September 28, 2016

Top Knot Detective (2016)

Remember Ronin Suirui Tantei? It was known as Top Knot Detective here in Australia, when it had a brief TV run in the early 1990s. Today it's one of those weird cult phenomenons: unknown by the majority, but loved perhaps a little too much by a small but ridiculously dedicated audience. The series kicked off as a samurai drama - known in Japan as a 'jidai-geki' - before expanding into one of the weirdest science fiction shows every made.

Still not ringing a bell? That's probably because Top Knot Detective isn't real. That hasn't stopped it from being the subject of a feature-length documentary of the same name by Western Australian filmmakers Aaron McCann and Dominic Pearce. For Australian audiences it airs on SBS2 tonight. For international readers, I can only implore you to check out this outstanding comedy as soon as you are legally able. This is a stunning - not to mention stunningly original - piece of Australian filmmaking.

The film follows maverick - and hugely untalented - Japanese pop singer Takashi Takamoto, who took it upon himself to write, direct, produce and star in Ronin Suirui Tantei - translated to English as Deductive Reasoning Ronin. It is visibly dreadful stuff, with bad visual effects, awful acting, unconvincing stunt work, and crew members regularly popping up in the background. Takamoto himself appears throughout the film via interviews, as do his cast and crew, and a host of Australian commentators who note the cult following that developed after its brief once-only screenings on television here. Legendary SBS film host Des Mangan narrates, with appearances by Danger 5 creator Dario Russo, journalist and critic Travis Johnson, newsreader Lee Lin Chin and many others.

Diving into the events detailed throughout the film was spoil much of the fun, so instead I'll focus on the two elements that impressed me deeply about Top Knot Detective. The first is the footage of the series itself. Obviously it's not a real show, but McCann and Pearce have shot so many scenes so perfectly that if you weren't in on the joke you could almost believe it was a real-life samurai drama. For general audiences it's a hoot, but for fans of Japanese pop culture it gains an entirely new level of humour. McCann and Pearce really know their stuff, and one cameo appearance in particular is an enormous delight.

The other really impressive element is that the documentary contains an actual honest-to-god story, which surprised me. An early proof-of-concept pilot (still available via SBS Online) suggested a fairly superficial satire of bad Japanese TV shows. The completed film has a fully-fledged and effective narrative to it. We become invested in the various directors, producers and stars, and as events take a somewhat darker turn the film manages to balance comedy and drama and come to a hugely satisfying conclusion. There are a lot of balls being juggled here: straight comedy, satire, cultural commentary, drama, and so on. It is remarkable how well it all comes together.

Top Knot Detective is a must-see, not just because it's clever and funny but because it is a wonderfully original, one-of-a-kind sort of production. Whether on its broadcast tonight, or via SBS Online over the next few weeks, you absolutely owe it to yourself to check this one out.

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