Kill Bill:  So Far From So Close

Tokyo:  We Are Coming

Only thirty years before the release of “Lady Snowblood,” several million New Yorkers cheered a vast patriotic parade that streamed up Fifth Avenue for eleven hours in June 1942.  The evident highlight was a float depicting a big American eagle swooping down on a herd of yellow rats.  As historian John Dower has observed in War Without Mercy, this caricature captured the essential symbolic features of racist characterization of the American stance toward Japanese people – the strong individual versus an undifferentiated pack of vermin denied any acknowledgement of humanity – an embodiment of the iconic image of the yellow hordes of Asia.

Abundant contemporary imagery of rats, insects, monkeys or vipers was publicly invoked as justification for exterminationist rhetoric advocating wholesale slaughter of the Japanese.  “Rodent Exterminator” was stenciled on helmets of many Marines during the 1944 invasion of Iwo Jima.  The collection of body parts as trophies from dead (and living) Japanese was so commonplace that personnel returning from the Pacific theater were routinely screened for trophy possession prior to embarkation.  In 1943 the magazine Leatherneck published a photograph of Japanese corpses with an uppercase headline reading “Good Japs,” while the following year Life published a full-page photograph of an attractive blonde posing with a Japanese skull.  Another photograph showed Japanese skulls as ornaments on American military vehicles.  Contemporary Japanese reaction was to view such material as indicative of the American character.  For their part, officially sanctioned American perspectives endorsed notions that the Japanese were mad or crazy with a perverse wish to die, and deserved the death brought to them by Americans.

Until the 1960’s, American men’s pulp fiction magazines blatantly co-mingled World War II propaganda imagery of the Japanese with depictions of successively demonized Asian adversaries – Koreans, Chinese, and Vietnamese – to invoke an all-purpose stereotype of an undifferentiated mass fundamentally unworthy of life.  Numerous war movies during and since Word War II have portrayed the mass killing of people who had been rendered less than human in this manner.

Starship Troopers

Perhaps most tellingly, the locus of these devices in the fears and needs of predominantly white America is suggested by Paul Verhoeven’s futuristic war film “Starship Troopers” (1997).  Verhoeven’s depiction of endless war against lethal “bugs” was deliberately designed to engage the atavistic hatreds of so many Hollywood Pacific War movies.  By the device of constructing the enemy of the young (mainly Caucasian) heroes as large, lethal insects, Verhoeven was able to examine the genocidal corollaries of racial hatred during war, including the attribution of lack of pain, individuality, conscience or any other human quality to the demonized, bug-like enemy.

Sean Connery and Mie Hama in You Only Live Twice, Mie Hama in Woody Allen's What's Up Tiger Lilly
Postwar Hollywood also peddled the stereotype of the soft-spoken, demure “Lotus Blossom” as emblematic of Japanese women as well as the “Dragon Lady” of film noir.  White actors continued the practice of “yellowfacing” (playing Asian roles) until quite recently – including Sean Connery in “You Only Live Twice” (1967) and David Carradine in the 1972 television series “Kung Fu” – suggesting that Caucasians could appropriate the requisite physique and role.  Both stage productions and film noir perpetuated portrayals of Asia and Asians as the object of limitless fantasy and danger, involving opportunities for “exotic” romance, miscegenation or fear.
David Carradine from Kung Fu
As Jeff Yang, Dina Gan and Terry Hong have commented in Eastern Standard Time, Western popular cultural products have been frequently so damaging in their depictions of Asians, even when not explicitly seeking to be so.  Against such a recent background of extremes in cultural representation, ranging from literal characterization as subhuman vermin (rats, snakes, insects), through absence (“yellowfacing”) to the false exoticism of “Orientalism,” contemporary American film depictions of conflict with Japanese people should tread carefully on controversial ground.  Scott Hicks’ “Snow Falling On Cedars” (1999) has certainly managed this.  “Kill Bill” has not.
Mickey Rooney in Breakfast at Tiffanys
Among the problematic associations suggested by “Kill Bill,” two in particular stand out when considered in relation to the above history of racist characterization of the Japanese.  The first involves the conspicuously collective, dehumanized, mass death of the Japanese “Crazy 88” gang at the hands of a single, brightly clad, blonde Caucasian.  Film and cultural critic Armand White has described the death of Vivica A. Fox’s character “Vernita Green” in “Kill Bill” as butchering by a white woman that continues white supremacist patriarchal film conventions.  Much the same could be said about the deaths of so many Japanese characters, with the additional problematic that they wear masks and are collectively labeled “crazy” (the “Crazy 88” gang) – devices reminiscent of wartime notions of the Japanese as an undifferentiated mass of suicidally crazy lesser beings.  The solitary eagle scatters a pack of rats.  A second, related problem concerns the triumphal address by Thurman’s character “The Bride” at the conclusion of this bloody combat.  After surveying the scene of carnage from above, “The Bride” announces that the wounded survivors may leave but that their severed limbs remain hers.  This is reminiscent of the historical practice of taking body parts as battlefield trophies.  Historian John Dower has traced the roots of exterminationist ideology against the Japanese to wars against Native American peoples during the late Nineteenth Century.  Perhaps the final scalping of “O-Ren Ishii” in “Kill Bill” can be seen as part of this larger trajectory.
The Blood of Fu Manchu with Christopher Lee and Tsai Chin

