Reciprocal borrowing: The composition of this scene from The Animatrix (a warrior standing on her opponent’s blade) also occurs in many Hong Kong action films. The scene further mixes this visual with “Japanese” martial arts aesthetics.

Pai Mei stands on Kiddo’s blade: In Hong Kong action films the pose occurs so often that it is now almost iconographic of extreme martial power.

The mode of use for a “samurai” sword involves counter-cutting (avoiding and striking) rather than parry-riposte (blocking and then striking). This preparatory pose - from The Animatrix - characterizes the weapon’s martial use. The image is widely used to represent the ideology and mythology of the “samurai” mindset. But few martial arts films (including those shown here) actually use the sword according to its martial function. Almost all choreographed fights use parry-ripostes because they are both more “theatrical” and easier to follow.

Note that Kiddo holds her Hatori Hanzo sword in the same iconographic grip. Yet neither Kiddo nor that animated warrior actually use this preparatory position to counter strike (its main martial purpose). Instead both films use the pose to communicate something about the inner life of the characters, in particular, their calm and trained willingness to risk death in a confrontation.

Shedding blood from blades is a visual theme that runs throughout Kill Bill1. Here, a “bad guy” ritualistically wipes the blood of O-Ren’s father from the blade before handing the sword to Boss Matsumoto, who will use it to kill O-Ren’s mother.

Chiburi are movement techniques used to shed blood from a samurai sword. Over time ronin, masterless samurai, developed a number of flashy chiburi that were used primarily for showing off, much as Western gunfighters twirled their pistols. Here, Kiddo uses a striking ronin chiburi to knock blood from the blade, in effect, showing off her power.

After defeating the Crazy 88, Kiddo throws blood from her blade before making a speech to the wounded. This chiburi pose throws the body into a momentarily upright, almost proud position, highlighting the inner life that accompanies the martial movement.

Kiddo pauses momentarily after delivering the killing blow to O-Ren Ishii. Here, the sword is used as a way to dramatically extend and highlight the natural lines of the body. An emotional quality follows movements such as this because of the natural openness of the chest and the resulting intake of breath.

Iconography similar to Kill Bill’s occurs in many martial arts films. For example in this scene from The Last Samurai, note the use of blood, the “samurai” ethos of willingness to risk death, the open chest posture, the emotional quality expressed through the movement, and the idea of personalized power. These are all expressed through violent imagery.

The samurai sword is so overdetermined in its referents that a single image can convey a wealth of information. The poster for Kill Bill: Volume 1 shows how important violence - or more precisely, the history and ethos of martial arts films and their associated violent action sequences - is to the marketing of the film.

The first glimpse we get of Bill in Kill Bill1 is of a hand lovingly caressing a samurai sword. This simple image is able to convey a great deal about the character, including a martial ethic that values the trained ability to take life. Note the demon figure on the scabbard, which highlights Bill’s association with death and destruction.

Hatori Hanzo and his assistant handle a new sword with ritualized reverence. Visual, auditory, narrative, and performance cues such as this in both films code Hatori Hanzo swords as an embodied manifestation of the entire “samurai” ethos.

"Hatori Hanzo steel” is held in such reverence that the swords become very nearly characters in their own right. Here Budd initiates a subplot in which he tries to sell “the greatest sword ever made by a man,” an effort that results in his death.


The iconography of blood

Significantly Volume 1’s “Chapter Three: the Origin of O-Ren” unfolds largely through anime and almost entirely violent imagery. In fact, although a voice-over explains part of the story, the plot itself unfolds only as a sequence of violent actions or images. The course of these images depicts a knife held to the throat of a mother, a father defending himself against multiple armed attackers, the eyes of a child burning with rage, the mother grabbed by the hair and thrown onto a bed, a sword-point lodging into the floor next to the young girl’s head as she hides beneath the bed, a slowly widening puddle of blood as we discover that the mother has been killed, a young girl’s angry face covered in blood, the girl later slowly driving a sword into the chest of her father’s murderer (Boss Matsumoto), O-Ren as a lithe woman in red holding a sniper-rifle, POV through the sniper scope, and finally POV of a bullet as it passes through O-Ren’s assassination victim. The images—much more so than the voice-over—convey the story of O-Ren’s drive to empower herself through violence. We discover through these visual, iconographic shortcuts a wealth of information about the character: not only about her ability to kill, but also about the psychological underpinnings of her strength and thus something about her inner nature.  

