Friday, April 16, 2010

Sonny Chiba in Kinji Fukasaku's DOBERMAN COP (1977)

Videoasia's Sonny Chiba 4 Film Set is a peculiar little collection. One of the four films hardly counts as a Chiba film, since the great man only contributes a cameo, but that film proved to be a crazy diamond: Machine Gun Dragon, a Japanese re-working of White Heat with Bunta Suguwara in the Cagney role. The film that shares one side of the disc with Dragon is indeed a Sonny Chiba vehicle, but Videoasia neglected to note in its box copy that it is also a film by my second-favorite Japanese director, the relentless Kinji Fukasaku of Yakuza Papers and Battle Royale fame. You'd think that'd be a detail that would guarantee more sales, but Videoasia makes some peculiar calculations sometimes.

Don't let that title fool you, either. It might make you expect a cartoon character or a K9 crimefighter, but it's the title of a popular manga series by a writer who pseudo-named himself after Charles "Buronson" to give readers an idea of what to expect from his pen. I couldn't find out very much about the character more commonly known as Detective Doberman (or Doberman Deka in his native tongue), so I don't know how faithfully Fukasaku represents the comics here. I'll just have to judge the film on its own merits, which emerge only gradually.

The title character's real title is Detective Kano. He's a cop from Okinawa, the sticks of Japan as far as this film is concerned. The vibe is like a McCloud episode or the movie Coogan's Bluff, only imagine Dennis Weaver or Clint Eastwood as a hillbilly instead of a westerner. How hilly is this billy? The opening credits roll over scenes of him wandering through a red-light district of Tokyo with a pig in his arms. It's meant to be an offering to the Tokyo police for their help in resolving a missing person case. Kano has come to the big city to help identify a prostitute who was murdered and burned in her apartment, apparently the latest victim of a serial killer. The Tokyo cops believe the body is Yuna Tamashiro, a girl who ran away from Kano's home village some years ago.

As Kano explains, Yuna is "sort of" his wife, or at least was predicted to become his wife by her mother, the local noro or sorceress. This authority is also convinced that Yuna is not dead. The Tokyo cops may scoff (wouldn't you?) but Kano's own analysis appears to confirm her perception. He casts a bag of seashells on a table and counts those face down and face up in "she loves me, she loves me not" fashion to determine whether Yuna is alive. Don't freak out, though: he's also a quite competent conventional detective and, also being Sonny Chiba, more than capable of handling himself in dangerous situations.

"Knock, Knock!"

Kano suddenly becomes a national hero when he uses unconventional means to rescue an aspiring nightclub singer, Miki Haruno, from a psycho who's taken her hostage in her hotel room. Chiba does most of his own stuntwork in this sequence, rapelling off the hotel roof and traveling at least a dozen stories down to set up his crash dive through a window into Miki's room. This exploit earns him the nickname "Detective Tarzan," just to make things more confusing. It also boosts Miki's profile in advance of her appearance on "A Star is Born," the Japanese Idol of its time. As we learn later, that's just what her ruthless manager Hidemori, a former yakuza, was betting on. But as Kano learns when he watches her sing her signature tune, "My Memory," Miki is almost certainly Yuna Tamashiro.

As Kano gets entangled in the story of Miki and Hidemori, the would-be impresario emerges as a lead suspect in the murder mystery, as the victim seems to be someone who knew something potentially compromising about Miki. Hidemori is a kind of Svengali figure, a manipulator who plies the neurotic Miki with drugs to get her onstage and choreographs her stage movements. But writer Koji Takada and actor Hiroki Matsukata give this villain more depth than we initially expect. Hidemori is a man who has chosen show business as an alternative to yakuza life, only to find that representing your talent can be as hardball a business as whatever unsavory work he did in the past. We also learn that he has genuine feelings for Miki, whom he says he met in New York City and saved from a drug habit. He clearly sees her as a meal ticket, but he also says that she's the first person he's ever felt a desire to help. Their relationship turns out to be something more complex than we thought as it becomes clear that Miki is something more than a helpless Trilby in thrall to her master. Unlike Trilby, she doesn't fall silent when her Svengali is silenced. At the same time, while she flourishes, Kano consults his oracle again, counts the shells, and comes to a dramatically different conclusion than he did the last time. The finale is poignantly downbeat as a devastated Kano packs up his pig and quits Tokyo. Fukasaku and Chiba aren't normally the types to play for pathos, but they earn it here with a perfectly serviceable film noir storyline at the heart of the usual Toei Studio mayhem.

Janet Hatta as Miki and Hiroki Matsukata practically steal Doberman Cop from Chiba, who admirably doesn't overdue the yokel act, despite his costume. Below, Miki's apotheosis at the moment of her mentor's destruction.

Never forgetting that this is a Sonny Chiba movie, Fukasaku stocks the story with plenty of fight scenes filmed in his patented frenetic, topsy-turvy fashion. Our hero is as handy with a Magnum as he is with his fists and feet, blowing one man's head clean off in the film's most violent scene. He has to deal with Hidemori's thugs as well as with the masked serial killer, not to mention the stupidity of most of the Tokyo cops. He gathers up a motley array of allies along the way, including a motorcycle gang and a stripper and her irascible manager.

In the movie's strangest sequence, the stripper Kosode is smitten by Kano and his pig as they watch her prepare to fellate a dildo. The pig goes out of control and runs on stage, and while the whiny manager wrangles it offstage, Kosode drags Kano onstage and strips him with the aid of other spectators. The yokel's protests fade away as Kosode gives him a free ride in front of everybody. Later, Kano tells her that she and her boss are the "most normal" people he's met in Tokyo. Draw whatever conclusion you like from that.

If this is "normal" treatment by Kano's standards, his Okinawan village must be a more happening kind of place than most Tokyo snobs assume.

Doberuman Deka is obviously not in the same league as Fukasaku's yakuza epics or the late-career apocalypse of Battle Royale, but it has a visceral vitality and a surprising emotional range from bumpkin bawdiness to torch song tragedy. Some of that may come from the source material, and some of it is the director's distinctive touch. Perhaps more so than Chiba's martial-arts films that traveled around the world, this film is a piece of authentic Japanese pop culture, and one that may never have been meant for foreign eyes. While the widescreen transfer on the Videoasia disc is far from optimum, the film's mere presence alongside Machine Gun Dragon make the company's Chiba set a must-have until better, more official editions come along.

There's better picture quality in this Japanese trailer, uploaded to YouTube by ssape21. You never see that dog in the movie itself, by the way.

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