An astonishingly bad chanbara loaded with both horror and comic elements, Demon Spies (Oniwaban, 1974) was a last gasp of a tired genre ready for a major overhaul. The film was adapted from a manga created by Kazuo Koike, best-known for comic books that served as the basis of the Lone Wolf and Cub films (1972-74), as well as Lady Snowblood (1973), its sequel, and more than a dozen other movies. When those early films proved popular, Demon Spies must of had the look of yet another potential film series, but unfortunately the end result is a peculiar mishmash of genres that's bereft of logic and interesting characters.
The genuinely oddball set-up involves a secret society of demon warriors. Sixteen children (orphans?) are drafted into a secluded dojo where both they and their adult masters wear traditional Japanese demon masks at all times - removing one's mask is instantly punishable by death. Over the next ten years the children, now young adults, are trained in ninja-like martial arts for the eventual purpose of keeping the peace and protecting the populace. "We...crush conspiracies [against the Shogunate] and destroy evil-doers" wherever they may hide - making them on the very opposite side of AnimEigo's simultaneous releases, Shadow Hunters and Echo of Destiny: Shadow Hunters II.
With its gang rapes and arbitrary executions the demon boot camp is no picnic, and after a decade only five apprentices, four men (Masanori Kondo, Ryunosuke Minegishi, Yutaka Mizutani, and Keiji Takamine) and a girl (Keiko Aramaki), remain standing. Eventually, however, the young demons are ready for their first mission, and are ordered by Iwai Jubei, Shogun superintendent of the Demons Spies, to stop the powerful Kishu clan from hoarding forbidden foreign-made weapons.
Demon Spies appears faithful to the manga in the sense that many scenes are shot with the striking angles and mise-en-scene straight out of Koike's comic book, but while this keeps the film visually interesting, other basic components like story and characterizations fall to the wayside. The demon neophytes are colorless warriors played by generally uninteresting actors. New Face actress Keiko Aramaki, for instance, is cute but inexperienced, her only previous role was a small part in Evil of Dracula earlier that year, and she appears to have done just one other movie after that.
Mostly the film resembles cheap Grand Guignol, with loads of gratuitous gore and nudity. Dismembered limbs and spraying blood had become a tired cliche by 1974, and Demon Spies responds to this problem with lots of dismembered limbs and spraying blood. It ups the ante further with scenes straight out of Herschel Gordon Lewis, with one demon teacher lifting the entrails out of a naked corpse (a sexy female corpse, naturally). The picture would be quite distasteful if not for its basic ludicrousness.
To wit: Why are the demon masters so quick to execute their students? Wouldn't this create a high turnover? Why do they in turn demand that the students kill them at the end of their training? Why does the demon headmaster slice his own head in two? The demon society is such a cult that the love/hate loyalty our heroes ultimately hold toward it goes so beyond defying basic logic that the quintet come off as mentally ill, like the followers of Charles Manson or Japan's Aum cult.
The film was directed by Takashi Tsuboshima, as unlikely a choice to helm a picture like this as can be imagined. After training as an assistant director and screenwriter, he made his debut in 1963, with A Photojournalist's Story - Risk Your Life for the Moment (Shashin kisha monogatari - Shunkan ni inochi o kakero, 1963). His second film, Crazy Free-for-All- Go to Hell! Irresponsibles (Kureejii sakusen - Kutabare! Musekinin, 1963), starring The Crazy Cats, established him as a fine director of screen comedy, the genre in which he would be most associated. He directed about a dozen features starring the team in various combinations, including the delightful The Man from Planet Alpha (Kureejii dayo - Kisotsutengai, 1966), a sci-fi variation of Here Comes Mr. Jordan; and Las Vegas Free-for-All (Kureejii ogon sakusen, 1967), an epic Crazy Cats comedy filmed in Honolulu, Hollywood, and Las Vegas.
Outside of his Crazy Cats movies, Tsuboshima also directed Operation Lion Ant (Arijigoku sakusen, 1964), the sixth film in the "Independent Gangster" film series; and A Keg of Powder (Kokusai himitsu keisatsu - Kayaku no taru, 1964), the third and best of Toho's "International Secret Police" series of spy films starring Tatsuya Mihashi. Though Woody Allen's What's Up, Tiger Lily? famously pilfered footage from another film in that series, Senkichi Taniguchi's International Secret Police - Key of Keys (Kokusai himitsu keisatsu - Kagi no kagi, 1965), in fact most of Tiger Lily's early scenes are actually whole sequences lifted out of A Keg of Powder, which already was a good spoof to begin with. Any of these films would have been a better choice to release to DVD than Demon Spies, an assignment Tsuboshima doubtlessly took to keep working at a dire time for industry, when many of his contemporaries were forced into early retirement.
In a way it's quite sad to see a film as uninteresting as Demon Spies, a film presumably dumped into the American market for its flesh and blood, rather than any number of fine Japanese films (including those mentioned above) which remain completely unknown outside Japan.
Demon Spies was released at the bottom of a tepid double-billed topped by Police Fang - Razor Hanzo's Gentle Skin of Gold (Goyokiba - Oni no Hanzo yawa hada koban, 1974), a Shintaro Katsu film and one of three other Kazuo Koike adaptations released by Toho in 1974 alone. But none of these films were especially successful and the studio released no other Koike films for the rest of the decade.
Video & Audio
Demon Spies is presented in its original CinemaScope format in good 16:9 transfer. The Japanese mono track is fine and comes with excellent annotated English subtitles.
As with the two Shadow Hunters movies, Trailers are included for all three pictures. All are presented in 4:3 letterboxed format, but they are subtitled and complete with text and narration.
The 25-pages of Program Notes are annoyingly presented in "scroll" format, making them inconvenient to look through at the reader's pace; the same holds true for the decent Image Gallery. Also included are Character Biographies.
If you don't object to mindless action and cardboard characters so long as the action is visually appealing and blood flows like an uncapped fire hydrant, than Demon Spies is for you. All others beware.
Stuart Galbraith IV is a Kyoto-based film historian whose work includes The Emperor and the Wolf - The Lives and Films of Akira Kurosawa and Toshiro Mifune and Taschen's forthcoming Cinema Nippon. Visit Stuart's Cine Blogarama here.