killbillposterKill Bill volume one was release in 2003. The film, both volumes, is a love letter to samurai and western films and the relationship the two genres share. Tarantino also calls it a love letter to the colour blonde–to the Bride, Uma Thurman’s hair and the figure she casts in that Bruce Lee inspired yellow and black tracksuit. There is perhaps only one character who comes close to matching the Bride’s loving treatment by Tarantino, and that’s Lucy Liu’s O-Ren Ishii. Like the Bride, O-Ren is framed as a mythic figure–her backstory is the shared during the film’s only animated segment– and she is frequently shot from below, gazing down on her domain. Unlike the Bride, however, she has a colder and much more complete mastery of scene and character, controlling not just her private army, the Crazy 88, but even leading the Bride in their final fight.

When O-Ren assumes control of the Tokyo Yakuza, she hosts a party for all the bosses who have become her captains. After one of them protests, she cuts off his head. This scene and her speech within it are unique in the film. No other member of the Deadly Viper Assassination Squad has a life and motivations so completely unrelated to the Bride; no other character has so much screen time and even moments of triumph.

Today, we’re going to talk about how this scene, perhaps the height of O-Ren’s power works, what influenced its contraction, and what influence it had on us and other viewers.

When did you first see Kill Bill Vol. 1 and 2? What was your initial reaction to film and to Lucy Liu’s assassin turned crime boss, O-Ren Ishii?

Rosie Knight: When I went to see Kill Bill Vol. 1 at the cinema, I was really into film at that point, and so was already very tired of Tarantino, though I was heavily into Japanese cinema at the time (and still am now). So I was very interested to see what he was going to rip off … I mean homage. O-Ren Ishii, GoGo Yubari, and Vivica Fox’s brief appearance as Vernita Green were saving graces for me in what was otherwise a really problematic mess of stolen scenes from better films.

Megan Purdy: I saw it in the theatre with a group of friends who were all incredibly hype for it. We got together again for Vol 2. At the time I loved it to death and even had posters for both films on my walls.

Clara Mae: The film came out when I was thirteen, and the violence of it scared the bejeezus out of me. I don’t think I watched the entire thing without hiding behind my hands until I was a senior in high school.

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This scene shows us an ascendant O-Ren after she’s left killing for hire behind and climbed to the top of the Yakuza. The dinner has a ceremonial cast; it’s a crowning. Yet, one of her captains confronts her, saying that her being a woman and being half-Chinese makes her unsuitable as a leader. It’s a great excuse for O-Ren to cut off his head, but what do you think of the construction of the scene and its placement in the film? And what do you think of the Bride’s narration of it?

Rosie: This scene is an interesting one for me. I love the placement of O-Ren as a powerful woman defining her space in a male dominated world and literally collecting heads if people question her, but I hate the Bride’s narration. Tarantino’s desperation to put as many racial slurs in a script as possible is something I’ve always despised and the bride’s unnecessary description of O-Ren as a “Half-Breed” in this scene is a perfect example.

Megan: O-Ren’s animated vignette, this scene, and the fight at the House of Blue Leaves left me wondering why O-Ren wasn’t the protagonist. I like the Bride’s arc generally, in the sense of her hunting down Bill and his accomplices, but the way it’s built on the backs of these very interesting and so briefly drawn women of colour, O-Ren and Vernita, sours that. The Bride’s narration here, takes away from, rather than adds to the scene. I just want O-Ren in her own words. What would this story and scene look like if her point of view was prioritized? It’s a beautifully constructed scene and it, along with the scenes set in the House of Blue Leaves, give O-Ren a kind of gravity, which the film moving around her presence. She is the centre of every scene she’s in. And yet, Tarantino undermines it with racism and sexism that gives O-Ren an excuse to put them down, but that he also clearly takes too much delight in. In last year’s The Hateful Eight, Tarantino included the n-word over 60 times, as a kind of baby-provocateur response to criticisms of his use of the word in Django Unchained. So much of Kill Bill has that same feel to it, a having fun with institutional oppression.

