I’ll be honest—even as someone immersed in film culture and film grammar, I’m always astounded at the encyclopedic knowledge Quentin Tarantino has about the little-seen movies on the fringes, past and present, and how he grafts the themes and visual gestures of these hidden cinematic gems on to his latest releases. These older genre movies that he’s inspired by and borrowing from often have a notable visual language, such as the stoic long-shots found in Italian spaghetti westerns, which we can see replicated today in Tarantino’s films.
When a new Tarantino movie is released, Tarantino usually gives a set of oral and written interviews during his press tour, and at last the time comes when I can glimpse into the recesses of Tarantino’s creative mind and make note of the number of name-dropped films that he’s allegedly paying homage to. What I can conclude is that Tarantino’s movies are the mathematical equivalent of combining dozens upon dozens of different elements from overseas genre-flicks, assembling films all his own, which he then introduces to American audiences, who are unaware of these influences. His works become a series of cinematic collages, unique in vision and cumulative effect.
One of the things that I never subscribed to was the notion that Quentin Tarantino cribs his ideas from other filmmakers and isn’t transparent about it. I’ve heard that Reservoir Dogs’s plot may have borrowed too many of its story-beats from the Hong Kong film City on Fire, but as someone who doesn’t subscribe to the sentiment that, say, a drum breakbeat from a jazz record being sampled on a hip-hop track qualifies as artistic theft, what I see is Tarantino paying homage to, rather than stealing from, the great films that inspired him.
This is why I found great joy in coming across Lady Snowblood, a film that inspired one of Quentin’s most popular and beloved films, and had me soon rethinking Quentin’s creative process. I’m sure that other publications have taken an academic lens to connecting the tissue between these two films, so for the sake of this piece, I am going to give my general impression of how this particular samurai movie inspired Tarantino’s Kill Bill, as well as what visual and storytelling elements he remixes.
The 1973 Japanese revenge-action-thriller Lady Snowblood is the template for Tarantino’s very own revenge-action-thriller saga Kill Bill, two films separated by 30 years. The comparisons are more direct than what I had originally imagined, but they’re not enough for me to render a judgement that Quentin was plagiarizing this early 70’s samurai movie.
Both Kill Bill and Lady Snowblood are journey stories around the theme of female protagonists reaping cosmic justice, avenging the death of someone very close to them. Lady Snowblood centers on a young female assassin, Yuri, seeking revenge against three seedy individuals who were involved in the killing of her father and the rape of her mother. These acts of brutality occurred before Yuri was born, but Yuri’s mother, before giving birth to Yuri and before subsequently dying from complications from the delivery, performed one last incantation for Yuri to be infused with the spirit of an asura, a kind of demon, so she would someday seek revenge against the three assailants. In Kill Bill, on the other hand, Uma Thurman’s Beatrice Kiddo tracks down the remaining members of the Deadly Viper Assassination Squad, who placed a hit on her despite the fact that she’s a former member. Tarantino’s film displays deference by amplifying the stylized cohesive violence Lady Snowblood employs, then adds just enough Western genre elements into the mix to dilute the reverence.
Similarities don’t just end with plot construction, but also abound in the style of Tarantino’s camerawork. The POV shot of Kiddo lying on the floor of the church while nearly bleeding to death is remarkably similar to the image of Yuri’s mother staring at her assailants while physically incapacitated on the ground. Both create this almost panoramic view of four villains staring as a group down towards their victim, with a close-up of their heads (a demented take on Mt. Rushmore). There is this comic-book element of needing to squeeze several character’s faces into one panel, and what is remarkable is how sensationalized and fetishized the faces of Yuri’s mother’s assassins become in the movie frame. There is absolutely no room for subtlety, yet Tarantino’s replication of this moment does the impossible: it annihilates what minutia of subtlety remained in the Lady Snowblood version. Seeing Daryl Hannah’s character with an eye-patch, leering over Beatrice Kiddo, for example, is laughable and also gleefully exaggerates the best parts of Lady Snowblood.
The similarities continue. Yuri has a martial-arts trainer who develops Yuri’s sword and fighting abilities at a young age at a monastery. In Kill Bill Vol. 2, Tarantino replicates the same scenario when Kiddo is trained by a monastery warden named Pai Mei, whose specialty is sword-fighting. Both women are treated with little mercy by their trainers, and they experience the same level of absurdity in their training techniques: Yuri must survive a hundred-foot roll down a hill inside a barrel, and Kiddo must perform a series of punches against a wall, with the stipulation that she must not draw her arm back. For a millisecond, I thought, perhaps, that Tarantino was guilty of being unoriginal because the similarities are too close—with this idea of Pai Mei as an unsavory simulacrum of the Lady Snowblood trainer—but that notion disappeared when I considered how absurd the trainer in Lady Snowblood is to begin with. Yuri is being trained by a blind kung-fu master with unorthodox training techniques—it’s not that difficult to forgive Tarantino for imbuing Pai Mei with some of the same attributes as Yuri’s trainer. It may very well be that Yuri’s trainer was a rococo version of early, less exaggerated trainers in samurai films, and therefore, Pai Mei would be a photocopy of a photocopy.
All of this is to say that Tarantino’s Kill Bill Vol. 1 & 2 is a spiritual scion of Lady Snowblood. Though the films have striking similarities, each has its own artistic vision. Seeing Lady Snowblood and making these associations with Tarantino’s vision gives me the same giddiness I get when I spot a rock riff being sampled in a hip-hop track—admiration at seeing great artists influence further great art.