Let's talk about Quentin Tarantino as a cinematic tourist.
I always have such mixed feelings about Tarantino. On one hand, he’s infuriatingly prideful, self-congratulatory, and dismissive—often belligerently unwilling to interrogate his own assumptions or the limitations of his perspective, particularly as a straight white male filmmaker whose films use the oppression of the marginalized as a backdrop for over-the-top revenge fantasies (for obvious examples, see Inglourious Basterds and Django Unchained). But on the other hand, I find his films fascinating, entertaining, and intoxicating—not to mention, at times, surprisingly thoughtful or even transcendentally beautiful. All of this is perhaps especially true of Kill Bill.
It is tempting to interpret these moments of surprising thoughtfulness or transcendent beauty as intentional, subversive critiques: perhaps they're Tarantino’s way of pushing back against racism, sexism, or nationalism. And the ways in which Tarantino maneuvers race, gender, and nationality are often attributed to this sort of radical fervor. However, such a reading “depends upon a faith in the director’s progressive intentions,” and this faith, as Ruby C. Tapia argues, may be misplaced: perhaps Tarantino’s obsession with remixing the pop culture of other artists, eras, and nationalities has less to do with “critique” and more to do with “overzealous[ly]” mashing together “everything he loves to consume,” and “insert[ing] himself [within these discourses] as a white male cinephile." I’d argue that both of these readings are right: there’s a sense in which Kill Bill is a love letter to Asian cinema, but there’s also a sense in which Kill Bill is a manifesto of dominance over Asian cinema, an invasive and presumptuous declaration: "I belong here," the film insists. "I have merit."
To explore this complicated dynamic between reverence and exploitative subjugation, let’s dive into one scene from Vol. 1 in particular: the one in which The Bride (Uma Thurman), a.k.a. Beatrix or “Black Mamba,” arrives in Okinawa.
She shows up—smiling, dressed in a casual white t-shirt with a backpack slung over one shoulder—and the camera frames her between the distinctly Japanese door frame of a fish-and-sake bar, which Tarantino’s script parenthetically describes as “the definition [of] cozy.” She greets the sushi chef (Sonny Chiba), an affable and chatty fellow who takes one look at her and asks if she’s English.
“Almost,” she replies: “American.” Right off the bat, national identity is established as a defining aspect of these two people’s characteristics and of their relation to each other.
A quick note: we must remember that Tarantino himself identifies with The Bride; she is his avatar. Bill’s “sadistic/masochistic” line in the film’s murderous black-and-white cold open is associated with the on-screen text of Tarantino’s name, thus implying that Tarantino feels The Bride’s pain; The Bride is indeed Uma’s body imbued with Quentin’s personality.
So, back to the bar. We see The Bride playing the part of an unassuming tourist, pretending to be wide-eyed and giggly, but despite her facade, we know her to be quite savvy (Thurman’s performance here is notably convincing; we almost fall for the charade). Is this how Tarantino imagines himself—as a secret master, masquerading as a mere fan? As whiteness entering the “home turf” of other cultures and nationalities, declaring it as his own?
The conversation shifts to language. “Do you know Japanese?” The Bride has come physically closer now, and we’re looking at her from the chef’s point of view as she approaches—the camera watches over his shoulder as she gets a little more comfortable, taking off her bag and asking to sit at the bar.
They chat a bit about words she’s learned. The shots get tighter as the characters start to [ostensibly] understand each other more intimately. Their conversation is interrupted occasionally as the chef shouts loudly to someone offscreen: it’s his assistant (Kenji Ohba), who lazily argues about whether he should have to get the tea. Throughout all of this, The Bride smiles quietly and sits patiently at the bar. She never asks what they’re fighting about. She never indicates that she knows what they’re saying. She is gracious when the chef apologizes to her for his outbursts and when he bemoans his assistant’s indolence.