Amine violence often accentuates the presence of blood or the contortions of broken bodies. These effects are less easy to accomplish in live action, but aid telling certain stories in animation. Animated characters express subtle emotion poorly, and so animated stories usually avoid subtlety of any type, opting for other tactics in which the medium can excel even live footage. Interestingly, a back and forth borrowing often takes place in the competition between media: just as anime borrows film conventions, so too do filmmakers often borrow anime conventions. This inter-media borrowing is well documented for standard cinematic effects such as POV angles and shot composition, but is less well documented as far as violence is concerned. As a fight director, I can tell you that this exact sort of borrowing does in fact take place: we steal ideas from anywhere and everywhere, especially from media that tell similar tales. In this way there is a sort of circular influence that often takes place in the ways that violent stories are told: film influences anime influences comic books influences video games influences films and so on and on. In fact, one of the most obvious examples of this reciprocal influence is in the fountains of blood that occur in both the anime sequence in Kill Bill and in live action shots throughout the rest of the film.       

In the anime sequence, when the sword that kills O-Ren’s father is removed from his body, a veritable fountain of blood shoots forth in a variety of forms: first as a wide and fast-moving spray, then as distinct droplets hanging motionless in the air, then as a hose-like stream from his chest, then as a rain that falls in front of O-Ren’s face, then finally as a mist of tiny droplets slowly painting the father’s face. The “camera” then pans up the entire length of the straight single-edged Japanese sword (a ninja-to: a shorthand way to show that the killers were modern day ninjas or assassins). Blood likewise forms the primary aesthetic through which we witness O-Ren’s mother’s death: as a puddle slowly spreading until it covers the entire frame and then drips down like heavy raindrops onto the young girl’s face. And it forms the primary aesthetic when O-Ren enacts her revenge on Boss Matsumoto where blood sprays so violently from the old man’s body that a silhouette of the young O-Ren is left on the wall and the blood continues spraying for several implausible second thereafter.

This same aesthetic is played for laughs later when the story returns to live action and O-Ren chops the head off of a man, Boss Tanaka, who insults her Chinese heritage. In this scene, there is also a fountain of blood that lasts for an improbable amount of time. Here, although the fountain of blood is played for its comic effect (beginning much like a garden sprinkler, then slowing in bursts until it trickles to nothing), the iconography is almost exactly the same at that in the anime sequences. This same iconography also comes into play in the large battle sequence at the House of Blue Leaves where it takes on a further significance, as a slightly comic homage to countless Japanese action films that used similar blood effects (comic in that it accents the excessiveness of the iconography). In all of these sequences where excessive blood and samurai swords combine, the choreography includes the use of a movement—called a chiburi ("blood shedding technique:” a flick of the sword to shake blood from the blade)—that accentuates the presence of blood even while there is a lull in the fighting. This throwing of blood from the blade is a useful choreographic device in part because it forces the body into a momentarily upright, almost heroic, pose that is recognizable from countless other visual media, including fantasy novel cover art, comic books, anime and live action films. Tarantino’s connoisseur twist is that he accompanies this pose with an ambient sound of blood splashing onto solid surfaces, thus adding an element that does not appear in other renditions of the movement.

