Academic journal article Post Script

Promoting Virtue and Punishing Vice: Tarantino's Kill Bill and the Return of Bakumatsu Aesthetics

Academic journal article Post Script

Promoting Virtue and Punishing Vice: Tarantino's Kill Bill and the Return of Bakumatsu Aesthetics

Article excerpt

When Izumo no Okuni began the suggestive dancing that eventually evolved into what is now known as the kabuki theater, she was wearing Portuguese pants, wielding a samurai sword, and dangling a crucifix from her neck. No doubt, her understanding of the native katana was greater than her knowledge of namban attire and Christian symbolism. Yet her acquisition of all three objects was meant to be creatively inappropriate--a way to feign masculinity and inflame desire. The authenticity of her borrowing was probably not an issue for those who watched and saw something attractive in this combination of cultural influences. (1)

Not unlike the seventeenth-century Okuni, the contemporary American film maker Quentin Tarantino (1963-) has made the aggressive appropriation of foreign influences a part of his artistic signature. While Sofia Coppola's Lost in Translation (2003) expresses the gulf that separates American and Japanese cultures, and while Edward Zwik's The Last Samurai (2003) is an attempt to recreate a believable historical narrative about the Meiji Restoration, Tarantino's Kill Bill Volume 1 (2003) boldly imports bits and pieces of Japanese culture as a part of the director's cinematic method and aesthetic. Of these three filmmakers, Tarantino is the most aggressively acquiring. But do his borrowings represent a deep understanding of Japan, an arch superficiality, or something in between?

We might consider the film's animated segment. Created by Production I.G., the studio that brought us Mamoru Oshii's remarkable Ghost in the Shell, (Kokaku kidotai, 1995), this portion of the film begs the question of whether the direct inclusion of foreign elements represents understanding. Is this Japan speaking directly for itself? If so, can the blood-drenched segment be anything but authentic? To be sure, even if we declare one part of a film genuine, this does not necessarily validate the whole. There remains the matter of the director's interpretation and artistic vision, not to mention what the other parts might be. On the other hand, even Tarantino's eclectic and exaggerated methods--his yakusa romanticism, implausible fight scenes, and melodramatic sword fetish--have their own logic and reality. When this amalgamation of multicultural tropes begins to resonate with earlier moments of Japanese expressive life, we begin to wonder about authenticity in a different way.

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Although sometimes accused for not giving credit where credit is due, in the case of Kill Bill Tarantino was open about his influences: the western, the Japanese jidai geki (samurai movie) and ninkyo eiga (gangster movie), and Chinese wuxia (martial arts). (2) Given the nostalgic force of all these sources, it should not be surprising that this combination of cowboy, gangster, samurai, and Chinese martial arts traditions resonates more with Japan as it saw itself some two hundred years ago than with the contemporary scene. In particular, Tarantino's Kill Bill reconstitutes for contemporary American audiences a well-known nineteenth-century Japanese narrative formula called kanzen choaku, or "promote virtue and punish vice." Moralistic and bloody, the popular plays and fictional narratives produced during the final decades of the Tokugawa Regime, otherwise called the bakumatsu period, were often of the kanzen choaku persuasion. Expressing a clear moral formula, they fueled a vibrant popular culture that spoke to a growing sense of crisis.

The bakumatsu era was one of transition and, therefore, a time of great instability. The long, stable reign of the Tokugawa Shogunate was weakening, threatened by natural disasters, crop failures, and the threatening presence of foreign sailors in the surrounding seas. Religious riots occurred, some of them millenarian in thrust, anticipating a cataclysmic renewal of the world (yonaoshi). In the arts, this was a time of virulent expression--of a highly sophisticated society caving in on itself. …

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