The International Writers Magazine: Film Space

Snow and Blood
Lady Snowblood and Kill Bill: An Honourable Homage or Raging Rip Off?
Rosie Burbidge

What cleanses this world of decay is not pure white snow…but snow that is stained fiery red: the snow of the netherworlds’ (Fujita). This early line in Lady Snowblood: Blizzard of the Netherworld rapidly lets the audience establish that this cinematic experience is not going to be an easy ride. Everybody knows the routine of these ‘chambara’ Japanese films by this point: samurai swords, copious amounts of blood and gore, all tales of revenge and retribution. Even the Lady Snowblood films encompass all of these generic stereotypes, but, unlike other films of its kind, they somewhat unexplainably offered much more to audiences, creating a popular revenge saga that became one of the most iconic Japanese films of the 1970s. It appears that Quentin Tarantino noticed.

Blizzard of the Netherworlds.
Tarantino is somewhat notorious for ‘borrowing’ scenes from his favourite films and inserting them into his own. All of his films appear to be honouring one film or another. Reservoir Dogs is essentially an American adaptation of Hong Kong’s Lung fu fong wan (City on fire), with elements of John Carpenter’s Assault on Precinct 13. Jackie Brown is a homage to the American Blaxploitation films of the 1970’s, many of which starred Pam Grier, the protagonist in Jackie Brown. However, with regards to the Kill Bill films, could this homage to Japanese revenge films be construed as going too far?

Toshiya Fujita was a lesser-known Japanese director, and in his later life, actor. It would be safe to say that the Lady Snowblood films, which were adapted from popular Japanese manga graphic novels, are his most well known, but their extreme popularity seems to overshadow his other work. His films were of the 1970s exploitation genre, which consisted of ‘gaudy, sensational and hugely entertaining films unleashed by the major studios in an attempt to lure an increasingly disinterested audience back into the theaters were a breeding ground for some truly audacious and inventive filmmaking’ (Mes, Midnight Eye). Unfortunately, Fujita died in 1997, unable to see his films become successful again, and unable to know that an extremely popular Hollywood movie homages his own, and is in fact dedicated to him and his work as a director (which is of course Kill Bill)

The incessant similarities between the Fujita’s Lady Snowblood films and Tarantino’s Kill Bill films are impossible to ignore when almost everything from the non-linear narrative to the character’s revenge plots are alike. Both films have beautiful female assassins as their protagonist, seeking revenge on the people that have crossed them (or in Lady Snowblood’s case, the avenging of the rape and inadvertent death of her mother). However, both characters are more than just vicious killers, evoking sympathetic attitudes from the audience and therefore creating a more three dimensional aspect to the protagonists. Similar personalities are also established between the two characters as they use their beauty, charm and wit to further themselves in their journey to full revenge.

With regards to the plot of the films, other than the obvious revenge pact that both women adhere to, there are many similarities. Both are seeking revenge of groups of people who have harmed their families. Lady Snowblood is searching for the group of bandits who murdered her father and brother and raped her mother. She tracks them down one by one, killing them. Whereas The Bride in Kill Bill seeks revenge on the assassins who attempted to kill her at her own wedding, putting her in a coma for four years and supposedly killing her unborn child. The two groups of killers are extremely similar, although the Japanese group consists mainly of men, and the American group of more women. The final man Lady Snowblood seeks to kill could be considered to be the original ‘Bill’, as he is the hardest and most cunning to track down. There is however, no real relationship between the two characters, unlike Bill and The Bride in the Kill Bill films.

Of course, there has to be ideas left open for a sequel and in both Lady Snowblood and Kill Bill, daughters of two murdered villans are left and appear less than forgiving about the death of their parents. Will they seek revenge on The Bride/Lady Snowblood? Well, it certainly didn’t take place in the second Lady Snowblood but considering that Kill Bill Vol. 1 and 2 are technically two parts of the same film, there is always a chance that Vernita Green’s daughter will seek revenge for her mothers death and hunt down The Bride and her daughter in another brutal and entertaining instalment. This idea is however, just a footnote in the similarities between the films.

As previously mentioned, both films use a non-linear narrative, aided by flashbacks to convey to the audience why exactly these women are on these murderous rampages. Many Japanese films tend to have somewhat complicated narrative structures, demanding full attention of an audience for it to be completely understood. Tarantino also applies this function to his films, such as the confused order of his popular film Pulp Fiction. The styles of filmmaking used in both sets of films are also comparable, due to the ‘ultra-wide, ultra-vivid, high-action whip-pans and snap-zooms’ (Rucka, Midight Eye) used repeatedly in both. Granted, the filming in Kill Bill looks more striking, but it must be taken into consideration that Lady Snowblood was made over thirty years before Tarantino’s adaptation. The gory effects of blood splatter and limb loss are almost identical in both films. However, in Lady Snowblood the effects match the style of filmmaking and content of the film, whereas in the first Kill Bill this particular homage to this genre of film is humorous and tongue in cheek while still being particularly gruesome.

