copyright 2004, Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media
No. 47

Mindful violence:
the visibility of power and
inner life in Kill Bill

by Aaron Anderson

Much has been written about Quentin Tarantino’s familiarity with foreign action films. In fact, Tarantino’s love of low-budget action films and the violent imagery in them has become one of the more significant parts of his public personae as a director. For this reason, almost every review of Tarantino’s latest works, Kill Bill: Volume(s) 1 and 2, notes something about the long list of films from which he borrows, and numerous fan web-sites devote space to sometimes lengthy arguments over his exact inspirations for any given scene. Most of what has been written in this regard suggests that there is something unique—or at least personal—in Tarantino’s allegiance to violent imagery from pop culture. However, I argue that Tarantino’s deliberate use of borrowed imagery from Asian martial arts films is far from unique. And while this may surprise no one, the reason that I propose this might surprise many. I suggest that violent imagery—especially that connected to Asian martial arts—functions as one of the primary cinematic languages for character description and plot progression in modern action films.

I have an unique perspective on the subject of media violence because for part of my living I choreograph fights. Most of my recent work has been on stage rather than on film (because the other part of my living is as an assistant professor in a city where film work is scarce), but many of my close friends get consistent film work. You would have seen their work in Alien Resurrection (1997), Titus (1999), Secondhand Lions (2003), The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring (2001), The Two Towers (2002), The Return of the King (2003), and Troy (2004) to name a few of the more visible recent examples. I deliberately use the word “friends” here instead of “colleagues” because the world of the professional fight director is very small, and many of us know each other socially as well as professionally. I mention any of this because it is the very smallness of this professional world that prompts me to write much of what follows. (In fact, there is not even a uniform title for the role of fight director. We may be called fight coordinator, stunt coordinator, movement choreographer, etc., depending on the specific parameters of the job.)

We fight directors take a number of things about our business for granted that directly impact film scholarship. For instance, one of the basic maxims of our business is that every film fight necessarily tells a story and is therefore—by definition—always more than mere spectacle or an excuse to display actors’ bodies. This stands in stark contrast to most theoretical writing on the subject, much of which remain tied to the old Aristotelian hierarchy that values plot over character, and character over spectacle. From my perspective as a fight director, none of these Aristotelian elements can be wholly separated from the others, let alone separated into hierarchical order. Furthermore, debates about media violence often slip into hyperbole. Many such debates therefore tend toward one of two extremes. Either they denigrate any displays of violence as simply “mindless” or “gratuitous,” or they celebrate the “spectacle” of violent excess without acknowledging the possibility of any social impact at all. I am going to attempt something of a middle road between these two extremes by explaining some of the ways that violent imagery conveys messages to a viewing audience. In other words, by showing that media violence is almost never “mindless,” I also hope to shed a little light on some of the reasons why the social impact of the images may be so pervasive.  

Violence, Asia and
the visible inner journey

Many action films use violence as a central metaphor. To be sure, a large part of the appeal of these films is the visceral spectacle of that violence. Yet, what is not often noted in studies of action films is that one of the most common genre themes presents an inner journey resulting in some sort of fundamental character transformation. In these character-driven action stories, violence plays a much more complex role than simple spectacle. The main difficulty in telling the story of an inner journey on film is, of course, that inner journeys are hard to see. However, visual languages, like other languages, work through systems of differentiation. So one way to overcome this difficulty is to show the character in differing physical environments as the inner journey progresses. The more extreme the visual differentiation between outer worlds, the more extreme the inner transformation may seem to become. In this way, Asia and other “exotic” locations often figure prominently in tales of Westerners’ transformations. For instance (to name only a very few examples), Greystoke: the Legend of Tarzan Lord of the Apes (1984), uses the jungles of Africa as a visual metaphor for “far from Western civilization.” Dances with Wolves (1990) does the same with the expanses of the American plains. And The Last Samurai (2004) contrasts Western civilization to that of neo-feudal Japan (in fact, the need for contrast largely explains why the leading character’s transformation takes place far from even Meiji society: which was inherently modernized—i.e. Westernized). Western film stories about inner journeys may use exotic locations primarily to establish external visual marker of internal character change.   

