Once upon a time in the ’80s and ’90s, a person could work in something called a video store. These were brick and mortar businesses full of VHS tapes, Betamax, laserdisc, DVD, HD-DVD and, briefly, Blu-ray, containing the collected works of film history. Or more likely, 35 copies of The Fast and the Furious and a dusty video cassette of Hard Target. These were places you could work after school, shelving endless copies of the newest releases, and watch some cool flicks for free.
Or, as Quentin Tarantino did, you could use it as free education, a master’s degree in watching movies, hoping that someday someone would let you pour your knowledge into a film of your own.
All of Tarantino’s output has been a mishmash of his obsessions and film history osmosis, but it was the two-part kung-fu epic Kill Bill, a stylish, technicolor, genre-bending opus, that finally let him open up the throttle on his film lore engine and let it rip. It’s a veritable Pop Up Video of film references, the long historical tendrils of which stretch around the globe and go back decades. The influences are in two parts, broadly speaking; Asian and European and American.
European and American Cinematic Influences
The films of Europe and America that Tarantino mines for his Kung Fu revenge story are wide-ranging, for sure, but they’re also somewhat convoluted in influence. What seems like a direct inspiration from a European film, for example, actually goes back much further.
The Spaghetti Westerns of Sergio Leone are of course a huge influence on Kill Bill. The double exposure shots of the Bride (Uma Thurman) walking away from her grave and Michael Madsen’s Budd sitting outside his trailer, the overhead shots of the Bride creeping up around Elle Driver in Bud’s trailer, and the wide-open shots of Texas in the black and white flashbacks all call back to Leone’s best known films, and Tarantino also uses frequent Leone collaborator Ennio Morricone on the soundtrack.
The interesting thing is when one starts to inspect the influences of the Leone films Tarantino references most, the Dollars Trilogy. All three of those films take their inspiration from Akira Kurosawa‘s Yojimbo, the story of a lone samurai coming to the aid of a village against a band of marauders. In this and many other influences, the trail of films that inspired Kill Bill circles back to Asian cinema more often than not.
The Bride Wore Black, the 1968 Francois Truffaut film about a bride out for revenge on the five men who killed her husband on her wedding day, recalls a tendency in Asian cinema of the 1950s to front-face capable women in strong roles when Western films had yet to arrive at this point.
Even in the many blaxploitation films that Tarantino calls back to we find flares of samurai cinema. From Shaft In Africa to the early films of Pam Grier, such as Foxy Brown, lone-wolf style revenge is in large supply, and the non-diegetic musical cues and grandiosely stylized costume design all draw influence from the samurai cinema of the ’50s and ’60s and the kabuki theatre that preceded it.
Asian Cinematic Influences
Western filmmakers reusing plot elements from Asian films is nothing new, and by the time Tarantino got around to starting his career, some of the most high profile American and European films of all time had already been homages or remakes of Asian films of note. George Lucas, Martin Scorsese, and Sergio Leone owe part of their biggest successes to Asian cinema, to name a few. But while these directors remade or repurposed plots from Japanese or Chinese films and laid them over new templates, Tarantino takes a different approach entirely in Kill Bill.
Rather than just lifting plot elements or characters, Tarantino also uses Kill Bill as a continuation of the stories of characters from films and television past, covertly and overtly. Both volumes of Kill Bill contain the set-ups and introductions of a half dozen characters and plot points that are directly poached from classics of the kung-fu, Jidaigeki, or wuxia genres, as well as Japanese and Chinese crime cinema and episodic television.
The Deadly Viper Assassination squad that the Bride hunts down echoes the protagonists of the Shaw Brothers kung fu classic The Five Deadly Venoms, right down to their venomous codenames. Sonny Chiba‘s legendary swordsmith Hattori Hanzō somewhat reprises a role he played in the Japanese TV series The Shadow Warriors, which ran for four seasons in the early ’80s and mostly followed the different generations of the Hanzō family (Tarantino has said Kill Bill‘s sword maker is Hattori Hanzō XIV).
Other Shaw Brothers classics are referenced throughout Kill Bill‘s many grandiose fight scenes, including The 36th Chamber of the Shaolin and the wuxia classic One-Armed Swordsman, the over-the-top bloodletting and sword fighting of which is echoed in The House Of Blue Leaves fight sequence featuring The Crazy 88, and the “crash zoom” made famous by the studio is also used extensively.
Stylistically, both volumes of Kill Bill draw design and aesthetic inspiration from two classics from Japanese director Seijun Suzuki: Tokyo Drifter and Branded To Kill. The first movie offers the technicolor, jazzy, cartoonish vibes of the first installment, including the use of go-go music and club scenes with violent, epic fights. The latter offers the stark, high-contrast black and white that the second film utilizes so well in flashbacks to the Bride’s wedding day, and both contain a fair amount of the anarchic, surrealist world-building that makes Kill Bill seem to exist in its own self-styled universe.
The film Tarantino poaches from the most, however, is probably the 1973 Toshiya Fujita revenge thriller Lady Snowblood. The story of a young assassin who hunts down the criminals who raped her mother and killed her father and brother echoes the plot of Kill Bill. The film even uses illustrated interstitial storyboards for sequences that would have been too expensive to produce, much like Tarantino’s inclusion of the Production IG animated sequence describing Oren-Ishii’s childhood.
The final battle between Oren and the Bride in the garden of the House Of Blue Leaves, with Oren in a white kimono, surrounded by lightly falling snow that is eventually sprayed with bright red blood, serves as a visual tribute to the Fujita thriller. And the Lady Snowblood theme song, “The Flower Of Carnage,” is featured prominently, sung by Lady Snowblood herself, Meiko Kaji.
Tracing the spider’s web of influence Tarantino uses on any given film could fill a medieval tapestry, but Kill Bill may be his most overt and widest-ranging homage, especially to the Japanese and Chinese cinema that he has taken inspiration from since his beginnings. Although his later films have all contained a wide range of influences and inspiration drawn from film history, Kill Bill is his most personal love letter to the many movies of revenge he consumed during his video store days, a period of time that probably resonates most with the director.