Arrow Video: Doberman Cop (1977) - Reviewed

There seem to be three shades to the prolific, great Japanese film director Kinji Fukusaku.  The man took on debatably qualitative English language work such as Tora! Tora! Tora!, The Green Slime or Message from Space, cemented his formidable reputation with the now infamous high-school massacre as modern social critique Battle Royale or most notably offered up a wholly original, gritty and violent take on the yakuza subgenre consisting of stray dogs on the fringes of Japanese society on a drug induced downward spiral or in the midst of a violent outbreak.  Doberman Cop, the second collaboration the director embarked on with action star Sonny Chiba within the same year, falls into the latter category. 

Like Chiba’s Wolf Guy, the film is based upon a manga though the aforementioned series proved to be fantastical whereas Doberman Cop is decidedly grounded in realism.  Written by Buronsen of Fist of the North Star fame, the film adaptation finds Chiba in the titular role of Joji Kano, an Okinawan country cop who moves to the city life of Tokyo with his pet pig by his side who quickly mounts his own investigation into a series of serial murders when the police division fails to bring closure to the crimes.  One of director Fukusaku’s least seen pictures and arguably one of his most underrated, Doberman Cop is a hard boiled cops vs. yakuza tale which proves to be like If You Were Young: Rage one of the director’s most lyrical, wild and oddly poignant offerings in his oeuvre. 

While exploiting the cool swagger of Chiba, Fukusaku’s gritty and often haphazard audiovisual approach of handheld camerawork and deep telephoto photography compounded with a melancholic jazz score are what most viewers will remember from Doberman Cop.  Though Fukusaku and Chiba indeed make a great actor-director team, this is mostly Fukusaku’s show through and through with his usual obsessions concerning self-destructive and neurotic heroin and dope addicts on the fringes of urban Japan falling in and out of the yakuza way of life.  Chiba’s take on Kano sports the actor’s usual debonair cool, wild stunts and fighting sequences with the camera loving every inch of him though Fukusaku gives equal time to the ensemble cast of characters falling in and out of this often rough around the edges crime saga.  Fukusaku also leaves ample room for dialogue about the polar opposite balance between the country and city ways of life with Kano as a kind of Sanjuro Tsubaki wandering through a modern world locked in mortal combat. 

While I’m still going with If You were Young: Rage as my personal favorite Fukusaku effort, the underseen Doberman Cop is a wild, rough, tough and even wickedly funny yakuza yarn which proves once again Fukusaku may well have been the grand master of the yakuza subgenre.  Though many have come and gone over the years, some by more visually inventive directors than others, Fukusaku’s down and dirty stylistic approach make his yakuza pictures unmistakably and only his with many directors merely following in his footsteps if not paying outright homage (see Takashi Miike’s remake of Graveyard of Honor for example).  Some viewers expecting the operatic ultraviolence of Battle Royale will be disappointed but longtime Fukusaku followers accustomed to his gritty crime dramas will find many unexpected pleasures in this otherwise clandestine, somber action thriller.

- Andrew Kotwicki