Damn it, I really wanted to like this one.
Top Knot Detective is a Spinal Tap-esque mockumentary about a ridiculously bad samurai TV series. Why wouldn’t I love that? I love samurai shows. Faux documentaries like This Is Spinal Tap and Best in Show still make me laugh. I love modern facsimiles that mimic the style of corny old shows, like Grindhouse, Kung Fury, The Lost Skeleton of Cadavra, and Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace. Heck, I even love Kung Pow: Enter the Fist! So why doesn’t Top Knot Detective do it for me?
First of all, there’s no narrative drive. Those other shows either present their stories in full (Kung Fury), or follow a group of people who are desperately trying to accomplish something in the here and now (Spinal Tap). That’s interesting. All that Top Knot Detective is trying to do is remind us that a corny old show called Deductive Reasoning Ronin once existed. (Even though it didn’t.) The interviewees all agree that the show was bad (unless they love it) and that the show’s creator was an unbearable prick. We have nobody to root for.
We see many short glimpses of the show-within-a-show, and always see it at its worst. It remains manic, but gradually stops being funny. At one point, the show has a man in a penis costume show up for no reason, and the movie can’t think of anything to do with this wild character other than kill him with a sword, just like every other adversary that comes along.
I’ll admit that the crazy fake footage, filled with bad acting, continuity errors, giant robots and sudden karaoke dance parties made me laugh for a while. But it grows wearisome over time, as one realizes that all those fragments don’t add up to anything, and that none of it is good. Imagine how unwatchable Spinal Tap would have been if the band sang off-key, forgot the words, and faced the back of the auditorium every damn time. Satire needs to step off the gas pedal from time to time, and it needs to be made with genuine affection for the subject. Plus, this critique of traditional Japanese programming is made by Australian filmmakers, which gives it an unpleasant stench of racism.
The latter half is particularly misguided, as a graphic, unsolved murder case arises. Not funny. The narcissistic TV star did it, or is being framed. We don’t care.
Weirdly enough, you’re more likely to enjoy this movie if you actually think that Deductive Reasoning Ronin was a real show. I’d like to think that audiences are too smart for that. But I know better.
Top Knot Detective screens Saturday, April 21 at 11:59 p.m. at the Globe Cinema as part of the Calgary Underground Film Festival. For tickets and more information please click here.
John Tebbutt is the Video Vulture. He has been writing about obscure and ridiculous cinema since 1997. You can keep up with his nonsense on his website, Facebook and Twitter. Check out the latest episode of his online series here.