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Review: Zatoichi vs. Flying Guillotine

While digging through my DVD collection back in Florida, I managed to unearth one of the weirdest (and possibly most cursed; I found it at the bottom of a Walmart bargain bin) films I’ve ever purchased: Zatoichi vs. Flying Guillotine, part of the four-movies-on-one-disc Wu Tang Protect Ya Neck Collection. This is a rare and special artifact: a Chinese bootleg addition to the Blind Swordsman mythos, which features the shocking revelation that our jovial hero only lived in Japan because he was kidnapped by pirates (a reasonable revision, considering the two countries’ turbulent history). He returns to his motherland just in time to discover that his long-lost brother has been slain, leading him to embark on—what else?—a quest for revenge.

Aside from the obvious aesthetic and cultural differences, Flying Guillotine feels remarkably like an official Zatoichi adventure. The lead actor bears an uncanny resemblance to Shintaro Katsu, and his imitation of Ichi’s trademark mannerisms—from his mirthful laughter to his hearty appetite—is absolutely spot-on. Sadly, his inclusion in the story is a blatant afterthought, probably intended to capitalize on the character’s unanticipated popularity following his famous duel with Jimmy Wang Yu’s One-Armed Swordsman. The bulk of his screen time is totally unrelated to the main plot (including his climactic duel with an enigmatic assassin wielding the eponymous exotic weapon), and when he finally does encounter his brother’s repentant killer, his actions are so uncharacteristically cruel and barbaric that I have to assume they were originally written for a more generic “vengeful relative” archetype.

It doesn’t help that this particular release is (as expected, if I’m being honest) a subpar VHS transfer, with a pan and scan so abysmal that the protagonists are occasionally cropped out of the frame entirely. If you’re a true chanbara fanatic, Zatoichi vs. Flying Guillotine is a fascinating curiosity, but at the end of the day, there’s a reason it’s been largely forgotten.

[Originally written April 23, 2017.]

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