Paige Sammartino: O-Ren fascinates me as a character, and a whole movie could have chronicled her career as a prodigious assassin and her rise to power in the Yakuza. In many ways, I don’t think O-Ren’s story needs a narrator at all; the Bride’s voice-over feels more like an attempt to remind the audience that she’s the protagonist. It’s especially jarring during the animated sequence that covers O-Ren’s past, because I don’t believe that O-Ren would share personal details about those experiences with the Bride, so then what authority does the Bride have to tell it? With regards to the scene itself, I was always curious about the fact that O-Ren is biracial and was born on a military base, because beyond this moment, it seems to have little relevance to her role in the narrative. These details feel like missed opportunities to discuss O-Ren’s not only overcoming gender bias but racial bias and the contrast between her being born on a military base and becoming a Yakuza boss.

Clara: This scene and O-Ren’s animated segment were actually the only scenes I watched shortly after the film came out, because my friends and I loved Liu, and they told me the film featured her being a kickass Asian boss. I still love the scene, but I probably loved it more when I was a teen and barely knew who Tarantino was (and thus didn’t have any reason to doubt him). I agree with everyone here that the Bride’s narration really feels unnecessary. And I don’t like how O-Ren says “I’m going to speak in English so you know I’m serious.” How does that convey that she’s being serious? Even when we were kids we knew that was silly, and showed that O-Ren’s writer was clearly some white American dude who thinks that “speaking English” suddenly legitimizes what an Asian is saying. But I do have to admit I like that the Japanese gangster called O-Ren a “half breed.” I’m half Filipina, and I kid you not, I get called “half breed” and “hybrid” all the time when I get introduced to other Filipinx (especially at Asian grocery stores?? Why??). My mom would always comfort me that they meant it as a compliment, but the word always made me feel like a dirty mutt. So watching O-Ren snap and take that guy’s head off over the term was empowering for me, to be quite honest.

Animated O-Ren

Animated O-Ren

Let’s talk about how the scene is designed: The placement of bodies, the sequence of events, the layout of the room. How effective is it in conveying, well, power? What else does it consciously or unconsciously do?

Rosie: Aesthetically, I do enjoy the scene; I find that one of Tarantino’s strengths is conveying themes through visuals and mise en scene. Having O-Ren at the head of the table is a clear statement of power, and everything in the scene is set up to draw your eye to O-Ren; the lights on the table, the flames at either side of her, the huge dragon tapestry that hangs behind her seat. These all centre O-Ren in the darkened room, even with all these other people around her. It’s O-Ren that you see. The comfort with which she jumps onto this huge, ceremonial table, in front of all these serious, suited men and runs along it demonstrates how unwaveringly confident and sure of herself and her position she truly is. If there’s one thing I don’t question in this scene it’s O-Ren Ishii’s power.

Paige: Lucy Liu’s costume, hair, and makeup were the standout strengths of the scene’s construction to me. O-Ren doesn’t dress like a man, and in fact wears a traditional, ladylike kimono; her hair is fashioned into a polished updo. Because O-Ren embraces her femininity, every person in that room knows that the leader sitting at the head of their table is a woman. Kimonos are also rather restrictive clothing, so when she gets up on the table, darts forward, and beheads her critic without any difficulty, it really sends home the message that O-Ren is in control and that her power is not limited just because she’s wearing a dress.

Megan: One last thing I’d like to point out about the framing is that O-Ren is a woman in power who surrounds herself with other women. Of course the Crazy 88 are mostly men (and one boy), but O-Ren is always flanked by Sophie and Gogo who are not just her closest lieutenants but reflections of O-Ren herself–two kinds of devils on her shoulders, though neither one leading O-Ren. In this scene, they’re both on her left and provide commentary in form of restrained, smug smiles. Once O-Ren takes Boss Tanaka’s head, she gives a speech that starts out calm, quiet, and above the fray–it’s a whiplash departure from the man’s gory death only seconds ago–but O-Ren doesn’t stay quiet. Her speech climbs from woman-in-a-boys club-conciliatory to a roar. She holds all the power, soft and hard, and as she drops Tanaka’s head to the table, Gogo and Sophie just smile.

