Kill Bill Vol 1
starring Uma Thurman, Lucy Liu, Julie Dreyfus, Michael Bowen, Jun Kunimura, Kenji Oba, Yuki Kazamatsuri, James Parks, Vivica A. Fox, Michael Madsen, Daryl Hannah, and David
written and directed by Quentin Tarantino
This is “Volume 1” of Kill Bill. Volume Two is currently in Japanese movie theaters. Uma Thurman plays a former assassin out for revenge against a group of colleagues who turned on her, tried to kill her, and left her for dead thinking they had succeeded four years previously. For that reason the film does not progress as a linear story, but involves a lot of flashbacks, which I think make it hard to follow. It makes the story an exercise in decryption, which is not really what I want in a movie. I want to relax and not have to work my brain so hard. Maybe I’m old fashioned, but I still like stories to make sense. Anyway, in Volume One she succeeds in dispatching only two of her would-be killers – Lucy Liu (of Charlie’s Angels andAlly McBeal fame) and Vivica A. Fox. The others, Michael Madsen, Daryl Hannah, and David Carradine - possibly the coolest human being alive get theirs in the next movie. Why did her, one-time cohorts in assassination turn against her? Presumably we learn that in Volume Two, which I haven’t seen yet.
I waited with some anticipation to see this movie for a few reasons. First, it is Quentin Tarantino’s first film in a long time. Next, there has been so much hype about it. Third, I was eager to check out how Japanese elements came across - Japanese dialogue, Japanese anime illustrations, clothes, fencing style, yakuzadepictions, and more. A spate of films in recent years are sometimes put forward by some commentators as examples of how Japanese culture - especially pop culture like weird fashions, animecartoons, and technological gadgets - is being popularized/has exerted its influence abroad and is making its way in the world. Kill Bill; The Last Samurai(Tom Cruise); Lost in Translation(Bill Murray); Ronin (Robert di Niro); Wasabi(Jean Reno); Samurai (Forest Whitaker); Black Rain (Michael Douglas); Rising Sun(Sean Connery); Last Man Standing (Bruce Willis), and many more. Of course, The Magnificent Seven(Yul Brynner) is the classic example, although it is about 40-years old, and not recent. Plus, the success of anything by Kitano Takeshi (especially in France, where judges at the Cannes Film Festival seem to think that he is a great artist, rather than a mere criminal).
Quentin Tarantino’s respect for/debt to Japanese pop culture and film culture have been played up tremendously. But I think there are still grounds for interpreting this movie in another direction. I think that the point needs to be made that Tarantino is not paying homage to Japanese culture - pop culture or high culture - so much as he is paying homage to cheap 1970s Kung Fu flicks churned out in Los Angeles and Hong Kong. Not only in this film - but in this film especially - Tarantino flexes his obsession with everything 1970’s. Sounds and sound effects. Gimmics and costumes. Camera angles and lighting. Many of his films seem intimately, obsessively tied to the 70s somehow. He is fascinated by the decade he grew up in. Tarantino and I are of a similar age, and I probably watched a lot of the TV that he watched as a kid, which helps me recognize the source of many of his film elements. At the same time, his knowledge of those elements is encyclopedic. He draws deeply from pop cultures far and wide. He uses arcane film techniques. He deserves a lot of respect for the ways he puts them all together. But he is not a walking encyclopedia of high art films so much as he is a walking encyclopedia of 1970s B movies and comic books.
Typical of a Tarantino film, there is a lot of blood and violence in Kill Bill. And like his other movies, the violence is mostly cartoonish super-violence - in this case accentuated with some really groovy Japanese anime. Maybe some American conservatives protest his work and point to it as a sign of the depravity of the industry and the age, and the potential danger it represents for impressionable youngsters. But for those who understand what he is doing there is less cause for alarm.
The climax of this film is in the last thirty minutes, the big samurai sword fighting scene set in a Tokyo restaurant between Uma Thurman and the yakuza army of Lucy Liu (O-ren Ishii), dubbed “The Crazy 88s.” The sword choreography was directed by Sonny Chiba, who appears in a cameo. I loved this segment so much that I watched it repeatedly before having to return the video to the shop. I also loved the all-girl band playing in the restaurant - The 5,6,7,8s. They are a real Tokyo bar band. You can go see them in Roppongi or Shibuya if you want. The tunes they were singing in the restaurant scene were so neat and catchy that even my children went around for the next day singing, “Go, go, go, ga-ga-ga-ga-ga yeah!” and “Oo-oo, Ooo-oo-oo, Oo-oo, Oo-oo-oo!” in imitation.
Tarantino must have watched the same Sam Pekinpah sketch by Monty Python’s Flying Circus circa 1973 that I watched, because throughout Kill Bill he repeatedly uses the same hilarious fire hosing blood-splattering trick. You know what I mean. Lop of an arm, a pair of hands, or a head with a samurai sword and then blood shoots everywhere under pressure like a garden hose for a minute while the wounded person scurries around in a deliberately silly manner - faux death throws. I laughed when I saw the Monty Python sketch the first time. I laugh now when I see it on Monty Python videos, and I laughed again to see Quentin Tarantino using it.
And finally, a note about samurai swords. For the most part they are single-edged blades designed for slashing more than stabbing. But good for chopping, too. I don’t see how a person can die immediately just by being slashed, but Japanese “samurai dramas” are filled with sword fighting scenes in which actors collapse and die all over the place after a good slashing. In fact, there are actors who specialize in such scenes. There is a word for it, “the slashed guy,” or something. As a Westerner, I don’t appreciate the etiquette of sword fighting. I figure, if you want to kill a guy, then go ahead. Use overwhelming force, never accept an “even playing field” and get on with it. Don’t play around with swords. Better get a good gun and do it right. But no, the etiquette of sword fighting is that even if a single person is surrounded by a horde of adversaries, only one-on-one battles are permitted at a given time. So, there I am shouting at the TV screen urging the other samurai to rush the guy, and my wife keeps telling me “that’s not how you do it.”
Japanese fencing is not like European fencing or saber fighting. You do not stand erect and swing your sword. Maybe because of the traditional shorter stature of Japanese - I don’t know - the center of gravity is lower, and samurai bent their knees and crouched lower than a European swordsman would. The fight choreographers in Kill Bill, and Tom Cruise’s The Last Samurai got this right at least.