Related to this need for visual markers, films also use what religious scholar Joseph Campbell termed “the hero’s journey” as part of many scripts, and so delineate the whole story structure around a combination of inner, spiritual, and outer journeying.[1] [open notes in new window] Although Campbell was concerned with outlining similarities between diverse religions and mythologies, his analysis of the narrative structure of heroic tales is applicable to film studies as well. Campbell outlined three basic stages in all heroic tales:

Besides their reliance on exotic location to demarcate the boundaries of this inner journey, films such as Greystoke, Dances With Wolves and The Last Samurai have another very important similarity. The power gained or exercised in these exotic worlds is almost always of a fundamentally violent nature. For instance, in Greystoke, Tarzan’s ability to effect change in either world (animal or civilized) derives mainly from his sheer physical strength and bestial fighting skills. Likewise, in Dances with Wolves, the protagonist, Lieutenant Dunbar (Kevin Costner), becomes fully accepted into the Sioux tribe only after killing a stampeding buffalo (Dunbar does this to save the life of a younger hunter), and later the script reinforces this acceptance by also having Dunbar supply rifles to quell a war-party raid by the rival Pawnee tribe. And The Last Samurai’s protagonist, Captain Algren (Tom Cruise), is only able to find inner peace through dedicated study of the warrior’s disciplined code of bushido (sets of “rules” which were said to govern a samurai’s approach to life and death). In this case, Algren’s transformation through the samurai warrior ethos is the basis of the entire film, so much so that the kanji characters that appeared on the posters for the film did not say “The Last Samurai,” they said “Bushido.”

I suggest that the main reason violence becomes so important to telling these types of inner journeys on film is that acts of violence make the idea of personal power itself visible. In other words, a character that wins a fight is automatically marked as “powerful,” while a character that looses a fight is likewise marked as “powerless” or at least as less powerful than the winner. Asian martial arts combine both of these ideas together into convenient shorthand—as a visual marker both of change and of power.

Here let me pause for a moment to highlight the significance of visual shorthand for understanding violence in films. You see, one of the reasons that fight directing can even exist as a profession is that every choreographed fight is necessarily narrative. There is always a story implicit in the way a cinematic or theatrical fight’s events unfold. This is true even of highly stylized fights or of choreography that is just plain “bad.” The very nature of combat implies a negotiation between two or more competing interests. Thus it is virtually impossible to choreograph a fight that does not in some way identify something about the relative power of these competing identities. In fact, the primary role of a fight director is to create movement that is legible in this narrative sense. That is, fight movements need to clearly communicate the story of this negotiation. However, few people outside of our profession know how to “read” movement (especially intricate combat tactics or foreign or outdated military maneuvers). So one of the primary tricks of our trade is that we borrow (we more often use the term “steal”) recognizable movements or iconography from other sources.

We do this for three main reasons:

1) Inspiration:
No one becomes a fight director without some personal interest in violent stories; accordingly, most of us are all also fans of the subject and so whenever we see something that piques our own imagination we tend to want to riff on a similar theme. Also, it is the nature of the creative process itself that art tends to beget other art. In fact, it is much more difficult to invent an original concept than it is to play with variety within familiar themes. For that reason too, we often look for inspiration in a wide variety of other media such as theatre, graphic novels, visual art, sculpture, music—anything that might spark our imagination.

2) Economics:
Film fights are almost entirely a consumer-driven product. That is, people don't watch film fights because we make them, rather quite the opposite is true, we make them because people will potentially pay good money to see them.[3] As such, certain styles or themes become “hot” from time to time. So we tend to build fights that reflect what we think those trends to be (in film, of course, such themes are also chosen in close consultation with the rest of the production staff). [4]

3) The nature of movement itself as a language:
One of the primary ways that most people “read” movement is through association with other known movement patterns. For example, one of the top theatrical fight directors often explains this by noting that it would be very difficult successfully to mime building a snowman to an audience that had never before seen snow. One of the main priorities for anyone choreographing narrative movement is therefore to ensure the recognizability of the movements.[5] “Borrowing” movement from successful films is thus also a way to guarantee some degree of audience familiarity.

