Director: Aaron McCann, Dominic Pearce
Screenplay: Aaron McCann, Dominic Pearce
Starring: Toshi Okuzaki, Masa Yamaguchi, Mayu Iwasaki
Country: Australia, Japan
Running Time: 89 min
BBFC Certificate: 15
Ronin Suiri Tantai (renamed Top Knot Detective in Australia) was a Japanese samurai TV series that initially found great success in its home country, before getting axed after only 2 seasons (one of which was a cross-over with another popular series, Timestryker). The wild off-screen antics of its egotistical writer/director/editor/star Takashi Takamoto were much to blame for its downfall, on top of his rivalry with co-star Haruto Koike and the series’ production company, the Japanese conglomerate Sutaffu, particularly its CEO, Moritaro (Haruto’s father). The series, which was a wild amalgamation of different Japanese genre tropes and more than a little rough around the edges, later found a cult audience in Australia after it was picked up by cable TV a decade after its Japanese transmission. This left a legion of fans wondering what really happened to this terrible, but deliriously entertaining show?
Only it didn’t, because none of this is true. Top Knot Detective, the film I’m reviewing here, is actually a mockumentary about the fictional titular TV series. Writer-directors Aaron McCann and Dominic Pearce have actors (including some real-life critics and presenters) profess their love of the series and fill us in on the surprising story behind its cancellation. These soundbites are interspersed among clips of the show and other bits of ‘archive footage’ that have been lovingly put together by McCann and Pearce. They originally planned to make a web series with the concept, even creating and posting the first episode, but they eventually decided to turn it into a feature film instead.
I opened my review in this fashion because when the film played at festivals and such around the world, supposedly a number of people believed it was a real documentary and that the Top Knot Detective series actually existed. At first glance of the bonkers clips made of it, this might seem hard to believe. However, when you think about some of the wacky and over the top madness produced in Japan over the years, it’s perhaps not too much of a stretch to believe that something like Top Knot was a real show. More important to the suspension of disbelief though is how the directors present the film.
Mockumentaries are not a new phenomenon, but I find few, as good as they might be as a film or as entertainment, actually feel like a real documentary. Too often they turn to the lazy ‘found footage’ style where it plays out like a fiction film, just with shaky camerawork. In Top Knot Detective however, the style, presentation and structure all match that of existing documentaries about old TV series and similar. McCann and Pearce have painstakingly created a wealth of behind the scenes stills, press conferences, talk-shows and other extra material to breathe life into their fictional creation and allow for the typically loaded, fast-paced style of TV documentaries popular today. The film’s story is not told through ‘period’ footage either, conveniently capturing important plot-points, but through talking heads interviews, as in a real documentary.
Effective presentation is not Top Knot Detective’s only selling point though. The film is also hugely entertaining. Key to this are the clips of the TV show, which hilariously send up/pay homage to a vast array of Japanese genre movies. Fans of such will have a lot of fun spotting the references. The action stands up pretty well on its own merits too. Purposefully ropey elements of the production are evident for comedy value, but the sword fights are actually well choreographed and brilliantly over the top (particularly in their use of blatantly fake blood and gore), with some imaginatively bonkers twists.
It could easily have been a one-joke film though and, after half an hour or so, I began to wonder how the initial enjoyment of seeing this silly spoof show would be sustained for an hour and a half. Thankfully, McCann and Pearce realised this would be a problem, so they effectively flesh out the behind the scenes story of the fictional show, taking it down some surprisingly dark turns as it goes on. There are some surprisingly moving moments too, such as when Sutaffu force Takashi’s (Toshi Okuzaki) J-Pop star girlfriend Mia (Mayu Iwasaki) to leave the show and end her music career (J-Pop stars at the time were often contractually obliged to stay single – and this was true, the film based this on a real-life incident).
So, overall it’s a rare mockumentary that effectively sticks to the format for its benefit, delivering a surprisingly engaging and emotionally satisfying story alongside the lovably ridiculous homages and spoofs. A lot of thought and energy has gone into the production too, as well as great passion for the films/series being sent up. Anyone who’s into Japanese genre movies will love it. I know I did.
Top Knot Detective is out now, released by Third Window Films on dual format (all-region) Blu-Ray & DVD. I watched the Blu-Ray version and the picture and audio quality are both solid.
There are a few special features included:
- Audio Commentary
– Original 9min Pilot Episode
– Stunt Team Pre-Vis Fights
– Making Of
The commentary is excellent. Like all good commentaries for low budget productions, it’s packed with fun stories of how things were cobbled together as well as how much blood, sweat and tears went into making the film. It makes for a fun and inspiring listen. The ‘making of’ is decent too, although some of the voiceover is taken directly from the commentary, so there’s some cross-over of information. It’s great to actually see behind the scenes though, so is a welcome addition. The pilot is nice to see included too, as are the surprisingly impressive pre-vis fights.