The Kill Bill Tour of Japan

Kill BillKill Bill” is like a kind of delicious cinematic dessert commingled with a helping of tongue-piercing thumbtacks; it is at once sweetly delirious and deeply offensive. This mix is about the right combination for Quentin Tarantino, a writer-director who seems to go out of his way to make incredibly disgusting movies, all of which will be remembered as pioneering artistic statements but never without inciting a terrible queasiness in some subsection of his audience.

After having steeled my stomach through the sheer viciousness of “Reservoir Dogs,” the shock-for-shock’s sake of the overrated but still compelling “Pulp Fiction” and the dodgy blaxploitation-philia of “Jackie Brown,” I can say that I had not counted myself among those who took issue with the director’s wanton desire to piss off just as many people as he delights.

So, I figure, it makes sense that I find “Kill Bill” to be just about the worst piece of Orientalism to make it before discerning movie audiences in quite some time. It’s my turn to be indignant.

Jacking Off to Kill Bill

Among the truest and worst things you can say about this movie is that it is profoundly masturbatory. Its two hours and five minutes amount to a catalog of Tarantino’s cinematic and pop-cultural fetishes: a legion of profusely sexy female assassins, a prolific counter-culture of moral evil-doers, a population of black-belted warriors, and a climate given over to regular, strong gusts of nostalgia for the 1970s. There is nothing in this movie with which the director is clearly not enraptured, no corner of the film given up to anything but that which completely satisfies some well of fascination in his psyche. In most respects, this is good or even great, as it results in is a sustained masterwork, a real and unique vision writ boldly and without compromise on the screen.

Lucy Liu in “Kill Bill”

Mysteries of the Muthaf***kin’ Orient

And yet, fetishism can be a foul spectacle, and that is the case with the character Tarantino created to dominate the second half of “Kill Bill” — O-Ren Ishii — and the actress he selected to play that part — the lamentable Lucy Liu. Ishii, as imagined by the director, is the petite, sexy and ruthless queen of a Seijun Suzuki-inspired Japanese underground, and she is flanked by a pair of petite, sexy and ruthless female lieutenants, and backed by an army of identically dressed, anonymous Asian gangsters.

Above: You’d better watch out for Lucy Liu! She’ll kill you!

This scenario is a ludicrous, racist and sexist conceit, and the Ishii role amounts to nothing more than a hastily sketched compendium of Asian stereotypes. None of them are blatantly insulting, but all of them are lazy and evince a complete lack of insight and imagination on the part of the writer-director. Add to this the meager talents of Lucy Liu, an actress making a career of bringing to life white men’s fantasies of Asian women — and who possesses not an ounce of charisma — and the result is supremely cringe-worthy. I spent every moment of Liu’s screen time groaning, and held out hope for a grisly and punishing demise.

If there’s a performance that redeems Liu’s, it’s that of the singularly beautiful Uma Thurman. Here, she is at perhaps the height of her craft, boldly and confidently chewing through Tarantino’s dense, sometimes unwieldy and sometimes brilliant dialog with real gusto. Thurman goes from grizzled to girlish with remarkable agility, and her willingness to get the shit kicked out of her and look like complete shit while doing it makes her beauty all the more indescribable. Her contribution is real work, and it’s sure to be underrated by most critics but also destined to be studied by any actress endeavoring to hold her own in an action movie.

The Tarantino School for Appreciation of Asian Culture

As a whole, I’m not sure that “Kill Bill” is entirely good enough to make up for its unreconstructed fantasia of the land beyond the Pacific, but I do know that Tarantino invests this film with enough enthusiasm that it’s never less than watchable. (It’s another of the increasing number of films that has been art directed within an inch of its life — with nearly every detail being meticulously absurd-ified — but done so more judiciously than just about any other i’ve seen, including Wes Anderson’s “The Royal Tenenbaums.”) I would gladly see it again, as my only real reservation is the influence that this film will surely have on the character of Asian representation in films going forward. All of Tarantino’s films have been widely imitated, flaws and all, and I’m not looking forward to seeing cheap Hollywood rip-offs working off a similarly ridiculous idea of Asia. But, given the choice between a world run rampant with such rip-offs and one with no Tarantino films at all, I’d gladly take the later, painful offenses and all.



  1. I liked the film for what it was. I went in with no recall of any of Tarantino’s films, no pre-judgements, etc. Just took it in. Uma indeed was mah-velous.

    However my big gripe was the type choices, wiggity wack.

  2. I liked the film quite a bit. As an Asian-American, I can’t say that I was offended by anything in the movie except the typography that Naz mentioned, and that only offended me as a designer.

    I thought the film was a lot of fun.

  3. Thing about Liu’s character is that she’s based on the lead in an 1973 Samurai exploitation film called Shirayuki Hime (along with the division of the film into chapters, ripped right out of the original). In fact, a song from the film plays before O-Ren’s final fight. I can understand why QT was drawn to the film, it has the feel of old school blaxploitation movies from that same era.

  4. Regarding the typographic choices, I thought the Roman typography was brilliant. It was an obvious attempt at looking bad, which somehow made me love it. It reflected the vintage Samurai Movie feel Tarantino instilled in the rest of the flick. The asian typography on the other hand (seen on the film’s poster, for example) was just another sad implementation of an American’s idea of “oritental” lettering.

    And I must agree with Vinh; Lucy Liu is only beautiful in America. In Asia she wouldn’t cut it. She indeed is a white American’s idea of an attractive asian woman. Nonetheless, I like her quite a bit. She is the only actress in the US who gets (most) roles playing a person rather than an “Asian.” Jackie Chan and Bruce Lee, conversely, always played Asians.

  5. The film is hardly Orientalist. If anything it is a hommage to manga style. It is a melodramatic fantasy and is as one-dimensional about Texans as it is about the Japanese. If you want to know what Hollywood Orientalism looks like check out Rising Sun which embodies the anti-Japanese paranoia of the 1980s.

  6. I enjoyed for the film simply for what it was, some breath taking fight scenes and a strong female lead role for a change. I do not think the producers of Kill Bill intended to portray a true representation of the Japanese / Asian cultures because this isn’t the idea of the film. It is to entertain, rather than inform. I do believe however that these details should be taken into consideration.

  7. Kill Bill 1 was meccha (totally) cool! I’m a Japanese/Chinese American teenage girl and Lucy Liu has always been my hero since her days on Ally Mc Beal. I don’t think that she is only beautiful to white people because she always brings a distinct strength and coolness to her characters, which is what I find sexy. In a country where Asians (particularly females) are portrayed as weak and soft-spoken, I was not at all offended by any of the characters.

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