robots, sexy go-go dancers, a minutiae shot of breasts, terrible acting, cheap production value and other assets adding to the stack of bizzare, over-the-top oddities in Top Knot Detective all but make up a mild, albeit significant figure its dauntingly success Australia broadcast. Even some pretty badass punchlines manage to lend Sheimasu a bit of screen glory, including in one moment where he takes out a villain’s eye.
What remains for the rest of the mockumentary is a tale of on-set upheaval, egos, sex, drugs, an illicit love affair, and the brutality studio politics, hierarchy and nepotism, and murder – all highlit in a raft of interviews with the show’s small cast and crew. As the show took off and became more and more famous, the rift between Takamoto and co-star Haruto became ever more clear – fueled no less in part by Haruto’s increasing jealousy amid his steadfastiness while his father, Sutaffu boss Moritaro (Shinichi Matsuda) continued preserving Takamoto’s image, and effectively, the company brand.
Montage footage of cosplayers along with film critic Travis Johnson and Danger 5‘s own Dario Russo joining in on the schtick further foundate the film’s narrative. Within it, we also meet Takamoto’s former creative producer, Leiji Nishizaki (Kuni Hashimoto) who lends a more kinder air in opining about the show in its heyday. Actress Izumi Himura (Izumi Woods) and former member of J-pop idol group “Shlam”, actress Mia Masumoto (Maya Iwasaki), offer their insight in the show’s infamy – both having vied for the role of Sheimatsu’s female kunoichi companion, Saku.
The action is as gonzo as you would expect it to be for the most part. Sheimatsu decapitates ninjas with uppercuts, executes fight scenes with as bravado, overachievement and self-adulation as he does in his drama scenes – oftentimes with Yamaguchi’s Haruto as his stunt double so as to avoid killing actors on set.
Shameless Sutaffu product placement weighs in on moments of poignancy and even a ritual seppuku of a young Emperor – even this film itself markets Sutaffu products which is part of the brilliance of it all. Apart from their faux personas, Yamaguchi and Australia’s own Yasushi Asasya assert their authority on the action, leaving some morsels of impressive stunt and fight scene work in their wake for McCann and Pearce to build off of.
I haven’t seen a lot of feature length mockumentaries in my time, while the foremost one I can recall is Justin Lin’s Finishing The Game which stands as one of the richest and most palpable film endeavors I’ve watched. A provenly fitting feat for niche audiences everywhere, Top Knot Detective invests in such excellence in its own special way, delivering richly-crafted and overwrought comedy and drama in its story-within-a-story formula which smartly manages in its ability to fool almost anyone, and with the best of intentions at that. Cheers, mates!
Top Knot Detective arrives on collector’s edition Region-Free Blu-Ray & DVD w/ slipcase on Monday, March 18 from Third Window Films!