Kill Bill 2’s showpiece fight is between Kiddo and Elle Driver in a trailer home, another epic battle in a mundane setting. Here Kiddo uses a lamp as an improvised weapon.

The combat in “Elle and I” uses what seem “male” tactics. Here Kiddo attempts to drown Elle in a filthy toilet. Note the pornographic magazine deliberately positioned in the shot.

Kiddo throws a can of tobacco spit in Elle’s face. This entire fight highlights Tarantino’s willingness to play with “lower” themes. The crude nature of combat here directly contrasts with other films, such as Crouching Tiger, which deliberately aestheticize violence - in part to make it more palatable to “intellectuals."

Kiddo and Elle push back and forth, each attempting to dominate the other. Visually violence is a simple marker of power and can convey what each movement is meant to signify.

Kiddo and Elle kick each other in almost perfect synchronization. As in the House of Blue Leaves fight, symmetry here also allows the fight to be comic.

A scene from Kill Bill1’s “The Origin of O-Ren": Anime often highlights the presence of blood and the contortion of broken and dismembered bodies.

The story of the origin of O-Ren Ishii is told almost entirely through violent imagery. Here blood sprays from the body of O-Ren’s father. Note the careful construction of the imagery with its “serious” use of shadow and a composition dominated by blood.

Anime and live-action films often borrow conventions from each other. Here a dark background and predominance of shadow suggest a “seriousness” to the emotional content. This anime shot of blood spraying in front of the face of a young O-Ren will be deliberately copied in a later live-action sequence ...

... with blood spraying in front of the face of O-Ren. Different ambient lighting creates a less serious mood here than in the anime sequence.

Blood erupts from the body of Boss Matsumoto. With an emotional quality visually represented through a geyser-like eruption of blood, here violent imagery creates a mood as well as propels the narrative.

The blood effects in this scene parallel those in the Boss Matsumoto anime sequence above. In the anime version, fountaining blood forms a “serious” aesthetic, while in the live version, the sheer excess plays as comic.

Buried alive, Kiddo punches the inside of the coffin until her knuckles bleed. Here blood is a shorthand for Kiddo’s inner desire. Her inner strength transcends a body’s normal limitations.

Penance and power

Early in Volume 1 we discover that the opening scene’s shot to Kiddo’s head has put her into a coma for four years. We also learn that her body as been used to service rapists who include her nurse, Buck. A discussion between these rapists then reveals that that Kiddo is “a spitter... It’s a motor reflex thing.” Their description of her unconscious defiance speaks directly to the idea of character as a core value. We are then given a clue to the previously comatose woman’s inner indomitable spirit through the simple visual shortcut of watching her spit in people’s faces. Likewise, the fierceness of this spirit is visually re-confirmed when Kiddo then rips off an attackers’ lower lip with her teeth. Immediately thereafter, Kiddo visually re-establishes her newfound physical autonomy by repeatedly smashing Buck’s head between the door and doorframe. Justification for this murderous violence comes with a short flashback montage in which we see Buck returning again and again to “fuck.” This flashback leads into a shot of Kiddo’s crushing Buck’s head with the door. In this way, narratively the flashback also sets up audience response, since it gives viewers permission to enjoy the visceral thrill of watching a rapist get his head crushed. Thus even in this brief sequence, we can see several character shorthands at work though the language of violent action. The shorthands here include visually establishing Kiddo’s indomitable spirit even while unconscious, the re-establishment of her physical, personal autonomy, and her burning desire for justifiable revenge. Significantly, all of these critical character traits and motivations are established through the language of violent actions alone.

Likewise, Kiddo’s inner strength is shown as a conduit for almost superhuman bodily mastery. In the next sequence, we see Kiddo force herself to first wiggle her toe and then learn to walk again. Bodily mastery of this sort plays a recurrent role in martial arts mythology and recurs throughout both Kill Bill films. Thus, in Volume 2 Kiddo escapes from being buried alive by remembering Pai Mei’s lessons about the strength of human willpower, and in Volume 1 her superhuman will is particularly developed in the film’s showpiece fight, the showdown at the House of Blue Leaves.

This showpiece fight is a tour de force of choreographed film action. The fight lasts for nearly twenty minutes and unfolds in two parts. First, there is a mass battle against the “Crazy 88s” followed by a singular duel against O-Ren Ishii in a snow covered Zen garden. Kiddo’s battle against the Crazy 88s is structured as a quintessential grind house fight. Not only does it have all the standard elements, it has so many in fact, that it doesn't actually represent a fight unto itself as much as it seems to represent the entirely of the genre. For instance, as in many grind house films, this fight begins with killing of superfluous subordinates, then moves on to a feature fight against an intermediate adversary (here a character named Gogo Yubari / Chiaki Kuriyama[13]), then progresses to larger battle against multiple opponents, and only then moves on to the final duel between equally matched opponents (O Ren Ishii / Lucy Liu). There are three main connoisseur twists in this long sequence:

  • its many standard elements, taken to extremes
  • women as most of the featured fighters—including Kiddo, Gogo, and O-Ren
  • its non-standard musical score.

