Demon Spies (DVD)

I spied on some demons the other day, but all they did was sit around and watch TV.

From the mind of manga artist and Lone Wolf and Cub creator Koike Kazuo comes a 1970s martial arts flick that blends genres while serving up plenty of rough sex and blood-gushing violence.

During Japan’s Edo Period, a secret school, where young men and women are trained to be spies, is hidden somewhere in a forest. Its lessons are equal parts swordplay, subterfuge and sex—whatever it takes to steal secrets from an enemy. All the students wear matching demon masks, but five of them rebel by daring to reveal their faces to each other. Instead of being killed for this injustice, they are instead rewarded; their mysterious teacher applauds them for becoming true “demons.”

Soon, school is out, and our five heroes get caught up in a cat and mouse game with the local Lord, who’s made it his goal to root out all spies in his midst. There’s a hidden arsenal of illegal firearms somewhere on the Lord’s property. Can the Demon Spies find it before they’re discovered?

We’ve got all the trappings of a classic ’70s martial arts movie here. Let’s go through the checklist, shall we? Wild fight choreography with overdone sound effects? Check. Gravity-defying leaps through the air? Check. Women in garishly colored kimonos? Check. People crashing through paper walls? Check. Severed limbs and gushing arterial sprays? Check. A lot of talk about honor, ritual, and sacrifice? Check. So what new elements does this one bring to the table? Espionage.

Sure, no one will ever mistake Demon Spies for a Bond film, but there are a lot of themes and ideas from more serious spy capers present in this one. First is a feeling of suspicion. Characters in this film never know whom to trust, and where any one person’s loyalties lie. Any ally could secretly be working for the other side, ready to stab a trusted friend in the back at a moment’s notice. The spies carefully plan their methods of attack, while their enemy has traps set up waiting for them. This leaves the audience to guess which side will outsmart the other.

When the characters aren’t being sneaky, they’re slicing and dicing. If you disliked Kill Bill: Volume 1 because it wasn’t “old school” enough for you, then this movie might be more your style. There are amazing leaps through the air, blood the color of Kool Aid, and characters that are able to make a tiny dart hit a target across the room with just the flick of their wrist. And yet, the fights are not overly stylized. There’s still some small sense that these people are fighting for their lives, and not just performing elaborate choreography.

Many of us have fond memories of discovering old ’70s martial arts movies on Saturday afternoon TV when we were kids. If you saw Demon Spies back then, it must have been an edited down version, because sex and nudity play a role here, especially early in the film. And it’s not in a good way. Sex in this movie is mean and ugly. The point is made that, especially for female characters, sex is a weapon used to gain enemies’ trust and then learn their secrets.

You probably noticed I haven’t mentioned many characters specifically, instead speaking about the plot in mostly general terms. There’s not a lot of character work on display here. The four male Demon Spies are basically the same person played by four different actors. The script drops hints about a possible romance for one of them, but he never gets a chance to follow up on it. How did our heroes end up in a secret spy school? What drove them to succeed? Why are they so passionate about their beliefs? None of this is explored. The movie has action and plot, but its characters are sorely lacking.

The anamorphic picture is a good one, faring much better than several other movies of the era. Although hazy at times, the visuals are high quality with rich colors and deep blacks. The sound is decent, notably the loud drumbeats in the music, but could still be better. The good news is that the audio shows no obvious flaws. The subtitles are well-done and easy to follow, and there are even a few added translation notes to help viewers understand some cultural differences in the story. The most notable extras here are the “Program Notes” that go into detail about the history of the Edo Period, as well as the backgrounds of the director, writer, and composer. The character biographies are not as informative. There are original trailers for Demon Spies, Shadow Hunters, and Shadow Hunters II, in their original Japanese with English subtitles. An image gallery is also included.

Violence, sex, and martial arts. That’s what this movie promises, and that’s just what it delivers. If that sounds like your kind of thrill, then give Demon Spies a try.

The Verdict

The defendants would be found not guilty, but they just disappeared into the shadows while my back was turned.

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