Not coincidentally, these professional realities parallel some of what has been written about the ways that film communicates to an audience. For instance, in “Movie Chronicle: The Westerner” [sic], Robert Warshow suggests that violence (or at least the presence of guns) lies at the “emotional center” of both gangster films and westerns. The way a particular character approaches violence in these genres tells us something about the inner ethical values of that character (654). As Warshow puts it:

“The gangster’s pre-eminence lies in the suggestion that he may at any moment lose control; his strength is not in being able to shoot faster or straighter than others, but in being more willing to shoot. ‘Do it first,’ says Scarface expounding his mode of operation, ‘and keep doing it!’ With the Westerner [sic], it is a crucial point of honor NOT to ‘do it first': his gun remains in its holster until the moment of combat.” (657)

Warshow also suggests that fans of both genres are basically “connoisseurs” who “[derive] pleasure from the appreciation of minor variations within the working out of a pre-established order” (662). These statements mirror two other basic facts of my business:

There are thus at least two points that are important to consider when analyzing the use of violence in films such as Kill Bill:

Although this second point runs counter to many people’s beliefs about violence, it is nevertheless fundamental to understanding how violent stories convey information to a viewing audience. Any personal action—violent or not—necessarily involves a wide array of inner thoughts, both conscious and unconscious. Actions that affect other people—as violence does—therefore constitute a type of pragmatic ethics in which inner views about how one actually interacts with the world become outwardly embodied. Embodiment of such inner belief is also the basis of what we call “character.”

This is as true in modern politics as it is in a film’s digesis. We know a person’s character primarily by their actions, or at least by what we perceive to be their potential actions in moments of crisis. Associated with this is the belief that emotional crisis often inhibits higher cognitive function. “Character” thus also comes to mean the core of a person’s being, or the way that they would act if unimpeded by social restriction (this is why politician’s personal lives are often used to justify or argue against their ability to hold public office).

Coupled with this is the fact that in dramatic stories, many interactions with the world come at moments of such emotional crisis. This is what drama is. So, when we talk about character revelations in a film—or moments that define a character—what we are actually talking about, in part, is exposure of this inner philosophy. Violence—martial arts in particular—plays into the exposure of this inner character in a number of ways.

As many social critics have pointed out, violence suggests a rather simplistic definition of personal power—as an ability to harm others. Yet this same simplicity also makes physical violence an excellent cinematic narrative marker of power for two primary reasons: first, force is indeed one of the most basic forms of control, so audiences therefore understand what the movement is meant to signify. Second and even more importantly for film, physical violence—and the potential power it signifies—can easily be visually represented. For example, suppose for a moment that you are a filmmaker and that you need to demonstrate to your audience something about the inner life of one of the characters in your film. Now while there are probably literally hundreds of ways that you might approach this, let us go further and suppose that the character moment you want to display needs to say something about the inner strength of the character—what is often termed “heart” or “will” in sports narratives.

Let us go even further yet and suppose that this moment you need to present comes at a pivotal place in the script. The solution you come up with must be both clear and viscerally gripping. What you will find, if you are a director who has even moderate experience with other films, is that one of the most tried and true solutions to this problem is to include an act of physical violence. This solution also has the added benefit of being cheaper to produce than many of the other solutions you might envision. While this kind of decision making is common for artistic directors of all genres (e.g., using moments when a protagonist stands up to a bully or otherwise overcomes an exterior force come especially to mind), marketing a film as an “action” or “adventure” story also means that the work promises to provide the very type of visceral thrills that this physical confrontation accomplishes so well.

For these reasons, if you are directing an action film, physical violence might easily become one of your primary “go to” scenes or modes of character expression. For critics it might therefore be tempting to evaluate scenes of physical violence only in terms of this visceral response (and in fact many film critics deride action films as nothing more than part of a low-culture “body” genre for exactly this reason). However, such a critical response overlooks and elides the very problem with which we—hypothetically—began: the need to visually display something about the inner life of a character.

In the strictest sense, martial arts are simply military tactics on a personal level. Like military tactics, which must often account for political as well as military necessity, martial arts can be seen as having two fundamentally interrelated functions: 1) specific techniques (for either offense or defense) and 2) beliefs about the proper use of those techniques. In other words, what might be called “philosophy” as well as physical practice defines many martial arts. This is especially true of martial arts that developed in conjunction with religious beliefs. Since they view the world as intrinsically interrelated, holistic religions particularly influence the philosophy and thus the practice of many martial arts. This is principally true of “Eastern” religions such as Buddhism, Taoism, and Confucianism.[6] Martial arts that have developed in regions where these philosophies are widely practiced therefore often include philosophical elements as part of their defining characteristics. Training in any of these martial arts often includes corollary education in cultural customs because the philosophical approach to life practiced in that part of the world is understood as fundamental to understanding the proper use of the physical techniques.[7]

