Do you remember Shazaam, starring comedian Sinbad (aka David Adkins) as a wish-granting genie – a film so quintessentially Nineties, so evocative of that decade’s DTV zeitgeist – and so similar to 1996’s Kazaam, starring Shaquille O’Neal – that even those who haven’t seen it feel as though they have?
Well, Australian filmmakers Aaron McCann and Dominic Pearce have uncovered a similar piece of lost cultural detritus from the same era: the low-budget, cheesy and utterly bananas Japanese martial arts series Ronin Suiri Tentai (Deductive Reasoning Ronin), released on Australian television as Top Knot Detective. Even though Suttufu, the company that produced it as a way of promoting its own rip-off products, has since withdrawn all the masters, the series still circulates in Australia on bootleg VHSs recorded direct from TV, and has become a much coveted cult item on the comic con circuit.
McCann and Pearce have lovingly reassembled lots of the show’s lo-fi footage – including an opening sequence that literally jumps the (tiger) shark, and other scenes featuring monster penises, giant robots and apocalyptic time travel – and have gathered interviews with several of the show’s Japanese cast. They even manage to track down archive interviews with the show’s auteurist writer, director, editor and star, the larger-than-life Takashi Takamoto, who, as the ronin detective Sheimasu Tantai, travels the land seeking revenge against Kurosaki Itto, the murderer of Sheimasu’s Master, even as Takamoto himself would run up against Haruto Kioke, the actor who played Sheimasu’s archenemy, as both ‘actors’ vied for the attention and support of Haruto’s father – and Suttifu CEO – Moritaro Kioke.
In other words, it is a case of art imitating life, as McCann and Pearce nail the cheap tokusatsu mania that swept international TV in the Nineties, and the fan culture that keeps the spirit of such shows alive today. Narrated by Des Mangan, former host of SBS Television’s Cult Film programme, this movie plays to our nostalgia for a decade of often unhinged sensibilities, and reconstructs the rise and fall of an elusive and unhinged figure who lives and ultimately dies for his art. Brash, bold and utterly batshit, Top Knot Detective documents a bygone television sensation so crazy that you would be forgiven for not believing in the truth of any of it. Also, it’s better than Shazaam…