Kill Bill Vol. 1 and 2 are famously referential works, elaborate collages of classic martial arts films and Westerns. What influences do you see at work in this scene and what effect has it had on subsequent films?

Rosie: O-Ren Ishii is heavily influenced by Lady Snowblood, the titular character of a classic Japanese female led revenge flick from 1973. A lot of Kill Bill‘s structure and plot devices are also borrowed from that film, except you know with a white woman as the lead. This scene in particular for me draws from a few different places, like the opening of Zatoichi: The Blind Swordsman in which Zatoichi asserts himself among the local Yakuza through hustling them at gambling. The wild blood fountain that cascades upwards out of Boss Tanaka’s neck looks like it could be straight out of Kurosawa’s samurai classic Sanjuro. I feel like it also takes definite general visual influences from scenes out of more classic Yakuza movies like Pale Flower and Tokyo Drifter.

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Their final, snowy confrontation is pure Lady Snowblood.

Obviously Kill Bill Vol. 1 and 2 were directed by a man, Quentin Tarantino, who is often criticized for sexism, racism, and cultural appropriation, even while he’s praised by other critics for having complex roles for women and actors of colour. How does this impact your reading of the film and of this scene?

Rosie: My main problem with Kill Bill being positioned as a feminist film, or The Bride as some kind of feminist anti-heroine is this: The Bride kills three women of colour on her way to “Kill Bill.” She also cuts the arm off a white woman–Lucy Liu’s assistant Fatale–but allows her to go to the hospital to get medical treatment. Tarantino’s habit for using women of colour as props for a white woman’s plot line kills off any sort of positive political message he might have been trying to create with a “Strong Female Protagonist.” Also, Strong Female Protagonists aren’t new or particularly subversive and have been around for decades in genre film making, from the original final girls in ’70s blaxploitation horror, Ripley in Alien, to the lead in Kurosawa’s seminal The Hidden Fortress. Women have been being strong in films for years, and it seems disingenuous to give Tarantino credit for doing what so many others have done better before him.

Megan: I have a complicated relationship with Tarantino. A lot of his films have the kind of flavour profile I look for. I still do like Kill Bill, Jackie Brown, and Death Proof. I loved the experience of seeing Django Unchained in a crowded theatre with an enthusiastic audience. Yet, Tarantino himself, his petulant defenses of absolute “creative freedom,” and his self-indulgence have done so much to sour those films for me. He created an incredible roles for Jamie Foxx in Django and Pam Grier in Jackie. But he can’t take criticism, and he doesn’t progress–in Hateful 8, he invented excuses to use the n-word and the film’s only female character, Daisy Dommergue, is a leering punching bag, a huge step backwards from the Bride, O-Ren, or any of his other heroines. Does he deserve credit for those positive roles in past films, though? I mean, no. Just having some good roles for women doesn’t make him a feminist, much less a beacon of feminist filmmaking.

Clara: As I’ve gotten older it’s been harder for me to praise someone like Tarantino, a white man, for simply including a character like O-Ren, when there’s other female directors of color out there who are doing so much more to center their women of color versus just peering at them through a white lens. O-Ren is a complex character, definitely, but as Rosie said, both her and Gogo are killed by a white woman who embodies the mighty whitey trope by being better than all the Asians she comes across at wielding an Asian fighting style and weapon. Tarantino’s films often feature strong women, but his films are also examples of White Feminismmore often than not. Am I grateful he gave roles and interesting characters to Lucy Liu and Vivica Fox? Sure. But it’s been thirteen years since Kill Bill, and I’m not going to continue holding him up as some sort of gold standard for feminist filmmaking, especially when there’s others out there doing much more and not resorting to falling back on overused tropes.