The Dying is in the Details: Hollywood Warfare, One Part Where I Mess With Kill Bill

I’ve brought up swords a lot. You know it, I know it, we all know it because I will not drop it. But guess what, I’m not done! I am not even remotely close to done! Why? Well, just for starters, we need to go ahead and discuss absolutely every minor detail that bugged me about Kill Bill. Oh, yes, we are fucking going there. Because I love those movies, and I love Quentin Tarantino’s work, and I am hardest on the things I love. This is why I punch myself in the face for five full minutes each morning while staring directly into the sun, and that’s why my writing is an incoherent mess.

I don’t actually do either of those things, stop re-reading those lines like I’m telling you you’re doing for comedic effect. (Field Note: Still uncertain if drawing attention to a joke qualifies as a variation on a standard joke, or some form of meta-joke. Doubly unsure if actually funny). I was, however, being absolutely truthful about Kill Bill and the minor retroactive annoyance by a thousand cuts I’m about to deliver to said stylized action monolith. I want to be clear, when I say something doesn’t work, that’s not knocking the film: this is about addressing things that fail the real-world logic test. If anything, you should take it as praise every time I say Kill Bill is doing something badly, because it’s almost entirely a play on cliches about Eastern martial arts.

And I’m starting, of course, with my absolute biggest gripe about the film: the recurring nonsense with the Hanzo swords, which sums up almost every goofball one-liner that katana cultists bandy about even today. Like I told everyone at the outset of this mess, I don’t do anything by halves, and this seems like the best possible starting point for pure inflammatory value. So without further ado, let’s go straight to the prime example: Hattori Hanzo’s finest work, the sword of the Bride herself, the “That really was a Hattori Hanzo katana” katana. Bear in mind that Budd, Bill’s brother, considered $1,000,000 a fair price for this thing. So.

I mean, it’s not bad. A little colorless, the habaki is pretty bland, and I’m not sure how I feel about the near total absence of metal fittings on the scabbard, but it’s not bad.

 

This picture is from the movie’s wiki. There appears to be some confusion amongst the various renderings of the Bride’s sword as to whether it has a bo-hi, AKA a fuller or top grove, in the katana’s case running through the upper sides of the blade for its full length, where it’s usually about 2/3 or less and dead center in a European broadsword. I think this might be because the sword in the film only has a partial grove in order to accommodate the lion emblem on the blade. But enough about that: is this a good enough sword to qualify as A. Hattori Hanzo’s finest work and B. to justify all the hype? Well, the Hanzo swords in the movie seem to all be about equal to each other in how completely ridiculous they are and it’s a toss-up as to whether they’ll actually just bifurcate other swords or not, so let’s go for aesthetics, where my answer is a resounding, instantaneous and unmitigated… *sigh* nah, it’s not that great.

First and foremost, it’s just kind of, erm… boring. Even accounting for the sword’s movie incarnation, which has some amount of extra bling, it’s just kind of boring to look at. The goldish scabbard wrap (the term is sageo, for those of you so inclined) helps a little bit, but there’s not much awareness of color contrast. Now, let me call on some other famous pop-culture katana; I’m going to take my examples from Japanese renditions because, well, why not? First, Vergil’s Yamato from the Devil May Cry franchise.

 

First off, it is longer, which automatically makes it superior. Compensatory logic is the best logic.

Note the inclusion of the following: a handguard with an actual color (it’s brass), hilt fittings which contrast with the dominant color of the grip, which in turn is not only white but wrapped in a non-traditional way. The scabbard’s fittings are markedly more intricate, and especially noteworthy because the kurigata (the knob through which the scabbard’s cord wrap is passed) is on the underside of the scabbard in line with the edge, which to the best of my knowledge is not seen on any other famous katana. Vergil’s blade is also an O-katana, or overlength sword. I own such a weapon myself, as I have demonstrated before.

I consider this a significant improvement simply because it has better contrast. Now, in terms of something a bit more outlandish, there’s Jetstream Sam’s Murasama from Metal Gear Rising: Revengeance.

Highlights for this one include that, once again, it’s overlength, but more importantly that the blade is literally blood red from the pure murder energy coursing through it, the handgrip is straight off of a lightsaber design but still looks like a katana grip, and the scabbard is literally a goddamn gun whose sole purpose is to shoot the blade free for an even quicker quick-draw. On a side-note, ‘Murasama’ is a good-natured poke by Konami at the American misinterpretation of the original Muramasa, a very famous swordsmith in Muromachi-period Japan, whose swords are often said to have both unparalleled sharpness and a lust for blood. Sam’s Murasama also lacks any sort of fuller whatsoever: it’s a solid-bodied katana whose sole purpose is to cut. This is one aspect of the Hanzo sword that I approve of, an atypical design for its fuller, but in the movie it’s primarily to service the not-very-impressive lion emblem.

