Based on a helpful comment from one of my readers, I’m going to modify the original intentions a bit here. One thing that I’ve realized is that how much I like Kill Bill partly depends on how I’m thinking about it. If I don’t factor in its obvious intent as a homage, I still enjoy watching it, but most of my criticisms here are sitting in a sullen, jumbled pile of intertwined snark and shouts of “That doesn’t make any fucking sense!” If I take the homage angle, Kill Bill instantly becomes one of my favorites. And I have to admit, that might be a gripe for me in and of itself. Just keep in mind that these are my opinions, and while I don’t normally like to encourage ad hominem attacks, it’s more likely that the problem is with me than Bill and B. Regardless, the movie’s entertainment value shifts for me with based on whether I apply the homage filter or not, so I’m going to discuss it from both angles.
As to why the homage take on Kill Bill is a bit difficult for me, it’s actually because of a recent development in gaming; namely, that of developers reverting to 8 or 16-bit style games for various reasons. A number of these games are exceptionally well put together, and blend modern design ideas with old-school charm. They can indulge more creative ideas on a lower budget simply by dodging the increasingly ridiculous standards of modern graphics. But these aren’t the only ones that succeed. A disconcertingly large number have ground by on nothing more than nostalgia, and this is where I tie things back in to my sort-of kinda not-all-that-crucial concerns about Kill Bill. Remember when I said the Hanzo sword(s) were my biggest gripe? Yeah, the others are all much smaller than that one was. That’s why it got an entire section to itself. That being said, now we’re on to the martial arts crud. Things only get more niche from here.
Right off the bat, Vernita Green. This fight sets up all of the problems I have with the other hacky-slashy bits in the film. And I do mean all of them. First and foremost, what I and my fencing compatriots refer to as ‘Crab Stance’ (by the way, I’ve started training with other people. This is, I think you’ll agree, pertinent.) So, by Crab Stance, I mean:
That… thing, that Vernita is doing. Look, I know that both of them worked their asses off for this scene. I am not knocking the dedication or talent of either actress. I can say that with certainty because this stuff is the responsibility of the fight scene coordinator. Which, in this case, was Quentin himself. Erm… how do I do this without sounding more pretentious than I already do… look, reach. Reach is one of the most important aspects of a fight, hm? Every fight centers on the ability of the two combatants to get the hurty bits of their arsenal (be those fists, feet, knives or the goddamn Yari spears from Akira Kurosawa’s The Hidden Fortress) past the hurty bits of their opponent’s arsenal and into the fleshy bits of their opponents. In order to do this, they must outmaneuver their opponents. So, with all this in mind, we do not fight from full extension. Not of the arms, not of the legs, definitely not of both. Case in point? Vernita’s stance is directly equivalent to that you’ll see on a rapierist (and yes, that is the HEMA term for a rapier-wielder) who has already lunged. This isn’t even a realism thing for me at the moment, I just say that looks ridiculous. And I don’t know if the scene is paying homage to some famous Western knife-fight, so I can’t say for sure that it’s not a cinematographic masterpiece. But it still looks ridiculous.
Which, then, brings us to the Crazy 88’s.
Allow me to put this in the gentlest terms possible.
Your footwork is horrible, B, and I refuse to ignore it a second longer. I don’t give a damn if the movie is a homage or not. Your stance would be chudan no kamae, if your legs weren’t too busy showing off that they’ve missed the point of the L-stance, which is balance. Your right leg and left leg are so far apart they’re in different timezones. Actually, fuck that, they’re at the North and South Poles. If they want to meet up, they have to jump on a tanker in order to get back to civilization, then take planes to meet at the equator. For contrast, a picture of chudan as demonstrated by actual practitioners:
These pictures are difficult to find on Google because this stance is so natural, so utterly logical, that I don’t think anyone sees much point in doing that. It’s a positioning of the body, a pose, a posture, something so basic your training will be doomed from the start if you can’t get it right. For the record, it’s absolutely fine for the feet to be spread further apart than they are in the ‘proper’ image there. By ‘further’ I mean ‘about six to ten inches further, possibly more depending on height; just enough to give you some stability, but giving you plenty of spare space left to actually move quickly. You know how bad the stances are in Kill Bill? That Crazy 88 guy is also completely goddamn wrong. He appears to think he’s doing… hasso. Which is this:
Which, once again, looks about five times better in its correct iteration. The threshold for these things is so low in popular culture that I received praise and adulation on my college campus for paying the vaguest attention to what I was doing. People thought it was amazing. Which leaves the stagefighting renditions in some very deep, dark pit of unmitigated mediocrity. The Crazy 88s scene has some of my least-favorite moments, including that thing Beatrix repeatedly does again and again and again where she takes her left hand off the grip of her katana, which is fine, that allows for greater reach, but then throws her left somewhere out in the middle of nowhere, which is not. That is quite possibly the best way to lose that hand that I’ve ever heard of. And then, of course, there’s O-Ren.