Films use this association between philosophical themes and martial arts to their advantage by deliberately linking the outward display of martial practice with the inner philosophical themes related to that particular martial art or region. However, it is important to also note a distinction between actual martial arts practice and their representation on film. For example, a common reason to fight in many Hong Kong martial arts is some variation of the argument “my school of kung fu is better than your school of kung fu” (see for instance Drunken Master [1978], Wing Chun [1994] and many others). Now, on one level, for those aware of certain subtle distinctions between the styles, this may in fact be a legitimate argument.[8] To those unfamiliar with such subtleties, the argument itself remains of course generalized “fighting words.” Indeed, over time, as audience “connoisseurs” demanded more and more variety in the otherwise standard device of “my kung fu versus your kung fu,” filmmakers began to play with the convention itself. In fact, some contrasting “styles” in martial arts films were invented just so the combatants would have something new to argue about—as was done in the case of “emotional kung fu” from 1979’s Fearless Hyena.

Likewise, the practice of many martial arts is also often heavily influenced by traditional etiquette, an etiquette that can be cultural or linked only to that particular martial art (e.g., “bowing in” is probably the most widely-known example of this for Western observers). These traditions are often communicated via stories or myths surrounding the founding of that art. In this way, legendary figures and their exploits are also sometimes linked to the practice of a particular martial art, with corollary “secret” techniques associated with practice at the highest level. These martial arts “facts” become magnified when retold on film. Thus the exploits of legendary characters such as China’s Wong Fei-hung or Japan’s Miyamoto Musashi become even further exaggerated through multiple retellings on film. Likewise, their “secret techniques” often become more and more elaborate. All of this is fertile ground for any filmmaker looking for shortcuts to character description. In fact many of these elements—culturally specific practices, the exploits of legendary figures and secret techniques in particular—largely define the “martial arts” action film sub-genre.

In this same way, the inter-film borrowing Quentin Tarantino has become so famous for is not unique to him alone. In fact, as Warshow’s idea of connoisseurship suggests, it is the very nature of genre films to rely on—and then tweak—established conventions. It should come as no surprise then that the primary aesthetic of Tarantino’s homage to martial arts films, Kill Bill, is playful borrowing.

The economy of connoisseurship

Nearly everything in Kill Bill operates in part as homage to other films. For instance, the opening credit sequence and music evoke memories of Hong Kong’s legendary Shaw Brother’s films of the 1970s. Several actors were chosen in part because of their links to famous martial arts stories. In particular, Bill is played by David Carradine of Kung Fu television series fame—even Bill’s flute in Kill Bill is the same instrument Caradine played as Caine in that series. Hatori Hanzo is played by Sonny Chiba—who played several incarnations of that same character in the 1970s series Shadow Warriors / Kage No Gundan; in fact it was Tarantino’s intention that Kill Bill’s Hanzo would essentially be the “100th incarnation” of that same character. And the characters Jonny Mo and Pai Mei are both played by Gordon Liu—of The 36 Chambers of Shaolin fame; there is also an additional significance that some film fans might note in that some of Liu’s early films with Shaw Brothers involved his fighting against the same character Pai Mei that he plays in Kill Bill. There is thus a certain connoisseurship at work even in the casting. In this way, Kill Bill is strikingly post-modern in the sense that it deliberately plays with the audience’s knowledge of its source material. For certain audience members, a large part of the pleasure of watching the films is therefore the sheer frission of recognizing the references. As one review of Kill Bill: Volume 1 noted:

“While you don't have to recognize a single reference to enjoy the movie, the very nature of the film also makes it a parlor game for hardcore film geeks. Ooo, is that strikingly designed shot from Hideo Gosha or Seijun Suzuki?... There’s an element from Once upon a time in the West... that fight concept is from King Hu... Wait a minute, what is an early Brian De Palma scene doing here???” (Klein)