Again, this is Tarantino positioning himself as a polite, quiet guest in the presence of those who have come before and who have built the foundations on which he stands. The patient respect we see in the Bride here may indicate that Tarantino doesn’t want to be an obviously rude guest and that he has great respect for the masters whose culture he’s appropriated. But on the other hand, the servant/customer relationship between the chef and The Bride seems to imply that Tarantino believes Japanese settings, traditions, and expertise exist to enrich, entertain, and accommodate him. After all, he deliberately casts Sonny Chiba (somewhat of a legend, known for roles in films like The Street Fighter, Shogun’s Samurai, and Hiroshima Death Match) in a subservient role—literally serving sushi and sake to The Bride.
Now, admittedly, “servant/customer” is a bit of a reductive way to describe the roles enacted by these two characters here. The relationship they play out feels like a lot of things: it is the cat-and-mouse game of a mildly flirtatious host and a somewhat playful tourist; it is the banter of an accommodating older man and an attractive younger woman; and it is, for brief moments at least, the dynamic of an enthusiastic teacher and an eager student (as he quizzes her on her Japanese vocabulary and corrects her pronunciation).
But after about four minutes, the scene suddenly changes. The chef asks, what brings you to Okinawa? Thurman’s performance as The Bride (who had herself been performing as a tourist) becomes gradually, subtly more solemn and direct: her arms are crossed and the delivery of her responses is calm, rhythmic, almost steely—in direct contrast with the casual, still-playful curiosity of the chef trying to be a good host. “I came to see a man,” she says.
The enthusiasm in the chef’s response is slightly exaggerated—as has been most of his enthusiasm for the past few minutes—but he’s still genuinely friendly and affable as he slices his next roll of sushi. You have a friend in Okinawa? “Not quite.” Not a friend? “I’ve never met him.” Who is he? May I ask? The Bride looks directly at the chef, and enunciates each syllable of her answer with deliberate precision: “Hattori Hanzo.”
Aural cues indicate that the tone has shifted: especially notable is the sudden silence replacing the chef’s chopping noises (indicating that he’d frozen in shock upon hearing Hanzo’s name) and a sound of someone dropping/shattering a glass off-screen. The chef looks up and there’s a shot/reverse-shot of the two acknowledging each other. There’s a bit of trepidation and respect in Chiba’s performance here. His character sees now that this is not some silly girl. If this person truly knows of Hanzo, then they must be formidable, dangerous, and important.
Tarantino’s implicit argument here seems clear: even though I look like I should only be a guest in the world of Asian cinema, he is saying, I truly know things; thus, I am formidable, dangerous, and important.
“I need Japanese steel,” says The Bride. I need to make a Japanese film. “I have vermin to kill.” I have a story to tell.
As The Bride’s invasive charade is narratively justified by the legitimacy of her quest, so Tarantino seems to believe his invasive homage is artistically justified by the legitimacy of his talent. After all, The Bride’s hit-list is populated by genuinely terrifying, evil targets—and Tarantino’s story is told with genuinely skillful, bombastic cinema.
In other words: Tarantino sees himself as uniquely qualified to appropriate Asian culture, not just because he loves it, but because he believes it will, in time, love him back. Because he’s good at it. He believes himself to be a modern master, and if given the right equipment and context—that is, if he were to “immerse [him]self,” as he says, “in that style of filmmaking” (source: Leon Hunt's "Asiaphilia, Asianisation and the Gatekeeper Auteur")—he believes he can beat Hong Kong action and samurai epics at their own game. This is evidenced by the way in which The Bride—again, his avatar—ultimately beats her Asian enemies at their own game. She convinces the chef (who turns out to have been Hanzo all along) to make her a weapon, despite the fact that he’d sworn a sacred oath not to make instruments of death anymore. She outsmarts, outmaneuvers, and dismembers dozens of Asian mobsters at the “House of Blue Leaves.” And, eventually, she slices the scalp off the top of O-Ren Ishii (Lucy Liu)’s head in a wintery showdown reminiscent of Lady Snowblood.
Mixed in with its reverence for its Asian characters (and for the stars chosen to portray them), the film contains hints of white supremacy. Much like how, mixed in with its reverence for female empowerment and the strength of motherhood, it contains hints of rape fantasy.
This is to say, Kill Bill isn’t just a meticulously crafted, thrillingly poetic homage to Asian cinema (though it is that); in a way, it’s also a bloody, destructive statement of dominance over Asian cinema.