The Demon Spies are raised from a young age through rigorous training and schooling to be the deadliest of warriors. From childhood on, they learn swordplay, stealth, and combat techniques so that when they reach the appropriate age, they'll be competent enough to become the Shogunate's own personal gang of deadly killers. Their faces must remain hidden behind their demon masks at all times, and if their identities are ever revealed, it's an offence punishable by death!
When words comes about that the Shogunate is suspicious that a fief is up to treasonous scheming, five of the newest Demon Spies are recruited to go in undetected and find out what he's up to and, if necessary, put a stop to his plans. What they don't account for is a run in with Lord Shogen, the Demon Hunter and the one man dangerous enough to take on a group of Demon Spies and be able to give them a run for their money.
While this 1974 Toho production might sound like a historical epic full of espionage and politically minded suspense, it's more or less a hack and slash ninja movie with copious amounts of sex and violence. In short, it's ninja-sploitation. Though it's set in feudal times during the Tokugawa Era in the 1600s, it definitely has that seventies vibe in terms of how the content is handled. The mix of seventies trash cinema with the period film asthetic makes for an interesting contrast in terms of visuals, though, and the film fights right in alongside other, better known films of its ilk like the six Lone Wolf And Cub films or, more aptly, the three part Hanzo The Razor series, though it isn't quite as good as either of those acknowledged masterpieces.
Written by Kazuo Koike (of Lone Wolf And Cub and Lady Snowblood fame) and directed by Tsuboshima Takashi (best known in Japan for the spy films he made in the 1960s), this one gets a little muddled in the plot department at times as the masked characters can be sometimes a little difficult to tell apart. This lends to some confusion during a few key moments of the film that might leave you scratching your head once or twice. That issue aside though, Demon Spies moves along very quickly and is, quite simply, action packed. A few stand out set pieces make the film memorable, such as the opening scene in which a man in a very phallic traditional Tengu mask demonstrates his prowess in the art of espionage that results in some graphic copulation is so completely bizarre that it works, and the scenes were we find out what exactly happens to a Demon Spy should he or she become unmasked are blunt and bloody enough to let you know these guys take their code seriously.
While the characters in the film adhere to nothing even close to realism in terms of what they're capable of and how the operate (this film is about as realistic as a Sho Kosugi ninja movie), the otherworldly quality of the central characters with their etheral movements and honestly eerie oniwaban masks makes them nothing short of super cool to look at. The sets are all quite elaborate and don't look cheap at all, and the movie is shot with a nice sense of artistic composition that makes very nice use of the widescreen canvas. The film also has a great score Sata Masaru (who also wrote the music for a few notable Kurosawa films such as Red Beard and Throne Of Blood) that adds some nice atmosphere to the ensuing carnage.
In the end, while Demon Spies might not deliver in terms of tight storytelling or riveting suspense, it does contain enough arterial spray and exposed perky areolas to keep things interesting. The action is well choreographed and nicely edited, the naked ladies are plenty pretty even if they are periodically masked (is it wrong to find that hot?) – what more do you want?
The near spotless 2.35.1 anamorphic transfer that Animeigo has provided for Demon Spies is pretty close to perfect. Aside from some mild edge enhancement and a tiny shimmer here and there, the picture quality is gorgeous. There's a little bit of mild film grain noticeable in some scenes but there's almost no print damage at all and the colors look beautiful on the widescreen image. The black levels stay strong and deep from start to finish and the flesh tones look very lifelike and very natural. The picture is very sharp and quite detailed in both the foreground and the background and quite honestly, overall this film looks spectacular on DVD – much better than I'd expected.
The Japanese language Dolby Digital Mono soundtrack on this DVD comes through with excellent clarity and doesn't suffer from any hiss, distortion, or feedback. There is some of the flatness associated with older mono tracks but that's to be expected and in terms of overall clarity, this mix is top notch. There aren't any issues with understanding the performers and Animeigo once again earns high marks for adding little cultural notes to their subtitles that help Anglo viewers such as myself better understand some of the intricacies of the plot that might get lost during the translation or go unnoticed due to cultural differences. Having these notes available is a definite asset to the presentation and I wish more companies that release Japanese films, especially those set in feudal times, would follow their lead.
While this is hardly a super deluxe special edition, it isn't completely barebones either. Lurking deep within the confines of its menu system you'll find a three trailers (one for Demon Spies, one for Shadow Warriors and one for Shadow Warriors 2), some brief character biographies in text format, and a modest still gallery.
Demon Spies will likely appeal more to the exploitation enthusiast than someone looking for a serious period film. It's got ample amounts of sex and gore and enough action to keep most people intrigued, even if sometimes the plot just seems to be getting in the way. Animegio's disc is light on extras but it looks and sounds fantastic. This one makes for a fun, trashy time – recommended.
Ian lives in NYC with his wife where he writes for DVD Talk, runs Rock! Shock! Pop!. He likes NYC a lot, even if it is expensive and loud.