The iconography of the
samurai sword

Chiburi also combine the theme of blood with the imagined tactile sensation of holding a sword. Indeed, swords have a great visceral quality; and in my business it is not at all uncommon for students to become almost obsessed with them. In fact, many people fetishize swords to the extent that they become almost magical objects. There are a number of reasons for this, but primarily a sword communicates a bodily sensation. One can hold a sword, feel a sword, swing a sword (even if only if in one’s imagination). This in turn allows a sort of physical interaction—a weight, a heft, a texture, a tactile reality—with any mythology associated with that weapon (in fact, many people played with swords as children in exactly this way and later fondly remember the vicarious empowerment and escapist thrills associated with that type of play). In other words, physical objects such as swords give place and substance—an embodiment—to otherwise esoteric ideas. In this way the “samurai” sword comes to represent the entire mythos of Japanese and sometimes an even broader “Asian” philosophy and history. In semiotic terms, the object is “overdetermined” in that it contains so many potential codes that that a frisson—the sheer excitement of its presence—also becomes a part of its meaning. Thus, the power of the iconography in the poster for Kill Bill (a simple Hatori Hanzo sword blade held in a strong female grip) is that it invokes all of the related stories (in a variety of media) that also tell stories about this mythology.

This iconography is initially played for laughs in Volume 1 when we first meet the legendary sword-maker Hatori Hanzo working as a chef in a dingy sushi restaurant; but then it becomes serious after Hanzo and his assistant agree to forge a blade for Kiddo. After forging this blade, Hanzo handles it with ritualized reverence and imbues the sword with deep, almost mythic, significance by saying:

“I've completed doing what I swore an oath to God, 28 years ago to never do again. I have created ‘Something that kills people.’ And in that purpose, I was a success. I've done this because philosophically, I am sympathetic to your aim. I can tell you with no ego, this is my finest sword. If on your journey, you should encounter God, God will be cut.”

"Hatori Hanzo steel” thus becomes a single iconic manifestation of—a shorthand for—the entire mythos already attached to the samurai sword (katana).[16] Such a visual connotation is further reinforced throughout the film by a clean ringing sound whenever a Hanzo blade is drawn or quickly moved (similar auditory cues are used in many films whenever swords are present).

From this point until the end of Volume 1, almost everyone is shown carrying katana (on the backs of motorcycles, even in the plane’s set next to Kiddo as she flies to Japan to kill O-Ren). In this way, the theme of violence established from the very beginning of the film becomes tied to the deeper philosophies of bushido, the mythic “rules” of samurai life and—especially—death. One of the primary tenets of bushido is that a warrior should willingly accept death as a consequence of any action. The “samurai” sword, combined with Kiddo’s solo pursuit of vengeance in the face of multiple enemies, thus becomes a shorthand way to link Kiddo to countless stories of samurai bravery. [17] Audiences will understand this shorthand by degree according to their familiarity with these other tales. But again, it is violence—or at least the link between the character’s willingness to kill and possibly die for a cause and “bravery”—that allows the film to communicate the depth of these links.    

The power of penance

Many martial arts films include lengthy “training” sequences in which we see the hero voluntarily undergoing often severe physical and emotional trauma; yet few film scholars have questioned why these sequences are so ubiquitous. As with violence, film can represent physical pain visually and so use it to indicate something about a character’s inner emotional state. In this same way, a script that shows a character voluntarily subjecting herself to physical pain also tells us something about the inner “strength” or “desire” of that character. Martial arts films often therefore use training sequences as a shorthand description of the strength of a character’s inner desire (“heart” or “willpower”).

The long training sequence in Volume 2, “Chapter Eight: The Cruel Tutelage of Pai Mei,” uses audience familiarity with this convention as the starting place for several narrative jokes. For example, when Bill looks at the long flight of stone steps, he says to Kiddo: “Just seeing those steps again makes me ache. You're going to have a lot of fun carrying buckets of water up and down that fucker.” In another taunt, Bill comments on the time-line of Kiddo’s apprenticeship:

“No sarcasm, no backtalk, at least not for the first year or so. You're going to have to let him warm up to you. He hates Caucasians, despises Americans and has nothing but contempt for women; so in your case, it might take a little while.”

