Based on a graphic novel entitled Lone Wolf and Cub, six Japanese films about a samurai assassin and former shogun executioner were released in the early 1970s. The executioner, Ogami Itto, and his infant son Daigoro wander about feudal Nippon beating off attacks from ninja warriors with a katana and a lethally equipped bamboo pram - the Edo equivalent of Bond's Aston Martin DB7. Now something of a cult, these films, collectively known as the "Baby Cart series" - of which the best is probably Baby Cart at the River Styx (1972) - were condemned as video nasties in 1983 and have only recently been released on DVD.
Quentin Tarantino has never made much of a secret of his fondness for Japanese comics and cinema. In Pulp Fiction (1994), Bruce Willis chooses a samurai sword to despatch two sadistic male rapists. And in his first screenplay, True Romance (1993), Tarantino's screen alter ego Clarence Worley (Christian Slater) meets his future wife at a kung fu triple feature starring Sonny Chiba.
Filmed in Beijing, and starring, among others, Sonny Chiba, Kill Bill, which is Tarantino's fourth film as a director, owes everything to those old Baby Cart movies; indeed, you might say, even more than that. The film's graphic style for sure, but the story too, except that this movie is set in modern times, and stars not a male assassin, but a female one, known only as The Bride, played by Uma Thurman. Like Ogami Itto, The Bride, who also has a young child, is betrayed by her former employer, who tries to kill her. When after four years in a coma, The Bride wakes up, she's in no mood to forgive and forget. Arming herself with the sharpest knife in the box, she goes in search of revenge.
What follows is about 105 minutes of relentless slashing, stabbing, hacking, cleaving, chopping, riving, quartering and carving. Indeed, I doubt that Roget's Thesaurus contains sufficient synonyms for the verb "to cut" to cover all the injuries from sharp instruments that Thurman inflicts on her many hapless, and consequentially limbless, victims. You might even be tempted to think that the director has shares in Japanese steel, such is his obvious devotion to its acute and adamantine merits. Heads, arms, legs, feet, lips, even scalps are hacked off by Thurman, who wears a fetching yellow jumpsuit, a grim expression and a light sheen of sweat. She wields a katana with apparent expertise, gracefully, and with plenty of top spin.
Sometimes a little breathless, but steady-eyed and determined, Thurman put me in mind of Steffi Graf and the way she would play long and gruelling baseline rallies until her opponents were worn out - I know I was. I longed for some of the trademark monologues and blackly comic dialogue for which Tarantino is justly famous. But there was none of that. There was just blood and more blood, so that by the end of part one (we are promised part two early next year) I was beginning to feel a little like Macbeth when he says: "I am in blood/Stepp'd in so far that, should I wade no more,/Returning were as tedious as go o'er . . ."
Ordinarily, I don't mind a bit of arterial hiss in a movie - that's the sound blood makes when a limb is hacked off your body. I think there's even a haiku about how a carotid artery that is about to rupture following an expertly delivered sword stroke sounds like the wailing of a cold wintry wind. No doubt this loses something in translation. As you will have gathered, like Tarantino I'm something of a fan of those old Baby Cart movies.
But I'm not a fan of Tarantino's movie. In the hands of Misumi Kenji, a shogun assassin achieved a certain gravitas and dignity, and somehow even the most brutal sequences had an integrity not possessed by any of Tarantino's characters, who are so thinly realised that they are hardly worthy of the name. Thurman's character could only properly be called a character if we were to see what kind of effect multiple slaying had on her as a person. As it is, she exhibits only two emotions: cross and really cross.
Out of its Japanese Edo context, and accompanied by the sort of music Tarantino doubtless finds ironic or amusing (such as the theme from Ironside, and Cher's Seventies hit "Bang Bang"), his action sequences end up looking merely indecorous. Stupid critics will doubtless praise Tarantino for including a manga cartoon sequence in which a little girl witnesses the brutal slaying of her parents, without pausing to consider that as live action it would hardly have passed the censor. The one positive thing I can say in this disappointing film's favour is that it is nowhere near as crass and tasteless as Bad Boys II.
Kill Bill (18) is on general release