In addition to the actors already listed, another name in the opening credits, Yuen Wo-Ping, has particular significance for “hardcore” fans of martial arts films. Like other films, martial arts films have “stars” who supply economic and cultural clout; but unlike other types of films, martial arts film stars sometimes include fight directors. Yuen Wo-Ping, in particular, has become a highly recognizable name in the industry. His work became especially influential in the West after 2000 when Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon earned four academy awards and—more important—gained international success at the box office. Those familiar with a range of Hong Kong action films will recognize that the fight scenes in Crouching Tiger were not actually all that different from those Wo-Ping (and others) had been choreographing for years in Hong Kong. Yet the large budget Crouching Tiger enjoyed allowed much greater production values than many of the films Wo-Ping had worked on to that point. This, coupled with the international box office success of the film made that choreographic style instantly “hot.” As a result, one of Wo-Ping’s signature choreographic devices in which characters fight while “flying"—wire-work—quickly became the fighting style de jour in many action films. (A short list of films not choreographed by Wo-Ping that nevertheless imitate this style includes: The Musketeer, The Brotherhood of the Wolf, Underworld, Charlie’s Angels, Charlie’s Angels: Full Throttle, Exit Wounds, Blade, Blade II and many others.) It is therefore significant that Wo-Ping’s name is listed as “Martial Arts Advisor” in the opening credits, especially since Wo-Ping’s work on Kill Bill was not actually as extensive as it was on many of the other films that brought his name to prominence in the West. (Also, in this film, the prominence of the credit placement is also an unusual honor for a fight director since such billing is usually buried in the final credits.)

In “The Making of Kill Bill: Volume 2,” David Carradine describes the process of fight direction in the films:

“In the script, the fights are described in detail. Basically, [Tarantino] designed the fights. He basically was the choreographer. When he first talked to Yuen Wo-Ping about him coming in and doing the picture, that was an idea he had. Why not have this guy from Crouching Tiger and the Matrix, you know, who did all these wonderful things? And he went through a lot of stuff with Wo-Ping and Wo-Ping said, ‘What do you need me for?’ and the truth is he doesn't need anybody else. He can probably make these movies all by himself.”

I mention this, not to downplay Wo-Ping’s contribution to the films, but rather to highlight the fact that Tarantino’s aesthetic—especially his noted familiarity with other films—greatly influenced the fight design. In other words, the fight scenes in Kill Bill—like much of the plot itself—were specifically designed as multi-layered homages to other films. The prominent placement of Wo-Ping’s name in the credits demonstrates how important these fight scenes were for the overall marketing of the film. In fact, nearly all of the iconographic images used to market the films include references to fighting. (For example, all of the poster images for the film prominently feature a “Hatori Hanzo” katana.) Using “star power” to market films in this manner is of course nothing new, but using the name of a fight director (here: “martial arts advisor") as an economic draw points out the extent to which Kill Bill operates within a larger framework of violent media consumption.

Philosopher Jean Baudrillard reconfigured Marxist theory to suggest that in the modern world, consumption—rather than production—is the basis of the social order. Where Marx identified contradictions between classes in relation to the production of commodities, Baudrillard suggests that modern distinctions between class and culture are now more the result of conspicuous consumption. Thus, for instance, the choice to buy a Mercedes rather than a Hyundai has more to do with buying into a system of class differentiation than it has to do with meeting basic transportation needs. Likewise, there is a certain economy of identity associated with being a film “connoisseur.” Numerous websites exist in which fans of Kill Bill distinguish themselves into a type of social order based on who “gets” the references and who doesn't; who’s seen a particular other film and who hasn't. In fact, even for those who are not “hardcore film geeks,” the very choice to watch a film like Kill Bill rather than, say, a Merchant Ivory film or similar involves certain elements of social differentiation. In this sense, fans of Kill Bill can be seen as reveling in—or possibly directly challenging—the “low” culture status of their entertainment choice.[9]

However, watching a film is even more of an ephemeral experience than is owning a Mercedes, and so if one wants to be an “action film connoisseur,” one has to keep consuming the products that make one such. The products available for consumption include not only other live action films but also anime, comic books, video games (as in Enter the Matrix or many other video games that let you “enter” the world of the film, including any of the numerous Star Wars or Lord of the Rings games, Hulk, Predator versus Alien and many, many more), books or magazine articles about the films, “the making of” style documentaries about the films, websites, action figures or collectable figurines, etc... all of which exist in a self-referential stream of commodification. In Baudrillardian terms we might say that all of these things are themselves also signs pointing towards other commodities. In this sense, many products in the “postmodern” world are simply part of a much larger web of marketing. Thus, films advertise games advertise spin-off products and so on. A viewer, and moreso a fan, cannot be a film connoisseur by simply buying or watching one product. The term itself only has meaning in relation to an entire system of products. As regards action films, the most significant point here is that one of the primary things—if not the primary thing—that links the objects together is violence: as a common theme in the stories, as common iconographies of representation, as the main selling point of the “action” in the video games and in the underlying embodied ethos of the stories themselves.[10] Although many of these links have to do with “inner” things such as ethos, they must nevertheless be represented visually. One of the main spectatorial pleasures of watching Kill Bill for many film fans therefore is recognizing the iconographical or thematic shortcuts that link some of the stories together.

