Third Window Films seem to have a knack for picking up well-received meta films and movies about filmmaking for their already well-established roster, be it Ken Ochiai’s Uzamasa Limelight (2014), Kei Morikawa’s Makeup Room (2015), Eiji Uchida’s Lowlife Love (2015), or last year’s sleeper hit One Cut of the Dead from Shinichiro Ueda. To say their release of Top Knot Detective, the full-length directorial debuts from Aaron McCann (one half of hit comedy duo Henry and Aaron) and editor Dominic Pearce, is an anticipated one is an understatement to say the least. Playing at a host of film festivals including SITGES, Frightfest, and Fantastic Fest, the story of how a cult ‘90s samurai/detective show entitled Ronin Suiri Tentai took Australia some two decades after its original syndication is one of the more bizarre and niche takes on the mockumentary, with outrageously funny results.
Loosely inspired by the long-running jidaigeki drama Abarenbo Shogun (1978-2008), the eponymous show within the film follows Sheimasu Tanto bringing his master’s killer to justice whilst battling increasingly convoluted storylines, continuity errors, and cheap-as-hell production values. Whilst Top Knot Detective shines a light on the show’s history from conception to death and inevitable rebirth, the Australian documentarians concern themselves more with cultivating the mystique of the show’s self-prophesised star Takashi Takamoto, a larger-than-life figure too difficult to work with who held connections to the yakuza as well as gambling, drink, and drug addictions. Narrated by Des Mangan (best known for writing the 1993 cult flick Hercules Returns, itself making a brief cameo) the film is told by interviews with the cast and crew of the ill-fated show and is spliced with “original” footage, stills, and fan reactions and responses.
On its surface anyone would be forgiven for thinking this as just another mockumentary, a modern-day This Is Spinal Tap (1984) focusing on an overly glossed-over period of Japanese nostalgia based on nothing but stereotype and capitalising on the “so-bad-it’s-good” exhibition of Tommy Wiseau. But the level of care and attention running through the production to authenticate its story is nothing short of astonishing. A wholly believable experience with an over-the-top sense of humour and a keen editor’s eye for detail makes Top Knot Detective feel more like an extensive “making-of” documentary you’d expect to see on a special edition release (though such a statement does mean to cheapen the overall impact of the final product). With its historic backdrop set against the turning point of Japan’s economy, and factoring aspects of late-80s/early-90s Japanese culture and society – excessive corporate spending and tacky company jingles, idol groups, cable television, cheesy one-liners, V-Cinema and Kyoryu Sentai Zyuranger – the film will no doubt find a solid home with Japanese aficionados worldwide.
In the spotlight is Toshi Okuzaki who brings the role of Takamoto/Tantai to life with hilarious rock’n’roll excess and maniacal charisma. Though much of his on-and-off screen antics are discussed from his cast-mates, including his bitter co-star Haruto Kioke (Masa Yamaguchi) and romantic partner Mia Matsumoto (Mayu Iwasaki), his wild displays of terrible acting are as unforgettable as the commercial advertising carried out in the show’s name – who knew a tobacco commercial could be fun! Of course it is the show itself which leaves the longer-lasting impression, packed full of cheap sets, hammy performances and mind-boggling scriptwriting – everything which is now celebrated as a culturally relevant art-form made popular by the accidental and unintentional genius of Wiseau, Neil Breen, and James Nguyen. No matter how bad it all looks we’re left wanting to watch these episodes back-to-back, and its authentic VHS quality only fuels this need more. In an age hungry for all-things 1990s Top Knot Detective is certainly timely.
A vigorously imaginative universe is screaming to be expanded upon here, but the reason McCann and Pearce’s film is thanks to its abstract existence: anything actual show created in its wake would feel forced and somewhat bogus, no doubt spoiling the boundless magic found here. Its ingenuity runs into the smaller details and replication would be near impossible. Though its ending may unnecessarily provide a concrete if not apt resolution the hard work the duo have poured into their mockumentary means it remains incandescent, a bizarre fever dream which needs to be seen to be believed. An outrageous romp from start-to-finish, it remains to be seen whether Ronin Suiri Tentai can become this generation’s Spinal Tap but it will surely come damn close.