R0BTRAIN's Bad Ass Cinema: Rob's Kill Bill Dojo Part 2

When fortune smiles on something as violent and ugly as revenge, it seems proof like no other, that God exists, and not only does He exist, you’re doing His will. -The Bride

The last time we saw Uma Thurman’s Bride, she had just woken up from a coma. Quentin Tarantino’s brilliant setup to Kill Bill Volume 1 began the Bride’s cinematic road to vengeance with Thurman dispatching Vivica A. Fox’s Vernita Green after a brutal battle. In typical Tarantino fashion, the Bride’s back-story finally opens up in the film’s second chapter. We learned that the Bride’s wedding party had been slaughtered by the DiVAS, lead by David Carradine’s Bill. Now the Bride must face her most strenuous battle and find the strength to take on Tokyo’s most ruthless Yakuza Boss.

Kill Bill Volume 1 Starring Uma Thurman, Lucy Liu, Julie Dreyfus, Chiaki Kuriyama, Sonny Chiba, and Gordon Liu. Directed by Quentin Tarantino.

With the film’s third chapter comes The Origin of O-Ren. Former member of the DiVAS and current head of all organized crime in Tokyo, Lucy Liu’s O-Ren Ishii is an amazing character. Tarantino takes the time here to completely flesh out this wonderful character, giving her a full and rich back-story.

In his quest to make Kill Bill the ultimate fanboy film, the flashback telling the life story of O-Ren is done in a wonderful Anime sequence. The Production I.G. studio animated the section. Normally, the animation studio’s work is the foremost in blending computer animation and hand drawn work. Previous I.G. films such as the Ghost in the Shell series as well as Blood: The Last Vampire have a pristine, cutting edge look, but this style did not match Tarantino’s aesthetic for Kill Bill.

Sharing the rest of Kill Bill 70’s look, The Origin of O-Ren is very much a throwback animation sequence. Character’s have very exaggerated movements and expressions, making them that much more vivid. A section like this could have stuck out like a sore thumb in the hands of a lesser director, but Tarantino lets his style carry the sequence. The Origin of O-Ren is as bloody as any chapter of Kill Bill and just as entertaining.

The sequence is very important because it creates a definite sense of pathos for Lucy Lui’s character. As a child her parents are murdered in front of her, and she goes on a quest that is very similar to the Bride’s own plight to get revenge. O-Ren could have been just another run of the mill villain, but Tarantino imbues her with a strength not often seen. It’s almost as if O-Ren is not even a villain at all, but stands on the wrong side of the Two Pines Massacre, which is her ultimate downfall.

But before the Bride and O-Ren do battle, the film takes a solemn right turn in its fourth chapter, The Man from Okinawa. Stepping into an Okinawa sushi bar, the Bride has a wonderful conversation with the shop’s owner, played by Sonny Chiba. Chiba was a god to fans of 1970’s Japanese Martial Arts films. Though Chiba played in some classier pictures, such as Kinji Fukasaku’s Shogun Samurai, he is mostly known for his B-Action films, specifically 1974’s The Streetfighter.

In the film, Chiba plays Terry Tsurugi, a martial artist for hire. When his services are asked for by the Yakuza to kidnap a wealthy heiress, he refuses when his high asking price is not met. The mob then goes after Terry to shut him up, but underestimates his martial arts prowess. The Streetfighter had to have been one of the inspirations for Kill Bill’s style. Terry must face down a slew of would-be eccentric assassins of all forms. From blind swordsmen to huge, Sumo Wrestlers, Terry faces them all in bloody combat all the way to the film’s throat-ripping finale.

Here in Kill Bill Chiba shows something we have not seen from the actor before; warmth. The actor’s charisma shines through as he and Thurman share a wonderful chemistry. A funny sequence featuring a smart aleck waiter at Chiba’s restaurant ends with the Bride revealing that she is in Okinawa to meet with the man, who happens to be the famous sword maker, Hattori Hanzo.

The name of Hattori Hanzo actually comes from a television character that Chiba played in the series, Shadow Warriors. The series centered on the Yagu Ninja clan, with their leader being Hattori Hanzo. In each season of the show, the characters would be the next generation of the Ninja clan, with Chiba playing Hanzo’s descendants each time. The Hanzo from Kill Bill is the last descendant of the original character.

Hanzo is in hiding in order to keep with his solemn vow to never make another sword. According to imdb.com, the location of his hiding place is another inside joke. Okinawa is apparently one of the worst places in the world to get sushi. So for a person wanting to avoid attention, a sushi bar in Okinawa is a very safe place.

The rest of the sequence is actually a truly serene moment of the film with Uma and Chiba displaying a wonderful pupil/master dynamic as he presents his new sword to her. The scene is in keeping with Samurai films as the presentation of a warrior’s sword is supposed to be one of the supremely important moments in their lives. In Samurai lore, the sword is a direct extension of the warrior’s body and soul. Adding such a scene in Kill Bill helps to link the film more to the film’s that came before it. The sword itself is actually the same one used by Bruce Willis’ Butch when he dispatches his captors in Pulp Fiction.

The final chapter of Volume 1 is entitled Showdown at House of Blue Leaves. Much like the finales of several Hong Kong and Japanese films, Tarantino sets up a scenario where his heroine must take on a small army of henchmen. In this case, the army is Johnny Mo’s Crazy 88, but instead of just throwing the Bride into battle, he sets up the scenario carefully.

Tarantino first discusses the ascension of O-Ren to the top of the Japanese crime world. Previous to this scene O-Ren had only shown her fighting prowess during the animated sequence. In a scene where O-Ren decapitates a subordinate, QT is able to both establish her dominance over the rest of the crime lords as well as remind us of her fighting ability in live action form.