Fights as character description in Kill Bill

Even if viewers miss the significance of the title, our very introduction to world of Kill Bill suggests violence as an underlying ethos. The opening scene from Kill Bill: Volume 1 showing a bloody Bride [Uma Thurman] about to be shot in the head, immediately establishes violence as a central theme for both films. That theme is reinforced by the lyrics to the opening song by Sonny Bono:

“Bang bang, he shot me down
Bang bang, I hit the ground
Bang bang, that awful sound
Bang bang, my baby shot me down.”

Likewise, the first full scene (chapter 2) progresses as a prolonged martial arts fight between two assassins who used to be coworkers. This is a standard conceit for many martial arts films from the 1970s and early 1980s (as is the blaring music and flashback montage of the original “wrong” done to the lead character), but the connoisseur twist in Kill Bill is that this otherwise standard violent confrontation takes place in a quite house on a quite suburban Pasadena street. Even the weapons used in this fight highlight the unusual juxtaposition between the “epic” struggle of assassins and the “mundane” setting: fire irons, curio book-selves, kitchen knives and frying pans are all used. In fact, the defining moment of this fight comes as the two combatants pause in front of a picture window to watch a bus pull up and discharge a small girl home from school (Nikki Bell / Ambrosia Kelley). When the young girl then opens the front door, both fighters quickly hide their knives and cooperate to convince the girl that Beatrix Kiddo (Thurman) is just an “old friend of mommie’s” (Vernita Green / Vivica A. Fox).

This exchange is meant to be funny, but it also dramatizes two important character traits of Kiddo. She is not only a highly trained martial artist bent on revenge, but she also has deep maternal qualities that extend even to the child of her enemy. Likewise, the fact that Kiddo can quickly “turn off” her immediate desire for revenge speaks to the professional nature of her martial ability. That is, although her quest for revenge is deeply personal, here we see it conducted in an almost detached manner. In this way, although the script uses her ability to do violence as a definitive character trait, so too it emphasizes her ability to choose not to do so. This subtle distinction later contrasts with the actions of other characters who have difficulty not being violent. In particular, Elle Driver / Darryl Hanna later expresses great dissatisfaction with not being allowed to kill the comatose Kiddo. And, most definitively defining a character, almost everything that we discover about Bill / Carradine in both films suggests that he is thoroughly given over to violent actions. In fact, he even describes himself as “a murdering bastard.”

Kiddo’s ability to turn off her impulse for revenge is a subtle distinction, but one crucial for audience empathy. Although she is described by the other major characters as a cold-blooded assassin and often acts as such, both films script in narrative shortcuts to suggest that Kiddo is undergoing a psychological change. In the world of action films, this process of change makes Kiddo a multi-dimensional, even complex, character. Therein too lies part of the connoisseurs’ delight, for many characters in previous revenge films had little use for subtlety (Charles Bronson’s character in Death Wish or Clint Eastwood’s in Dirty Harry were particularly single-minded). In this early scene, Kiddo’s speech to the little girl shortly after killing her mother also suggests a fairness missing from earlier vengeful characters:

“It was not my intention to do this in front of you. For that I'm sorry. But you can take my word for it, your mother had it coming. When you grow up, if you still feel raw about it, I'll be waiting.”

In the shorthand of martial arts films, this fairness marks Kiddo as a deliberately honorable person, since a “bad” character would have tried to kill the child as well.[11] More significantly, immediately after this act of relative compassion, we hear a voice-over by Sonny Chiba in Japanese (subtitled) quoting from a version of the samurai bushido code:

“For those regarded as warriors... when engaged in combat... the vanquishing of thine enemy can be the warrior’s only concern. Suppress all human emotion and compassion... kill whoever stands in thy way, even if that be Lord God, or Buddha himself. This truth lies at the heart of the art of combat.”