Hell, while we’re at it, let me just pull some images of that sword in the background of this very website, which is some of my own work:

And lest you think that’s improbably ornate and colorful (or improbably long, for that matter):

So no, the Hanzo sword’s not worth $1,000,000 in terms of aesthetics, and as far as capabilities go, I call bullshit on a random guy in Okinawa being able to forge swords that outdo the performance of Koto-period masters when he hates making swords. If a smith doesn’t take pride in his work, that work will be shit. I don’t care how good he otherwise is. You don’t go and regretfully forge a masterpiece. That takes passion. If Hanzo were that good, he wouldn’t be able to stop. And I mean that literally, because the Japanese government would hook him into some weird cyborg gear and force him to make swords until the end of time.

Paradoxically, if Hanzo enjoyed his work enough to actually make swords that are the best in history in every other regard, or was somehow so skilled that his engagement was irrelevant, I don’t think either of the two front-runners would turn out so samey. Two swords with black scabards (minor gold ornamentation) the exact same length for two people of completely different heights, and black grips with dark ornaments? That sounds suspiciously like something a prop department would do. And if it’s to show a parallel between Bill and Beatrix, how about making Bill’s sword less boring? Because, you know, he was one of Hanzo’s favorite students?

Continuing on a performance-related note, the Hanzo swords can bifurcate other katana semi-reliably (implications of which I’ll get to shortly), but can’t cut through a rough iron chain around a spiked ball? That’s rather, uh, selective. And then sometimes they just don’t cut through other katana, because of reasons. What reasons? How about Beatrix skipped all her basics? Allow me to elaborate. A sword, having the capacity to cut a material, will cut that material when impacting it at a proper angle. Paper, flesh, bone, another sword, it doesn’t matter. If the blade is sharp enough to cut something, and moving fast enough to cut it, the sword will do so. No exceptions, at least not without magic of a more direct kind than Quentin Tarantino likes to use.

So if the Hanzo sword routinely fails to cut through other katana, especially of the relatively crappy kind the Yakuza would be using, it’s got to be Black Mamba’s own damn fault. O-Ren Ishii’s sword doesn’t count because O-Ren was another of Bill’s proteges, and her shirasaya could easily be a Hanzo sword. Side O-Ren’s sword is also more interesting than the Bride’s sword, for exactly that reason. A shirasaya is a style of katana not usually intended for swordfighting; it was used briefly as the Samurai to disguise their swords during the interval between the banning of the katana for open wear and the abolition of the Samurai themselves, and to this day a shirasaya is used as a way to store a sword while more elaborate fittings are prepared, but it’s not normally meant for battle. That and O-Ren has to be pretty badass to fight using a sword with a slippery wooden grip and no protection from her hands sliding up onto the blade, or other blades sliding down onto her hands. So again, if Beatrix won that fight, we can as easily say it was the Hanzo sword that did it.

Which is bad. Now, I love katana, and I love impossibly sharp ultra-swords and Jedi-style feats of impossible speed and agility and all that other stuff, but I would never give the impression in my writing that a sword is doing more work than its bearer. Because the sword isn’t (normally) a character, you see, and if it is, that means it and its bearer should be equal partners. The difference between a swordsman and a rifleman is that the swordsman gives his weapon its killing power, whereas a rifleman just guides it. If a sword is so deadly that it can make a bad fighter unbeatable (and I’m not saying that’s technically the case in Kill Bill, but the argument can be made), then this removes any possibility for its bearer to be genuinely heroic. If you can cleave your opponent’s swords in half on a whim, you can never meaningfully be threatened. You can make their skill irrelevant with a terse flick of your wrists. That’s a characteristic for a villain. And I get that Beatrix Kiddo is not intended to be a hero in the traditional sense, but she’s still cast as a righteous force of justice.

All this talk about the sword is probably making you shout, “But the Kung Fu!” And guess what? That’s the topic of the next installment here; all the quasi-Martial Arts tropes on display, and I won’t deny they’re important to the film, but this serial is about the levels on which things don’t work. If you’re shouting “No one cares about Kill Bill anymore!” my response is “That’s why I’m safe to badmouth it!” After all, isn’t it appropriate to perform character assassination on a movie about assassins?

6 thoughts on “The Dying is in the Details: Hollywood Warfare, One Part Where I Mess With Kill Bill

  1. Oh, you can diss any film you wish, for any reason you choose. However, let me see if I understood correctly. You are putting down a MOVIE for NOT BEING REALISTIC ENOUGH regarding props, and/or AN ACTOR for not being a real swordsperson? Did you miss the class where they explained that movies are make believe intended for a wide audience? Most people don’t, and never would give a rat’s behind about the color and decoration of the kitanas, or whether the fighting is realistic. What the film must do first, last and always is entertain. Take the fight between Elle and B in Bud’s trailer. Tarantino is constantly exploiting it for comedy, showing how it’s too small to even get the sword drawn, fighting around the toilet and shower stall etc.

    The Kill Bill films are intentionally ANTI-REALISTIC, as an homage to the style of martial arts movies of the 70s-80s that Tarantino loved. Those earlier films are all chock full of magic and woo-woo impossible feats, with no explanation, just demonstrations. At heart it isn’t just a Kung Fu or martial arts movie though. It’s a quest for revenge, straight out of westerns, that throws in martial arts for flavor. That’s why there are all those music cues from Spaghetti Westerns, so you won’t miss the intent.

