No one becomes a true horror fan without developing a taste for trashy exploitation. If you love over-the-top bad acting, cringe-worthy dialogue and no-budget special effects, then you will love Top Knot Detective.
Narrated by real-life cult movie expert Des Mangan, the film chronicles the history of the fictional Japanese TV series Ronin Suiri Tentai (Deductive Reasoning Ronin). Though only lasting for one season in the 90s, the short-lived show garnered a cult following at Australian Comic-Cons, mainly because of its so-bad-it’s-good production and its enigmatic creator Takashi Takamoto (Toshi Okuzaki), described as the “Ed Wood of samurai television.”
The plot of the show is simple: a detective becomes a wandering ronin after vowing to avenge the murder of his master. Along his quest for vengeance, he solves mysteries and battles robot ninjas, cannibal lesbians and penis monsters. Each bloody victory is celebrated with a dance party à la Austin Powers.
In true documentary fashion, the clips of Ronin Suiri Tentai are complimented with interviews of the cast and crew, and archived footage of a campy Japanese talk show where guests can play with adorable kittens whilst talking about their latest project.
Like a Japanese Tommy Wiseau, Takashi insists on doing everything himself, from directing, writing, editing and starring in the main role as Sheimasu Tantai. On-the-screen, Sheimasu is undefeated in combat and irresistible to women. Off-the-screen, Takashi is a drunk and a gambler, with an ego as big as his mouth. The show reflects his unstable behaviour and its story becomes more and more nonsensical as Takashi’s life spirals into drug abuse and sexcapades.
Though he constantly boasts about having complete creative control over Ronin Suiri Tentai, he still has to answer to Sutaffu, the wealthy multinational corporation that owns the show. Sutaffu uses Takashi’s show as a vehicle to sell their crappy merchandise, taking every opportunity to insert blatant product placement. There’s a particularly amusing scene where Sheimasu catches a young boy about to take his first puff of a cigarette and proceeds to stomp the little boy to death, lecturing him about the dangers of smoking, only to turn around to the camera and talk about the smooth taste of Sutaffu brand menthol cigarettes. Because of the massive success of Ronin Suiri Tentai, Takashi becomes the face of Sutaffu, who in turn, encourage his self-destructive antics and dress him up as a “bad boy” in the tabloids.
But every protagonist needs a strong villain, and Sheimasu must fight against the evil, eye-patched Kurosaki Itto, played by Haruto Kioke (Masa Yamaguchi). Haruto is the polar opposite of Takashi; he is humble, intelligent and actually knows how to act. He even does Takashi’s stunts for him, yet Takashi still takes all the credit for the fight sequences. Haruto is also the son of the president of Sutaffu and sees Takashi as an embarrassment to his father’s company. Yet he remains passive aggressive, quietly plotting his revenge.
Things become interesting when Takashi quickly falls in love with his co-star Mia Matsumoto (Mayu Iwasaki), a former J-pop star brought on as a replacement for the role of Saku when the original actress quits mid-scene. Mia doesn’t seem at all put off by Takashi’s sexist remarks and her presence on the show gives a boost to the ratings. However, when pictures of their secret romance is leaked to the press, Mia is forced to leave because of contract violations. With her character killed off, the ratings begin to plummet and Takashi ultimately decides to walk away from the production. To fill the void, Sutaffu develop a Power Rangers-rip off series called Timestryker about a time-travelling baseball player and his trusty bat containing the soul of his dead girlfriend. If you think this movie can’t get any more ridiculous than that, trust me, it goes so much farther. But I’ve already spoiled too much.
The disadvantage to remote coverage of film festivals is that you miss out on the full cinematic experience of being in a room full of strangers equally as enthusiastic (and possibly as drunk) as you are. There’s something so satisfying about an audience collectively laughing or jumping at a scare. Humans feeding off of other humans’ reactions. That feeling can’t possibly be replicated watching a movie alone on your laptop. Jokes that would otherwise have audience members in stitches end up falling flat on the lone viewer. Luckily, this is not the case with Top Knot Detective. I found myself laughing out loud from beginning to end, in the emptiness of my apartment.
There were times I almost forgot that I was watching a mockumentary. The interviewees were very convincing with their dead-serious delivery and I genuinely felt sympathy for Takashi when he falls from grace. And then there were other times where I couldn’t believe a movie this ridiculous could possibly exist. The fact that many of the jokes had to be read in the subtitles didn’t take away from my overall appreciation of the movie. I admit that I don’t know a lot about Japanese culture, but I always enjoy a good satire. Plus, the visibly fake gore is the bloody cherry on top. And as amateur as almost every aspect of Ronin Suiri Tentai purposely was, the sword-fighting choreographies are impressively well-coordinated.
I predict that Top Knot Detective will itself become a cult classic. It’s smart and goofy, with lots of rewatch value. It will fit neatly in your movie collection between Kung Pow! Enter the First and This is Spinal Tap.
4 / 4 eberts
Top Knot Detective was screened at this year’s Ithaca Fantastik Film Festival