“The path of justice is like a woman. Confusing, difficult, annoying, sexy, but ultimately violent and full of death, destruction, and madness.”
Television has come a long way since the early days of safe sitcoms, salacious reality shows, and home shopping networks, but one of the greatest of its achievements remains the single season of Ronin Suiri Tentai that aired in Japan in the early 90s. Loosely translated as Deductive Reasoning Ronin, but nicknamed Top Knot Detective by fans, the show follows an Edo era (1603 to 1868) police officer who wanders the land with a thirst for vengeance. The premise seems familiar, but the series was anything but.
The title character of Sheimasu Tantai was brought to life by actor/writer/director Takashi Takamoto, a man with energy to burn but no discernible skill in acting, writing, or directing. He landed the job through sketchy connections, but the series became an immediate hit despite his visibly severe artistic limitations. Each week he faced off against ninjas, samurai warriors… robots, aliens, monsters, and at least one time-traveling baseball player with a killer swing. Ratings were through the proverbial roof, but behind the scenes turmoil brought the series to its knees all the same.
One murder accusation later and Takamoto disappeared, never to be seen or heard from again.
The series should have disappeared there too, especially as license arrangements with international territories were rescinded, physical copies of the show were destroyed in Japan, and the production company proceeded as if it never even existed. Fans in Australia, though, weren’t about to let it go and instead turned the show into a cult sensation via bootleg VHS tapes where it thrived into the modern day.
Two things about the new film, Top Knot Detective.
It’s a documentary from SBS Viceland exploring the show’s production, its cast — via archival footage and new interviews — and the current whereabouts of Takamoto.
It’s also a complete work of fiction.
Co-writers/directors Aaron McCann and Dominic Pearce have created a film that not only serves as a loving homage to Japanese genre fare but also manages to be a wholly convincing affair in its own right. Like Peter Jackson’s brilliant but under-seen Forgotten Silver, the film is crafted with such affection for its subject and with such intense attention to detail that if you didn’t know any better you’d believe every minute. I *know* it’s fiction but have still felt compelled to confirm it more than once.
So what’s the point you ask? There are two, to my eye. First, fans of Japanese film/TV will be entertained by the accuracy with which it captures the tone, character, and personality of its real-world counterparts. And second, it’s very, very funny.
Episode titles like “Shhhhhark!” and the epic two-parter, “Rise of the Baby Chicken Wizard,” suggest the kind of wacky, weird, and utterly bonkers mentalities that often appear in Japanese entertainment output that crosses borders. The production is fantastic with “old” footage, archival news reports, scratchy clips from the show itself, and new interviews with cast and crew reflecting on the experience. Actors are playing actors who played characters, and they all convince in their sincerity and authenticity. Toshi Okuzaki is fantastic as Takashi Takamoto — as Sheimasu Tantai — and it’s especially impressive as he’s playing a man who can’t act onscreen and acts horribly offscreen.
Top Knot Detective is no less compelling even knowing it’s fiction. They’re characters either way, and the journey they take is one of unbelievable triumph and unexpected tragedy. There are big laughs working alongside drama, suspense, and shocking surprises, and you’re not alone if you finish the film wishing that the series was real and still available for visual ingestion. It’s a fun, endearing look at a fictional creation, and it’s enough to make you a fan of the show that never was.
Quick note: be sure to stay after the end credits for a teaser of SBS Viceland’s next in-depth documentary on a lost giallo called… well, you’ll have to see for yourself.