This deliberately philosophical quote coming so soon after Kiddo’s act of compassion suggests that the character has started a fundamental inner transformation. Indeed the forcefulness of this advice even suggests that Kiddo’s compassion might function for her as the martial-arts-film equivalent of a tragic flaw. Historically, most action films treat personal change as a dangerous thing (especially for assassins). In the same vein, setting up their protagonists’ major flaws, films such as Scarface, Carlito’s Way or even The Karate Kid highlight the dangers of only half-hearted commitment to violent actions. Thus, genre conventions suggest that Kiddo will most likely—yet knowingly—pay a personal price for failing to kill all her potential enemies.

Kiddo’s compassionate, maternal side returns to take center stage in the conclusion to Volume 2. Toward the end of that film, we learn that Kiddo’s discovery that she was pregnant led her to flee Bill in the first place (and thus set off his violent actions against her). Initially this realization motivates Kiddo not to want to fight anymore. As she says to the assassin sent to kill her: “I'm the deadliest woman in the world[12]but right now I'm just scared shitless for my baby.” Later she tells Bill:

“Before that [pregnancy test] strip turned blue... I was a killer who killed for you. Before that strip turned blue I would have jumped a motorcycle onto a speeding train [a possible reference to Michelle Yeoh’s signature stunt in Supercop]... but once that strip turned blue I could no longer do any of those things... because I was going to be a mother.”

This speech’s rhyming, poetic construction characterizes Tarantino’s signature use of heightened language. But even more significant, the rhyme scheme here is broken up by the word “mother.” Thus the film deliberately juxtaposes the role of an assassin alongside the role of a mother—first seen in the living room fight described above. Likewise, part of the connoisseur’s joy of watching the films comes from the script twist in which Tarantino seems to suggest that violence shapes both roles. For example, in the final confrontation, Bill describes to Kiddo with pride how their daughter B.B. / Perla Hanley-Jardine “learned about life and death” by deliberately killing her beloved goldfish, Emilio.     

In fact, the title itself tells us that the conclusion to Volume 2 is never in doubt (we know Kiddo will kill Bill). So it is fitting that the final confrontation between the two is not visually dramatic in the same manner as any of the other fights in either film. Rather, the titular fight is conducted as a philosophical debate about Kiddo’s possible maternal abilities—given the fact that she is, as Bill suggests, a “natural born killer” (also a reference to a film of the same name). We are shown repeatedly throughout both films how Kiddo lives as a ruthless, trained assassin. In fact, major sequences from both films are devoted to showing the rigors of her training (especially in sequences showing Kiddo’s training with Pai Mei) or the ruthlessness of an assassin’s life (especially in those scenes dealing with the “Origin” of O-Ren Ishii). In this sense, the film itself is not simply a revenge drama, but also a story of redemption. The only way that Kiddo can deserve a normal life is to pay penance for her own past life. This penance, however, takes the form of more violent actions, involving both Kiddo’s ability to inflict harm upon others as well as her ability to endure pain and injury herself.     

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:

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:

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.

Notes      

1. Campbell describes this in many of his works, including: The Hero with a Thousand Faces (1949), Transformations of Myth through Time (1990), and in his interview with Bill Moyers, The Power of Myth (1988).

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2. In The Myth of the American Superhero (2002), John Lawrence and Robert Jewett suggest a reconfiguration of this structure for American film heroes: many of whom never return to their original world, but instead remain partially of the liminal world (i.e. ride off into the sunset).

3. In fact a substantial portion of the viewing public will actively seek out such entertainments whether they are readily available or not, as was the case with U.S. fans of Hong Kong action films—such as Tarantino—before those films became widely distributed on video. Most attempts to censor media violence fail to recognize the direction of this economic flow and so rather opt for sound-byte friendly calls to limit production.

4. For instance, “ninja” themes were very hot in the late 1970s and early 80s, and “muscular” male action stars were hot in the late 1980s, but neither of these themes play very well today.

5. For this reason, too, most of the actual subtleties of martial arts are left out of martial arts film fights (for only a very select few would recognize what was going on).    