So close. So goddamn close except that you’re leaning into the sword like it’s a fucking pillow. Meanwhile O-Ren is standing there looking as confident as you are needlessly terrified of a woman who ran from you while you butchered her entire gang. By the way, if you want to know what a proper chudan looks like on film, O-Ren does one immediately after Beatrix destroys her katana’s scabbard, which O-Ren was using in a proper derivation of Niten (two-sword) style as actually practiced by the Samurai, and O-Ren’s movements are themselves extremely evocative of Samurai films. Although strangely, Quentin forgot about jodan. I say that’s strange because Shogun Assassin is mentioned in Part Two of the film, and the trailer for Shogun Assassin features one of the biggest cliches in Samurai mythos: one Samurai taking jodan, a stance in which the sword is held overhead at around a 45 degree angle from the vertical, only to be cut down by another Samurai and toppling over while still holding his sword overhead. Because it has almost no defensive use, assuming jodan is a tacit statement of higher skill, an arrogant assumption which goes right along with O-Ren’s attitude.
Earlier, O-Ren uses iai, drawing the katana and cutting as an extension of the movement, to kill a disrespectful Yakuza underling. She then sheathes her sword using noto, a movement almost exclusive to the Japanese sword arts. This instantly decapitates (that’s deliberate) the entire argument that proper katana form is too niche; that may be true for most films, but it’s already in this one. Most Hollywood films don’t even know what Iaido is (which might be the next subset of the Hollywood Warfare series, we’ll see), so if it’s present in Kill Bill, that neatly saps the strength of arguments about it being too much trouble to include it. Because, you know, it’s already there.
The slap at the end of this movement I actually like even though it’s bad form, because O-Ren is an arrogant woman who would totally think that’s impressive, and it also seems fitting that for all her bragging about how utterly samurai she is, she doesn’t really get it either. There’s also a visible ‘wait, how do I get it is in?’ moment as the tip of the sword moves over O-Ren’s thumb and forefinger in that gif. When practiced iaidoka do this movement, the transition from pulling the sword forward to pushing it in is almost imperceptible. It’s part of the whole moving Zen thing associated with that particular martial art. Of course, it also involves getting over one’s natural fear of sharp things touching one’s bare flesh, so it can be a bit difficult to learn.
You’re probably thinking these touches should placate me. They do not. They actually make everything worse. Because what they show is a full awareness of what good form is, which all highlights the bad form even more clearly; like a good katana polish revealing that its temper ceases to exist halfway up the blade. As I said, even O-Ren is getting it wrong. The iai is a nice touch and all, except that O-Ren i\ does a backhand draw, and here’s the thing about backhand: it doesn’t make for good cuts, so much so that it’s almost non-existent in sword technique regardless of culture, and it’s a purely defensive stance in knife-fighting. Now, yes, this is a movie, so they can get away with it, but a backhand draw from the left, keeping the cutting edge in line with a target on a horizontal plane, is extremely difficult. It would impact at a suboptimal angle and the strain of cutting through a human neck would probably shatter the sword-wielder’s wrist. It’s the kind of thing that belongs in a bad ninja film. And then, at the same time, O-Ren actually does cup her hand around the mouth of the scabbard as in proper iai training, something which seems dangerous and counter-intuitive but (done right) is actually safe and quite useful. The pattern here is, um, non-existent. There is no pattern to any of this. Does she suck at being samurai or not? I demand answers, Quentin!
And it’s true, if it’s a homage to something then that makes it easier for me to accept. That makes all of these things easier for me to accept, which is why I’m somewhat uncomfortable with the ‘It’s a homage’ reasoning; it’s just such an easy way out. Heck, where’s the homage effect in O-Ren sheathing her sword while it’s still drenched in blood? I’m pretty sure that’s just terrible form, and if we’re talking about paying homage to samurai films, O-Ren does the customary chiburi (literally, ‘blood rain;’ the flick that snaps blood and gore from the blade of a katana), but there’s still blood there! In every samurai film all that blood disappears instantly, even though I can verify from painful experience that blood is very hard to remove from sword blades. That’s bad, because it will turn to rust on the blade and stick the blade to the scabbard in one fell swoop, simultaneously dulling it and making it almost impossible to draw in the future. This is not samurai approved. Though, as I said, O-Ren is actually a terrible Samurai, which is something I’ll be covering in the third section of this: things Kill Bill does right because they’re being done wrong.
There’s also this: yes, it’s Hollywood. Yes, it’s a movie, and a movie that’s deliberately unrealistic for maximum impact. Yet, at the same time, Quentin Tarantino is just about the only big-budget director I know of at present who I think could bridge the gap between realistic (or more realistic) martial arts and entertainment value. There’s an iaidoka, Isao Machii, who’s skilled enough he can cut a BB out of the air as it flies towards him. Admittedly it was under specific circumstances, but that’s something which happened in reality which hasn’t received an equivalent portrayal in any film I’ve ever head of. Bringing this back around, whenever something in Kill Bill bugs me, it’s usually stemming from the fact that yes, this is a Tarantino flick, and damn it, Quentin, throw the modern martial artists a bone! If most people won’t be bothered either way, and the movie will be entertaining either way, is it so wrong for us to hope we’ll get a few more nods?
