Tarantino's Kill Bill Explodes onto the Screen
by Owen Grieb, October 2003
It was amazing to be a part of the hushed audience as Kill Bill thundered through its breathless two hours. This is a phenomenon I have never witnessed in an action movie before an audience whose rowdiest member was afraid to even peel the plastic from his candy.
Seeing this movie on opening night, I felt as though the audience and I were together experiencing something terrible and amazing.
This movie breaks so many boundaries: acceptable violence in an R-rated film, the use of animation in a film, the cartoonization of violence in a film (more on this later), the use of a foreign language (Japanese) in a mainstream movie.
Kill Bill has been number one in the box office since it opened last week and is the official sponsor of US post-season baseball. Millions will see this film due to advertising, word-of-mouth, and Tarantino's already legendary cult status. An envelope-pushing film that pushes with such style it will truly change the way movies are made.
Make no mistake, Kill Bill is Tarantino at his most bloody and unrestrained. Tarantino - former rental-video store clerk and director of Pulp Fiction and Reservoir Dogs - has done things with this film that were hitherto deemed impossible. If it deserves a tag-line, it would be 'comic book for the silver screen'.
The film is less a film than a manga comic book with live actors. It is lurid, violent - and fun. About half of the movie occurs in Japan and about a fourth of the spoken dialog is Japanese. Hearing Uma Thurman (Pulp Fiction, Dangerous Liaisons) utter the line watashi wa kinpatsu no bushiI am the blonde warrior is great fun. Kill Bill (actually subtitled Vol. 1) is the first of a two-part installment, the second part to come in February.
The plot gets rolling like a traditional Tarantino feature with a bloody battle between two knife-toting female assassins who, unpredictably, put away their weapons in deference to a little girl who has just come home from school. One of the women is killed, and the other, Black Mamba (Thurman) drives away in a yellow truck with the words Pussy Wagon emblazoned in pink cursive on the tailgate. What was that? Then we are transported back in time, and are forced to witness what appears to be the brutal gunshot-execution of a pregnant woman's unborn baby horribly shocking almost too shocking. This film could easily have gone to NC-17.
What we are treated to next is the fragmented and sordid history of Black Mamba, a female assassin trained by the eponymous Bill. We are, in fact, led to believe that it was Bill who murdered his and Mamba's unborn child in the opening sequence. Black Mamba begins to track down and murder the remaining assassins in Bill's gang. For a reason only Tarantino understands, all female assassins have snake names.
It is when the story shifts to Cottonmouth (Lucy LiuCharlie's Angels I, II) that Quentin does something new with popular cinema. Basically, Kill Bill as a traditional film ends when Quentin decides that anime is a more appropriate medium in which to begin the second half of the story.
The actors' voices do not change, but their bodies are replaced by Japanese animation-style cartoon characters. Like much anime, the content of this feature is suitable only for mature adults. The murder of Cottonmouth's parents is depicted in animation, as is her ruthless rise to power to the title of queen of the Japanese yakuza (mafia). And, as if anime weren't culturally challenging enough for American audiences, the cartoon's dialogue is almost entirely in Japanese!
Soon we are introduced to Cottonmouth's bodyguard, Go Go Yubari (Chiaki KuriyamaBattle Royale), a schoolgirl-uniform-wearing, salaryman-dating teenage assassin. Go Go is the typical sexualized uniform-wearing Japanese teen, looking like she's right off of the cover of a Japanese idol magazine. In fact, Kuriyama is a real-life idoru in Japan. Like all of Tarantino's lead females, it seems, the cute teenager can handle weapons, she is proficient with the ball and chain.
Kill Bill would be interesting and innovative if only for the incorporation of anime and the Japanese language into a mainstream American movie. What makes Kill Bill a milestone in cinema and a truly first-of-its-kind movie is the way Tarantino incorporates the larger-than-life style of anime violence into the movie.
Anyone familiar with anime has seen the huge, stylized eyes, the impossible facial contortions, and the way blood literally explodes from wounds. In the live-action sequences towards the close of Kill Bill, the violence does the unexpected it becomes laughable. Blood fountains two-feet above the head of a decapitated body. When body parts are hacked off, blood squirts from the wound as though forced out through a hose. The bloody scenes look nothing like real violence and are a far cry from violence we are used to seeing in Matrix or Lord of the Rings. The scenes remind one of anime. The comic violence allows the audience a laughter break, and it's a good thing, too without this comic element, the violence would be unbearable.
Kill Bill is peppered with characters from the seedy underbelly of Japan. There is a sushi-making master sword smith, a yakuza king with a weakness for teenage schoolgirls, and the inherently interesting ball-and-chain wielding Go Go. Of course, these caricatures don't truly represent Japanese culture.
Kill Bill's Japan is, mostly, the fantasies of a self-confessed Asian martial-arts movie addictTarantino. Japanese do not carry swords on airplanes (most viewers will probably guess this) and wear kimonos everywhere, and even the most violent vixen would have a hard time becoming boss in Japan's male-dominated society. But this is entertainment, not a documentary!
There are elements of truth in Kill Bill's Tokyo, but most of the characters seem inspired by urban legends.
Those looking for a more balanced (and less violent) look into Japanese pop-culture should see Lost in Translation or Platonic Sex.
Those whose thirst for underworld caricatures of Japan is not slaked by Kill Bill should read Karl Taro Greenfeld's Speed Tribes: Days and Nights with Japan's Next Generation or Tokyo Underworld: The Hard Life and Fast Times of an American Gangster in Japan, by Robert Whiting.
For those who want more caricatures and don't like to read, grab the latest import anime.