Another important portion of the scene features O-Ren’s bodyguards, Gogo Yubari (Chiaki Kuriyama) and Johnny Mo (Gordon Liu). Liu was the star of many 70’s Chop Socky films, but I’ll go deeper into his career during my look at Volume 2. Suffice it to say he is the leader of the Crazy 88, O-Ren’s personal army. Each of the members wears a mask similar to Bruce Lee’s Kato from The Green Hornet television show. Going into Lee’s influence over the genre would take an entire column in and of itself.

A fun sequence visually has the Bride riding into town and preparing for battle while the 88 and O-Ren attend a local nightclub/restaurant the House of Blue Leaves. With the theme to The Green Hornet blasting on the soundtrack, the Bride flies into town and looks out the window at the Tokyo streets and buildings. Not wanting to use any CGI effects in the film, QT actually uses a Godzilla set to stand in for the Japanese Capital. Also the 88 themselves pass through a tunnel which is actually one in Los Angeles. Sci-Fi fans will note that the same tunnel was used before in Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner.

As the 88’s and O-Ren walk through the House of Blue Leaves, the song playing on the soundtrack is the tune regularly associate with Kill Bill as it was the song played on its trailer. The tune is entitled Battles Without Honor and Humanity, which is the title of the first film in the Kinji Fukasaku directed series, The Yakuza Papers. Chronicling organized crime in post WWII Japan, the series is generally considered The Godfather of Japanese cinema.

Kinji Fukasaku was also the director of Battle Royal, which starred a younger Chiaki Kuriyama. Battle Royal was actually the film that QT saw Kuriyama for the first time and cast her as Gogo. As a character Gogo Yubari can join a rogues gallery of henchmen, such as Oddjob from Goldfinger, Richard Kiel’s Jaws from The Spy who Loved Me, and Ray Park’s Darth Maul from Star Wars: Episode 1, who are all looks and menace without having to say many lines at all. Despite being verbally challenged, these villains are still exceptionally cool, and Gogo is as great a villain as any of these. Originally she was supposed to have a twin that came to take revenge on the Bride, but perhaps that would have been too much coolness for one film.

The fight between the Bride and Yubari is a vicious throw-down. Gogo uses a ball and chain which even converts to a weapons that resembles the title weapon from Master of the Flying Guillotine. This wicked fight has the two trading blows back and fourth with the winner only barely coming out ahead.

Before the bride is able to take revenge she must face down Johnny Mo’s Crazy 88. The fight is a slaughterhouse of swords and axes as Uma’s Bride dismembers, decapitates and slices men in half. The fight itself references many films including Bruce Lee’s The Chinese Connection, Michael Cimino’s Year of the Dragon and several others. During the battle, the Bride wears a yellow and black outfit which is a not-so-subtle reference to Bruce Lee in Game of Death.

As the fight goes to black and white, the homage is two fold. First many classics of the Samurai genre are in black and white from Kurosawa’s Yojimbo to Kihachi Okamoto’s Sword of Doom. Secondly, the black and white is in reference to many Martial Arts film shown on television in the 70’s and 80’s. To be able to show these bloody movies on television, many networks had to show the films in black and white. Tarantino does this in Kill Bill to avoid the dreaded NC-17 rating (the Japanese version omitted this change).

The battle itself is as bloody a fight as ever was filmed in a Martial Arts or Samurai picture. Using the classic Samurai standard of huge blood sprays, such as the one’s used in the Lone Wolf and Cub, Lady Snowblood and Zatoichi films, the fight is exhilarating and a bit comical. The effect itself is as awesome as it ever was when Shintaro Katsu’s blind swordsman sliced through the Yakuza of old. The Bride brutally dispatches the 88’s in a sequence reminiscent of the slaughters of pictures such as Siu-Tung Ching’s classic finale in Duel to the Death.

The final showdown between The Bride and O-Ren is significant for being the closest to a traditional Samurai duel within the entirety of Kill Bill. The location is a beautifully silent, snow covered Japanese garden. Giving the fight this traditional setting pays tribute to literally hundreds of similar duels from Japanese Cinema, ranging from those contained within more classical productions such as Hiroshi Inagaki’s Chushingura or Toshiro Mifune’s winter battle in Kihachi Okamoto’s Sword of Doom, to more camp versions such as Reiko Ike’s battle in the nude in the trash cinema classic Sex and Fury.

The battle itself is also wonderfully choreographed and executed by the two combatants. Lucy Liu’s character was originally going to be portrayed by a Japanese actress, but the character was changed when Liu caught the eye of QT after starring in the Jackie Chan vehicle Shanghai Noon. Here she is able to back up Tarantino’s decision by displaying a wide range of emotions from arrogance, fear, and then finally honoring her opponent. The final moments between the two could have been laughable, but turn out to feel oddly genuine.

The film ends in a cliffhanger, but still feels completely satisfying. With Kill Bill Volume 1 Tarantino was able to pay tribute to a wide-ranging amount of pictures, but most importantly was able to capture the essence of the different facets of Japanese cinema. While the film uses aesthetics from Spaghetti Westerns and Hong Kong cinema, the most obvious allusions are to Japanese Samurai, Yakuza and Anime genres. Kill Bill Volume 1 is a dazzlingly, wonderful film, but while Kill Bill Volume 1 features tons of blood and guts, Kill Bill Volume 2 supplies a surprising amount of heart.

Picture Credits: impawards.com, DVDbeaver.com, outnow.ch

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