Tough detective Joji Kano (Sonny Chiba) travels from Okinawa to Tokyo to investigate the brutal murder of a young island girl who had been working as a prostitute in the city's Kabuki-cho district. Local cops dismiss Kano as a clueless country bumpkin yet, wielding a mean-looking .44 Magnum pistol, this unstoppable karate badass heroically diffuses one dangerous situation after another. Kano eventually finds an ally in the dead girl's biker boyfriend. Together they start to unravel a shocking mystery involving tortured singer Miki Harukaze (Janet Hatta), her sleazy yakuza-connected manager Hidemori (Hiroki Matsukata) and a serial arsonist torching women around the city.
No actor resembled a manga hero brought to life better than Japanese action star Sonny Chiba. No surprise then that Chiba headlined several films adapted from popular comic book serials including Wolf Guy: The Enraged Lycanthrope (1974), Karate Bull Fighter (1975) and Golgo 13: Assignment Kowloon (1977). Doberman Cop was adapted from a gekiga (adult-oriented action manga) that was the first hit for Buronson, the pen-name adopted by writer Yoshiyuki Okamura. As one might expect from a writer that drew his pseudonym from stone-faced screen tough guy Charles Bronson, Buronson specialized in gritty, hard-boiled action yarns. Indeed he went on to co-create Fist of the North Star (1987) arguably the most absurdly macho manga epic of them all. However in adapting Doberman Cop for the screen cult filmmaker Kinji Fukasaku (who launched Sonny Chiba's movie career in the early Sixties and collaborated with the actor for decades afterwards) deviated from the source.
For one thing Fukasaku altered the character of Joji Kano away from the manga's street-wise Dirty Harry (1971) type into an affable yokel in a straw hat, clueless about big city ways but armed with shrewd crime-solving instincts and killer karate skills. It was an idea already established in American productions like the Seventies television show McCloud not to mention Coogan's Bluff (1968), the very first collaboration between star Clint Eastwood and director Don Siegel. Of course Clint never walked the streets with a pig for a sidekick nor used a handful of magic Tarot beans to solve crimes. Chiba commands the screen with one of his most affable and interestingly vulnerable characterizations yet Doberman Cop actually makes less out of its fish-out-of-water angle than one might expect. Indeed though Fukasaku stages plenty of gory gun-play, karate action and stunts showcasing Chiba's legendary prowess, far from a guns-blazing action-fest the film spins a rather melancholy tale where sad, flawed, desperate characters are caught in web of tragedy. Even the villains prove pitiful and vaguely sympathetic.
Unlike many filmmakers at Toei studios Fukasaku had the dexterity needed to counterbalance those elements required for a good exploitation film (i.e. outrageous sex and violence) with a sincere empathy for the junkies, hustlers, hookers and dreamers that populate society's lowest rung. Kano finds decency and empathy among a prostitute (Eiko Matsuda, star of Nagisa Oshima's celebrated art-porn opus In the Realm of the Senses (1976)), her pimp (Takuzo Kawatani) and a teenage biker gang. By comparison his big city cop colleagues come across as intolerant, inept, patronizing or plain corrupt. As a studio famously founded by yakuza Toei's films were notorious for portraying the police in a negative light. Uniquely for a Sonny Chiba action film, Doberman Cop makes a point of highlighting that Kano's greatest asset as a detective is neither his great big gun nor karate prowess but rather a capacity for empathy that distinguishes him from his insensitive Tokyo colleagues. Even so the key character in this story is not Kano but rather Miki the tragic lounge singer (whose lovely ballads have a charming Karen Carpenter flavour about them). Her attempt to reinvent herself prior to succumbing to drug-addiction and showbiz misery underscore the film's cynical portrayal of Tokyo as a city that seduces, corrupts and ultimately destroys 'country folk.' Unfortunately the alternative Kano offers Miki does not seem especially liberating either. He implores her to return home, nurse her ailing mother and eventually settle down to a lifetime of domestic servitude, a dilemma similar to that facing the heroine of Larry Cohen's underrated thriller Special Effects (1984) only without the irony. Despite a meandering plot and wayward pacing, Doberman Cop remains consistently engaging and unique both in terms of its subject matter and atmosphere especially for a Seventies Japanese action film.