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    1. I did dedicate an entire paragraph at the start of the post to openly acknowledging that everything I’m about to say is a ridiculous criticism, because, quote, “it’s almost entirely a play on cliches about Eastern martial arts’. That and a Western-style revenge story, which I admit I didn’t think of at the time of writing.

      Most people don’t give a rat’s ass about camera angles, contrast, lighting, casting, or the vast majority of other things that go into making an entertaining film, either. I appreciate that those are direct requirements for a functioning movie and so are not the best analogies, but my point is that if you had a bunch of people come in off the street and make a movie, it would be hard for it to go well. That, and ‘most people’ statistically do not care about the vast majority of any specific area of interest in the world. I think if this blog has a theme, it’s blithely ignoring what most people are interested in, except occasionally when I mention this or that popular movie.

      I do agree that the fight in Budd’s trailer is an excellent example of manipulating a goofy premise for entertainment value, though I would argue that’s actually a pretty accurate depiction of two people grappling for control of a sword in a confined space with no room to maneuver (eye-plucking excepted).

      As far as the fittings go, again, this is nitpicking and so is going to cover obnoxiously tiny details by default. My point is that the Hanzo sword is just rather meh. I haven’t even gotten to any of the points I intend to make regarding stagefighting, which is a consistent pet peeve of mine. And I understand why much of it is the way it is; safety is always a concern, so people can’t swing too close to each other, and of course most actors don’t have time to train to a credible extent in martial arts. Most of the time, if I don’t offer an alternative suggestion for something, it’s because I don’t have one. I do THINK it could be done much better, but having not actually participated in stagefighting all of my remarks about it are ultimately talking out of my ass.

      If you read through some of my other posts (and I don’t expect you to because I’ll admit there’s zero organization here), you’ll notice I spend a lot of time criticizing things. I could go over everything people enjoy about Kill Bill, which would include pretty much everything you just said, but then why post it?

      As far as why I’m addressing these things in Kill Bill itself, which as you said is intentionally anti-realistic, it’s primarily because Kill Bill is something that a lot of people know, which also happens to encompass a lot of my most common complaints about martial arts films. Naturally that’s because it pays homage to the films that started many of those tropes.

      I won’t deny it did occur to me that because a lot of people know about Kill Bill, they’re more likely to notice the post. It also occurred to me a majority of those people might not like what they saw (hence, ‘pure inflammatory value’ in the middle of the third paragraph), though, and ultimately if I want to start a flame war there are easier, more honest ways to do it than that.

      I appreciate you taking the time to offer a rebuttal. None of my points are remotely close to unassailable (calling them ‘points’ might be arrogance on my part), so you can feel free to criticize my criticisms. Not that you need my permission or anything, mind you. I blab too often about freedom of speech to start censoring dissenting opinions on my blog.

      For the record, I don’t think realism is any kind of holy grail, unless we’re talking documentaries and computer simulations and so on. It can definitely be carried too far; the recent obsession with ‘realism’ in AAA gaming is a perfect example of this. I also primarily work in Fantasy and Science/Future Fantasy, so I don’t have much of a leg to stand on from a realism standpoint. My beef with Kill Bill is less about realism and more about stuff I would have done differently; in that respect I suppose this piece doesn’t convey my sentiments very well. Regardless, we have no idea if my way would work or not (not is way more likely) but Quentin’s clearly did.

      This response turned out vastly longer than I intended, and I apologize. Brevity is not my strong suit.

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      1. Oh, I LIKE your ability to go on at length, because you have interesting things to say. I don’t care much whether somebody thinks a movie is good or not, as long as they can elaborate a point-of-view about it.

        This encounter pleasantly reminded me of discussions my wife and I have over the historicity of films. She’s a retired journalist with five Emmys, and she dislikes it when movies about the past eff around with the facts. But my stance is that no film owes anything to historical accuracy, and that given the choice of a change that improves the drama, a good filmmaker will always take it, with no compunction about it not being “factual”.

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      2. Ah, fair enough. You’ve actually helped me figure out a bit of a change in direction with the next segment of the article, so please accept my thanks for that. I think part of what I’ll be addressing is that Kill Bill’s meaning for me varies depending on whether I view it through the homage lens or not.
        Regarding historicity, I’m going to take the lame middle-of-the-road angle on historical accuracy in films and say it sort of depends on the film for me. On the one hand, sometimes embellishing for drama to reinforce the emotional or intellectual resonance with a film is more important than keeping it 100% accurate, and I like that from an author’s standpoint. On the other hand, I am deep into history on a number of subjects and my hackles go up a bit when certain things are omitted. I suppose I’d have to draw the line at films that are trying to be explicitly true to history, because in that instance part of the film’s intended value stems from that truth.
        But I don’t blame Quentin in the slightest for having a scene in Inglourious Basterds where Hitler gets shot 64 times. I think most people know that’s not how it happened, or else they know so little about WW 2 that it hardly matters; that being said, I think that’s how most of us want to hear it happened. This also represents the best use I’ll ever get out of knowing that the MP40 SMG used by the Wehrmacht carried 32 rounds to a magazine.

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