This fight’s long multiple-opponent sequence is staged in accordance with Wo-Ping’s style of Hong Kong wire work. It is also mixed with authentic Japanese sword work—kenjutsu—taught to Thurman by Sonny Chiba. Few martial arts clichés or images are left out of this part of the fight, in either rhythm and phrasing, imagery, sound-effect, visual effect, weaponry, props or tableaux. In this sense, the fight itself is not meant to be exciting or suspenseful as much as it is meant to be intellectually entertaining and even humorous with respect to the references these homages invoke. Likewise, the final fight in the snow is both a direct homage to the film Lady Snowblood (Shurayukihim, 1973) and a visual shorthand for the Buddhist (read: samurai) aesthetic of yugen (ephemeral beauty). This philosophy sees beauty in the fragility of life. Here such a core “samurai” belief is visually portrayed in the scene by blood spattered upon clean white snow in a Zen garden. Thus we can see in the showdown at the House of Blue Leaves a sequence in which violent imagery communicates not only plot (Kiddo progresses another step in her revenge plan), but also relative character strength (who wins or looses), and even extreme subtleties of aesthetics and mood (yugen).

One of the things for which Tarantino is famous is his juxtapositions: especially his innovative use of music to reinvent otherwise well-established visual narratives, and the use of heightened language or debate in mundane circumstances. The effectiveness of these juxtapositions usually depends on the audience’s knowledge of conventional use. For instance, much of the effect of having flamenco music play over a samurai sword fight (as it does in the final fight in the snow) relies in part on recognizing the dissonance with standard conventions. However, Tarantino also plays with more widely known themes. In the fight sequence, he does this by juxtaposing stereotypical female gender roles with extremely violent—even sociopath—behavior. In particular he dresses Gogo as a Japanese schoolgirl (which is also the outfit of a particular sexual fetish) and O-Ren in traditional kimono (which forces a demure, shuffling gait). Thus the violent actions of these female characters—among the most extreme in either film—are used to parody the gender roles themselves. [14]

There is clearly an economic reason for the juxtaposition of gender and violence, one summed up by Jessyica A. Fox when she notes that “films about girls kicking ass are really in nowadays” (The Making of Kill Bill: Volume 1). Yet there is also a deeper social significance to this economics. Since violence is also a narrative marker of personal power, whenever a female character succeeds in a violent confrontation, she also succeeds in marking herself as powerful. Accordingly, Thurman describes Kill Bill as “an intensely empowered female movie” (ibid.). Furthermore, following Warshow’s theory of connoisseurship, every film that plays with traditional gender roles in this way slowly changes the audience’s expectations of those same roles. And there has indeed been a significant change in the way female violence has been represented on film over the years.[15] At this point in time, few critics have lingered on the fact that that the action hero of Kill Bill is female; however, a few have noted that the film is part of a wider trend in which sexy female action heroes are most definitely “in” (Angelina Jolie’s Laura Croft: Tomb Raider, Carrie-Anne Moss’s character, Trinity, from the Matrix and Jennifer Gardner’s character, Electra, from Daredevil are also exemplary of this trend).            

The showpiece fight of Volume 2 (Chapter Nine: Elle and I) also plays with gender roles. As Tarantino notes, since it is the main fight of Volume 2,

“It has to kind of top the House of Blue Leaves [fight] not in grandeur, but in emotion. You want to see these two fight. You want to see her kick Elle Driver’s ass. Its dramatic and its satisfying and its brutal” (Making of Kill Bill: Volume 2).

In fact, the very brutality of this fight provides a connoisseur twist since fights of this nature are traditionally coded as “masculine.” Indeed, almost everything about the fight makes it something we might otherwise consider a “guy” fight. The two women fight inside a filthy trailer home, and they each employ numerous dirty tricks, including feet stomps, kicks to the groin, faces shoved into dirty toilets, and even a can of tobacco juice thrown in Elle’s face. All of this is also in keeping with the ongoing theme of standard martial arts motifs being deployed in mundane settings. This recurrent theme in Kill Bill here provides an additional connoisseur jolt by also demonstrating Tarantino’s willingness to play with “lower” themes (as some argue the entire action genre to be).

The overall fight sequence in “Elle and I” is structured in two parts: the first, as discussed, a dirty “masculine” fight. The second part is then based on a standard Hong Kong martial arts theme of revenge for the killing of a beloved teacher (we discover that Elle had “treacherously” poisoned Pai Mei). This second fight takes place as an evenly matched duel between warriors with matching “Hatori Hanzo” swords. Again, the images are taken almost directly from countless similar male movies, with a humourous twist at the end when Kiddo suddenly plucks out Elle’s remaining eye and steps on it.

Here, as elsewhere, the fight constitutes the plot. Even such “brutality,” however, is not “gratuitous” in the sense of simply superfluous movement. Nor does violence provide an “excuse” for a display of sexualized bodies. Rather, this fight and others like it are the very reason that audiences watch the film in the first place. The story itself unfolds and revelations about the characters are revealed through these violent actions. Here we see the lengths to which the characters are willing to go to secure their goals. The film shows a competition between the characters testing both their inner and outer strength molded by dedicated training. In this depiction of the cinematic use of a samuri theme, three iconographic visual elements and plot moments require additional consideration as central components of the ways many such stories are told:

  • excessive use of blood
  • special status accorded to the Hatori Hanzo “samurai” swords
  • prolonged training sequences.

Continued: Iconography of blood

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