Genre Storytelling: The many influences of Kill Bill

Written by  //  November 3, 2010  //  Media & Popular Culture  //  Comments Off on Genre Storytelling: The many influences of Kill Bill

Critics have been debating what comes after post-modern storytelling.

I feel its genre stories that are cognizant of their roots and which are part homage and part lightest satire and wholly aware of their existence within a specific genre. The success of such stories completely depends on the audience’s existing knowledge of the genre conventions and how the storyteller is able to play with their expectations. (Like in a film spoof, the audience needs to know the original films to get the jokes)

This is a shift that can be seen in comic books (or graphic novels, if you prefer) and will slowly become apparent in other media as well.

Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill films are a perfect example of genre filmmaking. Before becoming a filmmaker QT worked at a video store watching and discussing cinema – which opened him to a very wide variety of films (not all of them conventionally “good”) of different budgets, different genres and different filmmaking aesthetics.

QT wears his influences on his sleeves, of which there are very many.

The Kill Bill films had alternating genres of Wuxia (Traditional Chinese Heroic Kung Fu films), Manga (Japanese Comics, some of which are ultra-violent by western standards), B-Grade Japanese revenge dramas, Yakuza Films (Japanese gangster films also with shocking levels of violence), Bruce Lee Karate films and Spaghetti Westerns (Westerns made in the 1960s and 1970s by Italian filmmakers). His craft here becomes obvious as the film straddles all these genres and yet each element lived within itself perfectly and still made a cohesive whole.

These are not quite the genres one would typically associate with a mainstream “name” director but the story he weaves adapts this rich filmmaking language into something that appeals to the modern audience, marking him one of the great filmmakers of our time.

The Kill Bill films go further than simply borrowing a style but are very heavily loaded with references to the ‘source material’ across many levels. The choice of actors, music, sound, shots, locations, sets, fight choreography, costumes etc. is very deliberate forming a very detailed tapestry. Decoding this film has been a lot of fun for me – the only thing akin to it is studying Shakespeare in high school – using the reference notes to get all of the classical allusions.

Some of the winks and nods to Japanese, Chinese and even American films were terribly obscure and I had to read an interview of QT to even know they existed. (Link: http://www.japattack.com/japattack/film/tarantino.html)

The interview is a great read because one senses the almost childlike delight that QT has as a filmmaker and this joy is so obvious in his work.

Some of the broader influences are:

1. The Guiding Influence

A major influence on the film is revenge film “Lady Snowblood” starring Meiko Kaji who was the superstar of Japanese exploitation cinema in the 1970s. The film is about a girl born in prison who trains in martial arts to take revenge on her parents’ killers – and who dispatches them one by one in separate chapters of the film.

Songs sung by Meiko Kaji for this film find themselves in the soundtrack of Kill Bill including the haunting “Flower of Carnage” that plays after the final battle of Vol. 1

2. Choice of Actors

There are 3 great yesteryears martial arts superstars in the films.

Gordon Liu famous for ’36 Chambers of Shaolin’ played Kung Fu Master Pei Mei and Japanese Yakuza Johnny Mo in the films. (the character Pei Mei is from a chinese film where again he is a Kung Fu master who can stand on an opponent’s sword). Gordon represents the Chinese wuxia genre of the 1970s.

Sonny Chiba is a Japanese martial arts superstar and has starred in the “Street Fighter series” and many Japanese “Karate” films trying to capitalise on Bruce Lee’s success. He plays the sword smith “Hattori Hanzo” in the film – interesting because Hattori Hanzo was an actual historical figure and a folk hero in Japan – and subject of many films and TV shows, some of them starring Sonny Chiba!

David Carradine stars as the titular “Bill”, known in America as the star of the 1970s hit TV show “Kung Fu” where he played a half Caucasian Shaolin monk. The show made him a star and also helped popularise the martial arts genre in the US.

The choice of actors is so fitting for this film and together they are a triple dose of awesome!

3. Tribute to the Master

Martial Arts films around the world have one name above all others – starring in just 5 films, almost 40 years since his death – Bruce Lee is still the undisputed king.

The yellow jumpsuit worn by Uma Thurman is the same as the one worn by Bruce Lee in “The Game of Death”. Entire segments of the climatic fight choreography in Vol. 1 is taken from Bruce Lee films.

In the film, Lucy Liu’s character O-Ren Ishii is a Yakuza boss – her mob is called the Crazy 88. They dress up in black suits and Cato masks (dark masks covering the eye region) – made famous by Bruce Lee when he made his debut in the hit TV show ‘The Green Hornet’ as Cato, the sidekick to the titular character.

The climatic fight scene in Vol. 1 has both the hero and the villains dressed in signature Bruce Lee costumes, fighting with Bruce Lee choreography with the soundtrack blaring the theme from his debut TV show. Phew.

4. The Use of other Genre Conventions

The film is a love affair with Chinese wuxia (there is more influence in the 2nd part) and Japanese feudal revenge films. There are also subtler influences from Japan’s modern era of pop-violence  (films like ‘Battle Royale’ and ‘Ichi the Killer’…)

Blood spurts off a multitude of hacked limbs; everyone carries samurai swords and Go Go Yubari is a killer high school girl with a ninja chain swinging morning star. Japan, I love you and so does QT…

The wuxia genre is further represented by the long training sessions with a reclusive master (my favourite part of a martial art film is always the training sessions!) and the learning of not one but TWO story defining ‘ultimate’ fighting techniques… Plus the sub-plot of revenge against a master’s killer.

This is QTs gigantic Thank You to an entire genre of film/television making. Many in the audience hopefully like me then revisited some of the classics which have been given such caring tribute.

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