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Top Knot Detective
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by Jay Seaver

4 stars

SCREENED AT BOSTON UNDERGROUND FILM FESTIVAL XX: "Top Knot Detective" is a whole heck of a lot better than the typical "fake pop-culture spoof", for a lot of little reasons. That is generally the way these things work: It's not necessarily easy to come up with a fun idea for a mock-documentary, but it's also not exactly hard, and the gap between the obviously dumb and obviously brilliant ones is thin; enthusiastic improv can spin that into enough material that the filmmakers will need to cut down rather than pad out most of the time. It's the folks who consistently make the silly bits engaging or show that there is an actual plan without seeming to rein themselves in that create something worth a look.

The fun idea here is "Ronin Suri Tantai", a short-lived Japanese television series in the 1990s that developed a cult following in Australia despite running just once under the name "Top Knot Detective", with VHS tapes passed around since. It was created by and starred Takashi Takamoto (Toshi Okuzaki) as Sheimasu Tantai, a masterless samurai looking to avenge his master and defeat his former best friend Kurosaki Itto. Ostensibly a mystery show, it soon had Tantai having ever-more bizarre adventures, as the self-destructive Takamoto feuded with his employers at Sutaffu Corporation - with Chairman Moritaro Koike's son Haruto (Masa Yamaguchi) playing Itto. The early recasting of the show's female lead turns out to be just the start of the chaos involved.

It's not a real show, of course, but filmmakers Aaron McCann and Dominic Pearce put some care into making it feel just genuine enough, and not just by getting Des Mangan and folks at an anime convention to play along. They create just enough in the way of Top Knot Detective artifacts to sprinkle in the background of interview sequences to make it seem like part of the culture but not overwhelming enough to give the game away. There's the usual loving attention to cheap/tacky detail in how they stage the fake clips, but also the sort of restraint that isn't always there; there's little (if anything) here that crosses the border between "stuff that looks authentically 1990s" and "goofy things they might have done in the 1990s with modern CGI". The behind the scenes details feel right; it's kind of generally insightful about the entertainment industry without seeming to hit anything too specific.

The show's absurdity is kind of genial, too, and not just for being exaggerated less than it could have been; there's also a sense that the thing it's seeing up for mockery could have been a lot of fun if done well. It's a neat trick, really, that even as much of the movie presents behind-the-scenes backstabbing, compromises, and unwanted changes of direction, consciously reminding the audience that Sheimasu Tantai's quest is fictional on multiple levels even before considering that the whole movie is a fake documentary, the filmmakers are still able to create some amount of investment in the show-within-the-show. It's good enough that when another story emerges from the "real life" drama, it's a bit of a surprise that it winds up being just as worthy as the one in the surface, and the parallels are solid without being heavy-handed.

That's impressive but easy-to-miss work from the cast, especially Toshi Okuzaki as Takamoto. He's meant to be playing a less-than-terrific actor, and he adds just the right amount of ham to Takamoto's ego when he's in-character, while transforming enough of that ego into pride to make the man tragic as well as absurd. Masa Yamaguchi's performance is an interesting contrast, poised enough as Koike that Itto seems like more of a transformation, though you can see an intriguing mix of professionalism and resentment as he plays the on-screen villain. Mayu Iwasaki and Izumi Woods are similarly interesting contrasts as the two actresses who played "Saku", both with a lot to get off their chests.

(The IMDB doesn't list separate present-day actors, which kind of surprises me; if everybody is playing their characters in both periods, then this very-low-budget movie has make-up artists that bigger productions should recruit!)

It's impressive work all around; things like "Top Knot Detective" are often strawmen in movie form, made and exaggerated to be mocked, but this one adds enough material I would legitimately want to see and clever storytelling to be a genuinely entertaining movie.

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originally posted: 04/25/18 10:44:33
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User Comments

10/22/17 Joe Super fun (and totally fake) "documentary" that everyone should try and see. 4 stars
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