Breaking Stereotypes in Kill Bill Vol. 1

Kill Bill is a two part series of films written and directed by Quentin Tarantino. The first volume came out in 2003, and was quickly followed by the second volume in 2004. These films were met with critical and popular acclaim, and are now regarded as cult classics and some of Tarantino’s best works. The films tell the tale of Beatrix Kiddo, a.k.a. “The Bride” (Uma Thurman), who belonged to a group of assassins known as “The Deadly Viper Assassination Squad,” headed by the eponymous Bill. The films follow Beatrix’s journey for revenge after the squad betrays her, and she individually seeks out each member of the group and kills them gruesomely. The films are hyper-violent and excessive, but also resulted in many people praising the genius of the film style.

One of Beatrix’s main opponents is a woman named O-Ren Ishii (played by Lucy Lui). O-Ren, years later when the group disbanded, became the head of the Japanese Yakuza and a gang known as the “Crazy 88.” O-Ren is, according to the backstory, a half Japanese, half Chinese American (her father was in the army). Beatrix kills her in Kill Bill Vol. 1, so this is the film I will be discussing, although I will reference the second film occasionally.

Asian culture surrounding the story line of O-Ren Ishii and her death play a prominant role in the film. For one, it takes place in Japan, as that is where O-Ren lives. Beatrix travels to Japan to kill her, and so the film obviously depicts the Japanese culture. But the most important thing that the film does is this: it sets up a stereotype, either about Asian, or women, or both, and then breaks them both in plot/character description, and then in technical aspects.

Before getting into how the film does this, I should lay out a brief segment of background research relating to this topic. Celina Parrenas Shimizu, in her book titled The Hypersexuality of Race: Performing Asian/American Women on Screen and Scene, notes something important about the depiction of women and sexuality on screen. Shimizu says this in regards to sexuality on screen: “Fantasies are individual and group idealizations and projections of desire… If we understand hypersexual representations by articulation of fantasies, they present enabling new freedoms and new subjectivities, especially in redefining the tradition of hypersexuality for Asian/American women… hypersexuality is defined primarily through Hollywood and other institutions as well as white male fantasies of Asian women in pornography.” Essentially, Shimizu is saying that society has certain ideas and expectations of how Asian women are depicted on screen, created by fantasy. Tarantino, in Kill Bill Vol. 1, turns many of these expectations, or stereotypes, on their heads.

The technical aspects are easier to spot. One of the primary ways that films objectify women is a specific, and fairly common, camera shot, and that is the slow, close-up, pan up the body. In so many films, the camera moves up the bodies of woman characters, highlighting body features or an outfit that shows a lot of skin. This is noticeably absent in this film. Instead, there are close-up shots of faces, or medium shots of bodies, but never panning like the gaze of a man. Most of the scenes with both of the women are fight scenes, so there is little room for that anyways, but the shots that introduce O-Ren are not objectifying shots. In fact, the first shot of O-Ren is an extreme close-up on her face, her looking straight into the camera. The costumes, too, are less objectifying than other films. O-Ren is completely covered in a kimono, and other females in her gang are wearing suits. The one exception to this is O-Ren’s bodyguard, Gogo Yubari, who is dressed like a Japanese schoolgirl, which can be seen as a male fantasy and media stereotype. But the character of Gogo is actually not a weak, submissive school girl, but a slightly mentally insane, hyper-aggressive and hyper-violent killer (and, in defense of the film, she actually is probably a school girl because she is only 17 years old). There’s even a scene in which a man comes onto Gogo, and instead of submitting, Gogo stabs him in the genital region and kills him. So she is a powerful character, more powerful than the mass of nameless, faceless men employed in O-Ren’s army.

In terms of plot and character development, there is a lot to work with. First of all, all the powerful characters in the film (except Bill), are women. This is definitely not a film that puts women aside as weak characters; in fact, it celebrates strength in women. O-Ren is the head of the entire Yakuza, and commands respect despite the fact that she is a woman and the role has traditionally belonged to a man. There is actually a scene in which she cuts off the head of one of the leaders of the factions of the Yakuza when he questioned her authority because she was a woman and only half Japanese (and American). Without hesitation, she beheads him, and displays her power to the other, much older, men. O-Ren is a strong character that is respected and feared, and she is not really sexualized at all. None of the main women characters are hypersexualized in a movie that could play into male fantasy (attractive women and lots of violence).

This is why this film is important; it contains potential for hypersexualization or fantasy, but instead turns that on its head by portraying strong female characters and, for O-Ren Ishii in particular, not playing into the Dragon Lady or Lotus Blossom, but rather creating a whole, real character with backstory. And while there are still many problems with the film, it is a step in the right direction of portraying women in film, and particularly Asian women.

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