6. In fact, association with philosophy is also one of the reasons that Eastern martial arts have become synonymous with the term. In other words, Western martial arts such as boxing or fencing are in fact, “martial arts,” but are rarely thought of as such because their practice consists almost entirely of technique with little or no emphasis on deeper universal harmonies.

7. For example, the practice of T'ai Qi Quan (or Tai Chi Chuan) is fundamentally linked to an early Chinese version of Taoism. Likewise Kyudo (feudal Japanese archery) in its purest form is taught in conjunction with an early Japanese form of Zen Buddhism.

8. Legitimate arguments could be anything from broad philosophical debate—such as the differences between “hard” styles or “soft” styles—to specific regional rivalries—such as the differences between “Northern” or “Southern” styles of Chinese kung fu forms.

9. In fact, fans of other “low” culture violent entertainments such as professional wrestling can be seen commenting on the “low culture” status of their entertainment community in very explicit ways.    

10. David Carradine suggests something similar when he notes in The Making of Kill Bill Volume 2: “The essence of [ Kill Bill ] is not the violence, not the action, its the inside look at the mind and the heart of violent people.”

11. There is also a double coding at work in these words, for in the world of modern Hollywood, these words also open the door for a sequel, as does the question mark hanging over Daryl Hannah’s name in the closing credit sequence from Kill Bill 2 (and, in fact, this sequel is already planned).

12. 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.”

13. Yet another connoisseur twist is that Kuriyama also starred in the hit bloodletting film Battle Royale (2001) / Batoru Rowaiaru (2000).

14. This is also evident in the speech O-Ren gives immediately after beheading a henchmen who challenged her racial background and thus ability to head the Japanese yakuza—in this instance O-Ren’s violence is directly juxtaposed with the speech cliché’s of a “sensitive” and “open” leadership style.  

15. For instance although the 1978 film Day of the Woman (aka: “I Spit on Your Grave”) told the story of a female rape-revenge, the poster advertising the film nevertheless relied on highly sexualized imagery. In 1991, Thelma and Louise likewise involved a rape-revenge scenario (both the attempted rape of Thelma and the past rape of Louise), yet was marketed without such blatantly exploitive imagery. And, while Thelma and Louise ignited debate about proper gender roles and violence, by 2003 and the release of Monster, audiences seemed willing to accept that women might even be serial killers.

16. There are many variations of “samurai swords”; technically the ones used in the film are katana.

17. In fact, earlier in the film, Kiddo even re-sheaths the knife she uses to kill Vernita Green (Vivica A. Fox) in the manner of a katana.

Works cited

The Animatrix. Dir. Shinichirô Watanabe et al. Warner Brothers Video, 2003.

Baudrillard, Jean. Selected Writings. 2nd Ed. Ed. Mark Poster. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2001.

Campbell, Joseph. The Hero with a Thousand Faces. 1949. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1973.

---- with Bill Moyers. The Power of Myth. New York: Doubleday, 1988.

----. Transformations of Myth Through Time. New York: Harper and Row, 1990.

Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon / Wo Hu Cang Long. Dir. Ang Lee. Sony Pictures Classics and Columbia Pictures, 2000.

Dances With Wolves. Dir. Kevin Costner. M.G.M., 1990.

Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan, Lord of the Apes. Dir. Hugh Hudson. Warner Brothers Films, 1984.

Jewett, Robert and John Lawrence. The Myth of the American Superhero. Grand Rapids, MI: W. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2002.

Kill Bill: Volume 1. Dir. Quentin Tarantino. Miramax Films, 2003.

Kill Bill: Volume 2. Dir. Quentin Tarantino. Miramax Films, 2004.

Klein, Andy. “‘Bill’ the Killer Thriller.” Los Angeles Citybeat 18: 9 October (2003).

The Last Samurai. Dir. Edward Zwick. Warner Brothers, 2003.

The Making of Kill Bill: Volume 1. Special Features: Kill Bill: Volume 1 DVD.   Miramax Home Entertainment, 2004.

The Making of Kill Bill: Volume 2. Special Features: Kill Bill: Volume 2 DVD. Miramax Home Entertainment, 2004.

The Matrix. Dir. Andy Wachowski and Larry Wachowski, 1999.

Warshow, Robert. “Movie Chronicle: The Westerner.” Film Theory and Criticism: Introductory Readings. Ed., Leo Braudy and Marshall Cohen. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 1999. 654-67.


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