Other difficulties include the status of supporting characters.  Is Julie Dreyfus as “Sofie Fatale” intended to pass as an Asian?  Does Lucy Liu’s half-American “O-Ren Ishii” suggest references to the continued American military presence and basing in Japan?  Is it necessary to depict the head of the Tokyo yakuza as half-American?  The prominence of non-Japanese in these key roles connotes a certain powerlessness and possible cultural subjugation, while Liu’s “O-Ren Ishii” also strays into the realm of the stereotyped “Dragon Lady” of Orientalist myth with her sudden profanity and gratuitously immoderate violence.  Even the selection of poisonous snakes as codenames raises potential problems of association with past usage.

Luana Walters in Shadow of Chinatown, Boris Karloff in Mr Wong in Chinatown
Despite certain misgivings regarding its content, many critics have nevertheless acknowledged the impressive visual staging, spectacle and lush cinematography of “Kill Bill.”  In Visual Intelligence, Ann Marie Seward Barry has proposed recognizing a “New Wave” in action film, termed the “New Violence.”  This seeks to combine special effects and visual aesthetics in ways that make violence both exciting and beautiful.  The marriage of brutality and aesthetically pleasing forms is especially seductive, softening and “normalizing” the impact of the violence and may even imbue it with sensuality.  The resulting perceptual dissonance can be heightened by certain technical features of filmmaking.  In shooting “Pulp Fiction” (1994), for example, Tarantino used extremely slow film stock showing virtually no grain.  This yields an unusually luminous print allowing for depth of field and particular visual beauty.  It may be critically important to reflect on how the technical rendering of a scene can deflect critical analysis of its content and narrative implications.  If the fight scene is “beautifully filmed” does this vitiate its barbarism and possible political import?  It should not, and the striking visual aesthetics of “Kill Bill” also should not distract the viewer from its reading possibilities.
Contemporary theories of spectatorship emphasize reading strategies rather than constructed meanings.  “Kill Bill” may certainly have been directed and produced as a visually beguiling homage to “grindhouse” cinema, but that does not limit the permissible reading strategies.  Technically sophisticated, it fails to deliver improvements to the key narratives of Asian action cinema and ultimately loses their threads.  More troubling, the film also opens the possibility for readings consistent with historical animosities and stereotypes.  It is not necessary to argue whether these were intentionally woven into the narrative.  Such reading strategies can readily be adopted whenever the narrative fails to avoid continuity with certain charged historical themes.  Conventions of narrative and cinematic presentation may be sufficient in their evocation of culturally repressed but not forgotten themes of hatred and supremacy.  It bears repeating that identical acts performed exclusively by Asian characters (or exclusively on Caucasian characters) would not raise such questions.  They would be located in a self-contained cultural space, and it seems imprudent to not recognize this explicitly.

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All written material copyrights by T. P. (2003)