Unable to beat master swordsman Chu Yen Jieh (Hong Hoi), disgraced rival Tieh Hou commits suicide in right in front of his anguished wife (Chan Pooi-Ling) and son. A guilt-ridden Yen Jieh renounces swordplay and goes out of his way to safeguard the widow and child on their journey home. He even endures a terrible beating from bandits to ensure their lives are spared. Trailing these travellers are not one, but two sinister swordsmen. One is the magnificently monickered Black Doomsday Tan Lung (Chen Hung-Lieh) who is intent on killing Chu Yen Jieh to claim the title of top swordsman in the Martial World. The other is an anonymous assassin wielding the titular death-dealing device. This guy is on a mad mission to collect the severed heads of the world’s greatest martial artists, only his target is not Chu Yen Jieh. Instead, he plans to use Yen Jieh to lure out Tieh Hou’s vengeful brother, who happens to be none other than legendary blind swordsman Zato... hey, wait a minute. That’s not Zatoichi!
No, it isn’t. The real Zatoichi would be superstar Shintarô Katsu who played his signature role in twenty-six Japanese feature films and had just brought the character onto what would prove a long-running television series around the time Zatoichi vs. the Flying Guillotine was made. Who we have in his place is actually a Taiwanese actor called Sing Lung, who played this fake Zatoichi throughout three rip-off movies of which this was the last, preceded by Golden Sword & the Blind Swordsman (1970) and The Blind Swordsman vs. the White Wolf (1972). Not only is Sing Lung a dead ringer for Shintarô Katsu, he has his Ichi mannerisms down pat. Quite how this short-lived rival Zatoichi franchise came to be remains unclear, though it is likely Taiwanese filmmakers sought to cash-in on the official Hong Kong-Japanese co-production Zatoichi vs. the One-Armed Swordsman (1971). But even that is only one part of the strange convoluted story behind Zatoichi vs. the Flying Guillotine which actually appears to be cashing-in on not one but two, possibly even three separate martial arts film franchises.
In 1974 Shaw Brothers released The Flying Guillotine creating a craze for kung fu films featuring this head-lopping hat-box reaching its apotheosis with Master of the Flying Guillotine (1976), among the greatest genre movies ever made, though the gadget made an unexpected comeback in the superheroine flick, The Heroic Trio (1993). Additionally the Chu Yen Jieh character seems to have been modelled closely upon the screen persona of Jimmy Wang Yu, who of course starred opposite Shintarô Katsu in Zatoichi vs. the One-Armed Swordsman and went on to direct Master of the Flying Guillotine. Yen Jieh even wields the same distinctive broken sword Wang Yu used in the earlier film, although he does sport two functioning arms. In fact, in spite of the title, Chu Yen Jieh is very much the hero of this movie. His tragic love for the widow whose husband he killed provides the heart of the story as do his ongoing attempts to renounce violence in the face of enemies who will not let him be.
One of those enemies is of course, Zatoichi. Sing Lung may be able roll his eyeballs and waggle his ears in the familiar Katsu manner, but plays an Ichi far removed from the affable, good humoured, profoundly altruistic rogue fans know and love. In a move sure to outrage purists, Ichi is recast as a foul tempered, belligerent oaf whose lust for vengeance blinds him far grievously than his physical handicap. The film goes so far as to concoct a new origin story, revealing Ichi is really a Chinese hero by the name of Wu Chung Hi who was abducted to Japan by pirates! Perhaps the filmmakers felt lingering resentment over the Second World War would prevent Chinese audiences from embracing a Japanese hero, in much the same way as several Japanese filmmakers working at Shaw Brothers opted for Chinese pseudonyms, though filmgoers flocked to see the real Shintarô Katsu in Zatoichi vs. the One-Armed Swordman without making a fuss.
Although Ichi eventually sees the error of his ways, the character has shockingly little to do with the plot beyond periodically popping up for a bizarre comic interlude. These include a strange scene where a small boy swipes Ichi’s clothes while he is bathing in a stream, promising to return them only in return for a glimpse of his bare butt. Eh? This sort of behaviour would land most grown men in prison but Ichi happily indulges the, er, eccentric tyke. Even more shocking, Ichi also concedes Chu Yen Jieh is the greater swordsman (really?) and actually sits out the final fight with the dastardly Tan Lung. The end result is tantamount to the French making a James Bond movie unmasking 007 as an inept idiot leaving some Gallic action hero to kill all the bad guys and get the girl.
While the frenetic camerawork is far from artless and care was spent on the production, as evident from some detailed sets, the fast-motion action is hopelessly comical and the haphazard editing lends a disjointed, almost Godardian rhythm. Viewers may well give up during the first twenty minutes, a series of random encounters that are all but incoherent while the eventual plot is riddled with holes. Still, connoisseurs of trashy kung fu flicks may derive some pleasure from the gunshot effect that accompanies the flying guillotine and movie buffs will certainly spot that the finale was stolen from Shane (1953).