Demon Spies (Japan 1974)

Rating: ***
Alternate Title: Oniwaban
Review Date: 1/29/23
Cast: Masaomi Kondo, Keiko Aramaki

Based on a story by the prolific Kazuo Koike, a group of children are cruelly trained to become "oniwaban," or "demon spies" for the Shogunate. A powerful fief is allegedly amassing illegal firearms, so the demons are sent to infiltrate, investigate, and destroy the arsenal before the fief can rebel against the Shogunate. Naturally, lots of tricks, twists, and treachery are involved. Will they survive and are their efforts all for naught?

The film wastes no time informing the viewer that they're in for an intense and unpleasant experience, and in the first five minutes people are slaughtered, limbs are hacked off, and children are tortured and murdered. Sex education is part of the espionage curriculum, which involves the only girl in the group (Keiko Aramaki) getting raped by the rest of the class. The film revels in shocking displays of nastiness and brutality, but the story maintains a strong amount of humanity, honor, loyalty, and pathos. The acting is quite good, although Masaomi Kondo's rough-sounding voice feels a bit forced and unnatural. The attractive Keiko Aramaki gives an excellent performance that combines sensuality, vulnerability, and strength, and her nude scenes and sword fighting scenes are equally impressive. The fight scenes are nicely staged and a satisfying amount of gratuitous bloodletting is on display. It's a good looking film with excellent cinematography and high production values, and the music score does a great job of complementing both the drama and the action. As is often the case with these types of movies, the ending is rather downbeat, leaving both the audience and the characters to ponder the tragedy and futility of life.