Once upon a time, it was instantly apparent when a film was based on a comic or graphic novel as those films concerned themselves with the super-powered and the otherworldly, then around the mid-1990s there was a paradigm shift and the nature of these titles became indistinguishable from the more traditional film. There is no such vivid contrast in Japan, while films like the upcoming Jo Jo’s Bizarre Adventure, Terrarformars or Ichi the Killer are obvious examples from the filmography of Takashi Miike [alone], that country has a far more mature and balanced notion of what a comic book, or manga, is and the stories they can tell. America and Britain are catching up with those ideas, albeit slowly. This contrast between East and West is an altogether relevant one, as Arrow Video has released Doberman Cop a title that is based on a manga from the author of Fist of the North Star, Buronson, but marries the styles of American pulp with Japanese police procedural. The pulpiest of both worlds.
Sonny Chiba stars as the titular Doberman, Joji Kano, an Okinawan police detective who turns up in Tokyo after following a murder case from his home island to the capital on the mainland. Initially written off as a country bumpkin, he wears a straw hat, arrives with a pig in tow and uses seeds for divination as part of his repertoire of police tricks. Kinji Fukasaku directs a film that is entirely unlike anything at the time, the traditional Yakuza or Japanese crime film would be full of flashy suited, grim-faced gentlemen but not Kano, he is positioned as an absurd contradiction to the long-established tropes. For one he turns up, dressed as he is, but not only is there that he imposes his credentials but zip-lining from the roof of a hotel and kicks his way through a window to beat up a kidnapper and not upon first arriving in town he turns up at a strip club where the stripper rapes him with the aid of the clientele and then the stripper falls in love with him and he seems to reciprocate those feelings. To call Doberman Cop a peculiar character in an odd film would be to sell this thing substantially short.
Shot at the back end of the 1970s in an era when the Japanese industry was struggling, Fukasaku took this as an opportunity to play entirely against convention by adopting a character who has more in common with the mad dogs of American crime film, with its lead more akin to Charles Bronson in Deathwish or Clint Eastwood in the Dirty Harry films. Not only that, the film is positioned around youth culture with the Sonny Chiba’s character aligning himself with a biker gang. Like those American touchstones, Chiba’s Kano is one of the sole competent people in a system ruled over by incompetence and violent over compensation. He near enough cracks the crime in his first few days in town, but in cracking the crime he ends up picking a fight with one of the most powerful Yakuza families in town. Cue Sonny Chiba shooting perpetrators, or one two combo punching and roundhouse kicking everyone in sight like the superior amalgamation of Bruce Lee and Chuck Norris that he is.
That is all Doberman Cop needs to be, it’s not the smartest film in the world, then again it makes no claims at being anything other than a wonderfully entertaining left turn in the face of an industry that stuck by tradition through thick and thin. Fukasaku’s film is a rebellious one, with a character who leaves quite the indelible impression. It is positioned as an action comedy and that aspect of the film isn’t wholly successful, as you would be inclined to expect with a script that is challenging boundaries and conventions of a time that has long since passed. While other films of this time have dated equally, Kinji Fukasaku has bulletproofed this manga adaptation by simply being endlessly re-watchable with its iconic, confident and sincere performance from the inimitable Sonny Chiba. Whether cult or campy, this is the exact sort of film that has flourished in the home video revolution – that bravura box art certainly doesn’t hamper its chances either.