Another device used within both films are having the narrative split into titled chapters. Lady Snowblood’s being ‘Vengeance binds love and hate’, ‘Crying Bamboo Dolls of the Netherworlds’, ‘Umbrella of blood, heart of strewn flowers’, and ‘The house of joy, the final hell’. Kill Bill Vol. One uses the same style in the names of the chapters, such as ‘The Blood Splattered Bride’ and ‘Showdown at House of Blue Leaves’. Tarantino has even ‘borrowed’ certain fighting environments from Lady Snowblood such as the snow-covered garden when The Bride/Beatrix Kiddo is fighting Japanese crime leader O-Ren Ishii.
Even the theme song of Lady Snowblood, ‘Flowers of Carnage’ sung by Lady Snowblood herself, Meiko Kaji, is used in the climactic ending scene in Kill Bill Vol. 1 after the dramatic battle with O-Ren.

This relentless intertextuality between the two films proceeds to make Kill Bill seem like a contemporary remake of an old film. One of the biggest differences between the two films, however, is the political and historical aspect of Lady Snowblood that is not at all present Kill Bill (although in all fairness, as mentioned previously, this is a contemporary adaptation). Lady Snowblood: Blizzard of the Netherworlds portrays Japan in the year Meji 6 at the beginning of a new Empire of militarization, dealing with the injustice and corruptness of this new Japan. This political stance is developed further in the second Lady Snowblood film, Love Song of Vengence, as Lady Snowblood is involved in political discourse between the secret police and the anarchist movement. So, evidentially, there are a few features of the Lady Snowblood films that Tarantino leaves untouched, but this is most likely due to the fact that the politics of 19th Century Japan would not have been conceivable to crossover into a contemporary American film. So, one of the main questions that needs to be raised is why is it that Tarantino would rather mould a narrative out of a mixture of already made films, than create his own original story?

Well, because, in essence, that is what he has always done and what he likes to do. He makes his own films out of parts of everybody else’s. He calls this method a ‘duck press of all the grind house cinema’ (Tarantino, The Guardian) in other words - an emulsification of films and genres that he loves, all evolved into one creation of his own. Does he do this because he is a film fan and wants to prove his cinematic knowledge as homages to other films? Is he a fan of Japanese film and culture and used Kill Bill as a way to introduce people to these iconic films? Or does he just prey on unknown films to steal ideas to adapt as his own? I find the latter of these questions slightly unfounded, due to Tarantino’s honesty in regards to his influences and his ‘pinching’ of certain plots and ideas. It cannot be denied, however, that since the release of the Kill Bill films, Japanese chambara/exploitation/revenge films have become increasingly popular once again; with Lady Snowblood being at the top of the list -which surely can only be seen as good thing?

The West has unquestionably become fascinated with certain aspects of culture in Japan, such as Hello Kitty, Japanese fashion and even a rising popularity of growing bamboo. The Japanese, in somewhat of an exchange, have developed a fondness for films and music from the West. Although for a long time, Japanese and Asian films were considered out of the mainstream -cult and underground in Western countries, they are now becoming more and more accessible and popular.

In fact, it is becoming more and more common that Japanese and other Asian films are getting remade in Hollywood. This is mostly true with the popular ‘J-Horror’ genre of Japan, and has resulted in many remakes of films such as The Grudge, The Ring and Dark Water. This new Hollywood obsession for remaking foreign films should do wonders for attracting viewers to the original films – much like Kill Bill Volume 1 and 2 did for Lady Snowblood and other Japanese exploitation films of the1970s.

So, when discussing Kill Bill, it could easily be interpreted as a blatant rip off of Lady Snowblood, as well as many other similar styled films. Tarantino could be seen as using someone else’s talents and stories to create a successful career for himself. His work could be viewed, to those who are unfamiliar with such films as Lady Snowblood, completely original and innovative. Ironically, it is through his constant ‘ripping off’ of other films that do make his films completely innovative, as he is one of the first directors to make films in such a way. It is obvious, through interviews and watching his films, how incredibly passionate Tarantino is about these films that he borrows from. It is through his passion and extreme interest in a diverse range of films that I believe allows him to create such a homage in Kill Bill of what is clearly one of his favourite films.

© Rosie Burbridge June 2006
Rosie is a recent graduate from the University of Portsmouth

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