Kinji Fukasaku, of Battles Without Honor or Humanity fame, is best known as the director of hard-edged, cynical material with an almost documentary edge to it (that is, before he directed his final film Battle Royale, 20 years after his career heyday). When he was tapped to direct a manga adaptation, it was an odd pairing. Manga, or more specifically, gegika, which is manga that takes itself seriously, still tends toward over-heated material, with one foot in reality and on foot in comic book exaggeration. The book Fukasaku was tasked with adapting, Doberman Cop, is about a Harley-riding tough who gunned down bad guys and took care of kids and the elderly.
The entire previous decade of Fukasaku’s filmmaking career had been about blurring the distinction between cops and thugs (as in Cops vs Thugs) and destroying the mythmaking that had surrounded Japanese yakuza culture. It wasn’t a filmic language suitable to black and white hero vs villain storytelling, nor was there any place for out and out heroes. So, he turned Doberman Cop‘s Tokyo tough guy (and obvious Dirty Harry analog) into an Okinawan bumpkin, traded in his Harley for a pig on a leash, and made him a fish out of water. Crucially, he cast Sonny Chiba, a long time Fukasaku collaborator and one of the most internationally famous Japanese actors, thanks to The Street Fighter (1974), which got an X-rating for violence when it was released in the States.
Doberman Cop opens with a grisly scene of cops recovering a burnt corpse from a scorched apartment. One of the cops finds a pillow soaked with urine (“Chief, smell this!”) and concludes the victim was strangled to death before she was set on fire. Contrasting with this bleak realism is the next scene of Joji Kano (Sonny Chiba), wandering the Tokyo streets, holding a squealing pig in his hands, wearing a goofy straw hat. Doberman Cop shifts between grit and goofiness practically scene by scene. Fukasaku’s direction and in particular his pacing help keep these shifts from being too jarring, though.
The film tells a fairly simple story with a lot of parts making it seem more complicated. Kano, a famous policeman in his native Okinawa, believes that the burned woman might be a girl from his village, but he remains unconvinced by the forensic evidence the police show him (after all, he has a prophecy from a village priestess and his divination sea shells to tell him different – the country bumpkin aspects are laid on really thick). Everyone at the station laughs at him, but it’s Kano who is able to resolve a hostage situation when the Tokyo police are frozen with indecision. The hostage is a singer, Miki, and Kano becomes convinced that she is actually the girl he’s looking for, though no one believes him.
The hostage rescue sequence is an early highlight of the film, primarily because it gives Sonny Chiba a chance to perform an awesome and dangerous looking stunt. He decides the best way to get into the hotel room with the perpetrator is to dive in through the window. Of a 40-story building, with windows that do not open. So he hitches up a rope, and rappels down the side. The film makes it clear that this is indeed Sonny Chiba leaping off the actual side of a tall building. He has an incredible athleticism and power, and it is well used in copious fight scenes and dust-ups.
Doberman Cop is a little overstuffed – there’s a biker gang who are initially accused of the crime, an arsonist serial killer, a fake Geisha-stripper who is so taken with Kano that she pulls him up on stage and has her way with him on the spot. The poor singer Miki is drug addicted and terrified of appearing on an Idol television show, which is being rigged by her Yakuza manager. Chiba gets captured by bad guys, strung up by his arms, and after he shoots his way out with a borrowed .44 Magnum (which blows a guy’s head off in a shot that could have come from Dawn of the Dead) is arrested by the police and breaks out again with the help of the fake Geisha… A lot of stuff happens, and some plot points are brought up and tossed away just as quickly, but it isn’t a jumble of confusion. It’s just mostly silly.
There are fun performances mostly by Fukasaku regulars, and a neat fuzz guitar soundtrack. Corny humor sits side-by-side with graphic violence and nudity, and a downbeat ending maybe a little at odds with the movie as it’s gone so far. Which, all in all, make it pretty standard for a Japanese genre movie, made when the audience for this kind of film had all but disappeared. It doesn’t have the wild documentary style of many of Fukasaku’s best work, and it may also lack the resonance his cynical edge lends to movies like Cops Vs Thugs, but it is entertaining, and that’s what is seeks to be.
This Arrow Video release of Doberman Cop is the first time this film has appeared on video outside of Japan. It’s a film that looks its age – rather grainy, a not filled with colors that pop, akin to Fukasaku’s other gritty ’70s cinema. There’s a smaller than usual smattering of extras for this release – three short featurettes featuring interviews with Fukasaku’s biographer, the film’s screenwriter, and with Sonny Chiba himself, as well as a couple of historical essays in the accompanying booklet (which were very helpful for the writing of the opening paragraphs of this review.) Doberman Cop isn’t a lost classic. It’s a fun diversion and a kind of swan song for a sort of genre filmmaking that had produced so much great material in the ’60s and ’70s, but alas had lost its audience. Even if it wasn’t a great success at the time, Doberman Cop is a reminder of what made (and makes) these kind of movies so refreshing for a receptive audience.
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