Top Knot Detective finds 2017 absurdity in ‘90s TV’s samurai crossover hits
AUSTIN, Texas—“Documentary” Top Knot Detective ostensibly tells the behind-the-scenes story of a Japanese-samurai-show-turned-Australian-cult-classic of the same name. Don’t bother Googling the series, however. It doesn’t exist. (As the film’s Fantastic Fest description put it, this tale is “complete and total bullshit.”)
Sometimes, you simply need an over-the-top mockumentary about an extremely obscure and non-existent bit of pop culture to shine a light on the absurdity of our current entertainment industry. And as funny as Top Knot Detective will be for a certain kind of niche obsessive, the film works equally as well slinging one-liners about everything from the neverending race to become a content creator to the insanity of a traditional TV crossover.
It’s Sutaffu’s world; we just buy in it
In the real world, Apple makes computers, but it also held music festivals and now wants into original TV content. Facebook started with a website for connecting with others, but it tried a phone and now also wants into original TV content. Amazon sold books online and now…. well, you get the idea. Original creative content with the potential to spawn devoted fanbases (and endless sequels, merchandise, marketing opportunities, etc.) has become the must-do corporate activity of today.
In Top Knot Detective’s universe, a company called Sutaffu exists in this orbit. The conglomerate earned notoriety “for making knock-offs of brand name suits” to start, but it grew into an international brand by producing and selling everything from CDs to beer and cigarettes. Naturally after years of sustained economic growth, the execs felt the time had come to enter the television industry. So to shepherd the Sutaffu brand into this new venture, the company turned to a familiar face—Takashi Takamoto, a man who found pop chart success as a Psy-like musician writing Sutaffu jingles.
Luckily for Sutaffu, Takamoto had an idea he’d been sitting on: Top Knot Detective, the story of a samurai rōnin that discovers his master had been murdered and sets out on a quest to find the killer and take revenge. For just a small sample of what kind of plot awaits, consider the lead character, Surei Tatei. His catch phrase involves screaming “Deductive reasoning!,” he can punch people’s heads off and turn invisible, and he drops sweet mid-battle one-liners like this one (uttered after stabbing a villain in the eye):
Villain: “That was my good eye! Now you will finally see my justice…”
Tatei: “See my fist!”
Without venturing into spoiler-territory, the show evolves over time and has its fair share of off-camera drama (“The first time he was arrested, we thought the show was over—but his popularity grew more than ever!” another interviewee says of Takamoto). But if you grew up on something like Power Rangers, Superhuman Samurai Syber-Squad, or Ultraman, this mockumentary reveals a show piece-by-piece that will make you grin ear-to-ear.
That’s show biz
Again, the meta-commentary second-level of Top Knot Detective is where this film truly shines. Beyond Sutaffu as a predecesor for the ever-expanding corporations of today, Takamoto does the same for our present showrunner-love era. He writes, directs, produces, and stars in the fictional series—”you can look at him as the Ed Wood of Japanese samurai TV,” says one interviewee. “That’s a compliment.”
As you might expect from other recently high-profile instances of creator as single aueteur (say Nic Pizzolato on True Detective S2, Sam Esmail on Mr. Robot S2, etc.), things go off the rails a bit creatively. Plots get tossed in favor of artistry (“We shot lots of great scenes, so we need to combine them into one great thing,” Takamoto explains at one point), and Top Knot Detective happily engages in ultra-fan service to save its critical face. At one point, Sutaffu urges Takamoto to create a crossover episode with the super popular Supersentei Timestryker, a series centered around a Japanese baseball player that suffered an accident and was then rebuilt to defend Earth. “That show is for babies, it has no substance,” Takamoto would later say. “If you mess with time, bad things will happen to you? Babies.” The crossover episode obviously proves to be a ratings bonanza, one of Top Knot’s highest rated endeavors in years.
Given Sutaffu’s wide-reaching business tentacles, Top Knot Detective naturally became a pioneer in the area of native content and product placement, too. Takamoto writes Ronin Surei Tatei to relax after killing a villian through Sutaffu cigarettes or a cold beer. He prepares to stomp another enemy’s head by pausing to reach for then prime his Sutaffu high-top pumps. “I will wipe you from history like a bowel movement,” Tatei cries before Sutaffu-soft bathroom tissue factors into the episode. Such campaign work has long become fodder for the likes of Austin Powers or Community, and nowadays the evolution of that concept lives on in special Web series or branded video.
Top Knot Detective even manages to partially skewer modern rabid fandom, even if the “show” is set well before the Internet could fuel it (like the decoding subreddits of Mr. Robot or Rick & Morty disciples forcing McDonald’s to apologize). It stars with the fan-service show elements above and the audience constantly forgiving Takamoto’s off-camera sins (“I did anything to become famous,” he says. “To spread joy to people I did a lot of stupid things in my life. I regret many of them, but I never killed anyone”).
But throughout the mockumentary, the directors take cameras to various cons across the world where people line up for days just to catch a glimpse of any Top Knot stars. Will they power an inevitable remake, spin-off, or maybe even a six-seasons-and-a-movie style cinematic take? Who knows, but certaily no one speaks to the essence of Top Knot Detective—both the fake TV series and fake documentary—quite like its fanbase.
“Objectively it’s a terrible show,” one dedicated show blogger concludes. “The acting’s really shitty, there’s a ton of continuity errors—the whole thing doesn’t make any sense. That’s what’s beautiful about it. When you watch a lot of movies and TV, you get bored, jaded, and you see the same stuff over and over again. You’re just praying for some kind of weirdness, some real lunacy to grab you, shake you up, and show you something new—that’s Top Knot.”
Top Knot Detective continues to play the film festival scene currently with upcoming screenings in Ithaca, New York and Vancouver, Canada. Follow the team on social media for the latest screenings; the producers have hinted that distribution news may be coming soon.
Listing image by Fons PR / Fantastic Fest
Author Nathan Mattise