These statements are double coded in that they also refer to training sequences in countless other films including the TV series Kung Fu—in which Carradine starred—and The 36 Chambers of Shaolin—in which Godon Liu (who here plays Pai Mei) starred. In fact, the long training sequence with Pai Mei, like the fight at the House of Blue Leaves, is not so much a single unified sequence as it is a collage of similar sequences from many other films. As such, again, a great deal of the viewing pleasure comes from being a film geek and recognizing the references. (The fact that Gordon Liu here plays the part of Pai Mei, a character he fought in his early film career, simply adds another potential layer of discovery into the mix.)

In Kill Bill, this training sequence is therefore not only a shorthand for Kiddo’s inner desire, but also a shorthand way of linking Kiddo’s story to other stories. For example, the original film Pei Mei exists very nearly as a demigod: even his clothing and beard are meant to recall legends of the eight immortals of Chinese mythology. The story of his secret technique in Kill Bill, the “five point palm exploding heart technique” (described as “the deadliest blow in all of martial arts"), is likewise told as a fairy tale set “once upon a time in China” (which is also the title of a film about the legendary martial artist Wong Fei-hung). Tarantino sets up his narrative joke by taking a common theme of the marital arts genre (secret techniques) just a little bit farther than normal. This film’s secret technique’s name is just a little longer, with just enough additional flourish to recall a multitude of other films.

In a similar way, when we see a flashback training sequence in which Pai Mei plucks out one of Elle Driver’s (Darryl Hannah) eyes, we know that he is more powerful than she is. So too when Kiddo later does the same thing to Driver’s other eye (in the “Elle and I” fight) we not only learn that she is more powerful than Driver, but also that she has gained a power similar to Pai Mei’s. By referencing all of the other Pai Mei films, it is therefore possible to compare Kiddo’s martial arts strength to imaginary opponents beyond those in Kill Bill (and in fact, fans on several web sites have done exactly that). Likewise, Kiddo’s mastery of Pai Mei’s legendary “five point palm exploding heart technique”—which she uses to kill Bill—works as a shorthand way of demonstrating that Kiddo has become among “the deadliest” people in the world. In fact, in an earlier scene between Elle Driver / Hannah and Budd / Michael Madson, we discover that Kiddo’s code name, Black Mamba, can be interpreted as “death incarnate.” The wider connoisseur twist in this depiction of the protagonist’s training and expertise is that Kiddo’s story now exists on par with a wide variety of other stories of people with nearly superhuman abilities. In fact, Kiddo’s character could conceivably now even be used in any number of role playing games (video or otherwise) in which characters from diverse stories are brought together to “fight it out.”

The dangers of
hidden moral instruction

Many people’s attraction to violent stories have less to do with the violence itself than with the potential power that the violence narratively represents. This attribution of power to the violent lends a dark side to narratives of violent empowerment; yet one different from that which many critics of media violence suppose. In fact, as I hope I have shown, narrative violence is almost never the mindless spectacle that most critics describe. Yet its very mindfulness—its links to displays of deeper character strength and philosophical themes—may also be a major source of its pervasive seductiveness. The simple world view narrative violence allows also reinforces old adages that “might makes right.”

Also largely unacknowledged, violent narratives often suggest a personal—embodied—definition of power unassociated with traditional power markers such as wealth or status in society. This may partially account for the fact that violent stories are often also disproportionately embraced by those groups disenfranchised from traditional power structures. In other words, the (transgressive) inner life of the characters that violence visually outwardly embodies may be the most socially influential part of media violence. Yet no one to date—neither critics nor fight directors—has addressed this aspect of narrative violence (nor does the purview of this present article allow me to do so now). This lack of attention partially derives from the fact that few media critics fully understand how and why narrative violence works. Nor do those of us who design these scenes of violence often consider the social implications of our trade. By bringing some of the insights of fight directors to a wider critical audience, I hope to begin to change the way that film violence is perceived by those media critics most capable of analyzing these stories’ social implications. As I also hope to have shown, Kill Bill is not unique in its narrative use of violent imagery, but is rather exemplary of much larger social trends.

Continued: Notes

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