And then, last but not least, there’s Pai Mei.
With whom I have absolutely zero issues. Yes, you read that correctly. I have zero issues with Pai Mei, because everything about him is deliberately intended to be ridiculous. According to the film’s official canon, he’s over a thousand years old. Probably far over that, because if he was able to butcher an entire Shaolin monastery in 1003 A.D., he must’ve already been at his Wushu/kung fu cliche nonsense for a while even before that. I know basically nothing about kung fu, but I am willing to bet money ($5,
give or take 5). I have also seen about six minutes total of the Chinese wushu-style films, and everything from the rapid zooms to the shots of Pai Mei smiling and playing with his beard (as above) screams Wushu in such a conclusive fashion it’s impossible for me to think of it as anything other than a direct homage. Perhaps the issue I have with most of the other parts of the film is that the influences are often too unclear for me.
That being said, if I were to separate Pai Mei’s chapters from their inspirations, I’d have a batshit insane segment featuring a 1000-year-old ascetic who hates everyone but is also desperately lonely (wonder why no one talks to him?), killed sixty men because one of their number didn’t do enough ass-kissing, and uses a martial arts technique that makes zero sense. The Five-Point-Palm Exploding Heart Technique is as drawn out and useless as its name implies. First off, if you can pluck someone’s eyes out with your bare hands, then just jab your fingers a few inches further until they puncture the brain. BOOM. Literal instant kill. If they have to take steps first, that still leaves them time to, for example, jump on you and hold you down while their buddies stab you repeatedly with spears. Or hell, punch them in the ribs so hard their hearts explode immediately and all the other organs are shredded by bone fragments. Do a judo throw by grabbing their heads and smash their occipital lobes into the ground, that part of the skull (located conveniently right at the back) is so weak people can end up in comas just from slipping and cracking it on benches (this doesn’t mean it happens often, but it’s anatomically possible).
Yet, as I said, even devoid of their origins Pai Mei’s segments are so absurd that it’s impossible to formulate a serious argument against them. The obvious response is, “Oh, damn, you mean real martial artists don’t jump ten feet in the air and land on sword blades while their opponents just watch?” Which might actually be my conclusion regarding Kill Bill: if it’s going to be crazy and anti-realistic, it needs to go further. Beat reality up so badly that I start to feel guilty for trying to bring the poor guy back into this mess. Don’t just bend reality, snap its spine in two and throw it into the nearest car compactor, then send that hunk of metal to the event horizon of the biggest black hole available.
Now, this brings me to the homage factor as a whole, and why Kill Bill’s greatest strength is also its greatest weakness. I haven’t seen most of the films that it pays homage to, so most of those references fall flat by default. It’s like three people at a party recounting their favorite in-joke, and wondering why no one is laughing. The rest of us weren’t there for the events that made that joke so funny, alright? We didn’t see Larry do a 360 and land his face directly in the punch bowl, then stand up with the bowl stuck on his head by crushed strawberries and kiwis like some kind of performance-art advertisement for glass hats. So when Joan cackles ‘Punch bowl cap!’ and the three of them breakdown laughing, the best we can do is assume they’re full of it. At worst, we may mistake them for some kind of cult.
Sorry if that ‘we’ seems like it was trying to include you an opinion you may not share, it was purely for the purposes of that analogy. Its tyranny is at an end, and you may continue squinting at my gibbering. What I’m getting at is that the homage angle allows Kill Bill to repeat things that were stupid mistakes, ridiculous misconceptions, and just plain dumb about those 70s and 80s films. And in a way, purely the fact that they are from the 70s and 80s is carte blanche to do whatever the Hell it wants. Even those of us (like myself) who weren’t around for those decades have picked up on the fact that they were just obscenely goofy and off-kilter. What allows Kill Bill to be an intelligent film is an understanding of why it’s doing dumb things, which is also the best way for me to fully enjoy it in spite of the fact that many of its best scenes, from a cinematographic standpoint, are also the ones where it’s most directly ignoring basic knowledge from one of my main areas of interest.
Which may mean that the problems are with me. I quite literally know too much to just sit back and let the film be nutty. Or maybe it’s even more banal and pitiable than that, that as an author I’ve too-closely embraced the creed of critically evaluating everything in art (mine or anyone else’s) that I can’t see the gleam of greatness for the light mist of tiny irrelevant flaws clouding its surface. By the way, that’s another sword analogy. Tune in next time for a conciliatory post where I talk about all the crap I enjoy in Kill Bill and the places where my deeper knowledge actually lets me read into it more! Or don’t. We’re up to almost 5000 words on this topic and some fatigue on your part is understandable. But I have to finish this.
Because now it’s personal. Wait, no, er, the other one. Professional. Now it’s professional.