Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: a small town cop arrives in the big city to help solve a crime with links to his home. Except in Kinji Fukasaku’s Doberman Cop (1977), that rural detective is Shinichi “Sonny” Chiba, and he rolls into Tokyo’s Kabukicho entertainment district with his straw hat and delightful piglet in tow. What follows is a remarkable police thriller closer in feel to an ‘80s action film that Fukasaku’s earlier jitsuroku work – more Lethal Weapon than Battles Without Honour and Humanity. Only very loosely based on the manga of the same name by ‘Bronson’, it’s an eclectic mix of action, comedy, martial arts, and grisly crime drama; a film that should result in complete tonal whiplash, but somehow comes together into an off kilter but satisfying, cohesive whole.
Chiba stars as Detective Kano, a “country bumpkin” cop from Okinawa. Japan’s most southwestern prefecture, in 1977 Okinawa had only been under Japanese administration for five years after decades of US occupation and to this day has the heaviest presence of US military forces in Japan. Speaking in an interview recorded last year for the Arrow release of Doberman Cop, screenwriter Koji Takada referred to it as “Japan’s America”. It’s a fascinating look at how Okinawa is perceived by the rest of Japan. Kano is Japanese, yet not; influenced by both the American occupation and Ryukyuan culture predating Japan’s control of the islands in 1879, Kano reads as alien to the Tokyo cops and gangsters. He shows up with a quaint straw hat and the gift of a live pig – educating me on some prejudicial stereotypes I didn’t even know existed. He practices karate, a martial art now widely associated with Japan, but originating in Okinawa. Chiba had already achieved prominence with the Street Fighter series of films that exploited his skills, but while Doberman Cop features some well put together fights, it’s far from a martial arts film – indeed, it’s refreshing that while Kano employs karate, the rest of the cast are messy brawlers, rather than everyone inexplicably being incredible fighters. The American influence is also seen in the massive handgun Kano gets hold of from Hotshot, the leader of a gang of bosozoku (vagabond bikers); it’s a huge Magnum .44 revolver, a clear Dirty Harry homage and one of the few things lifted from the original manga.
The crime that brings Kano to Tokyo is a surprisingly gruesome murder by strangulation where the victim was then burned by arson, which leads to perhaps the most jarring sequence of the film; while the introductory credits roll, Kano arrives in Tokyo with his hat and pig, gawping at the neon lights of Kabukicho, between cuts to distressingly realistic crime scene photos. As odd a juxtaposition as that is, it somewhat sets the tone for a film that careens back and forth between fish-out-of-water action comedy – a film where Kano finds accommodation in a strip club-slash-brothel after one of the working girls falls in love with him (and his adorable pig) – and a fairly dark crime drama – a film where an aspiring singer named Miki (Janet Hatta) related to the murder case is constantly trying to feed her drug addiction and her ex-yakuza manager (Fukasaku regular Hiroki Matsukata) can barely keep things under control. The Tokyo police believe the victim is a girl from Okinawa named Yuna, but Kano isn’t buying it; he becomes convinced the girl, Yuna, is still alive, and that she might even be Miki.
Somehow Doberman Cop manages to balance these incredibly disparate plot threads, not to mention running threads about Hotshot and his bikers and their Bohemian lifestyle, a serial arsonist tied to the main case and three other murders, and a trigger-happy uniform cop who’d been demoted from detective status. By the end of the film, the various plot threads are tied off one by one, building to a well-earned finale. There’s one final bit of ambiguity I wouldn’t wish to spoil by discussing it in detail here, but Doberman Cop leaves open the interpretation of Kano’s conclusion about the case. I feel like it could go either way, and I’m perfectly happy with that.
While Fukasaku’s earlier, more realistic crime films were deep and nuanced, they tended to be quite tonally consistent. Seeing Doberman Cop actually does a lot to help explain how he came to Battle Royale late in his career; there was a lot more to him than just yakuza films. For fans of Chiba or Fukasaku, I don’t think this is a film that can be missed. One can only hope more of Fukasaku’s films from outside the yakuza genre start getting serious English language releases; after Doberman Cop, he would team up again with Chiba for The Shogun’s Samurai in 1978 – with none other than Toshiro Mifune. And wouldn’t that be something to see.
Doberman Cop / ドーベルマン刑事
Director: Kinji Fukasaku
Japanese Release Date: 2nd July 1977
Version Watched: 90 min (Arrow Video)