Nobody, and I mean nobody, has demonstrated an ability to manipulate popular culture better than Quentin Tarantino. The pop-culture reference is a staple of modern entertainment. Television shows like The Simpsons take delight in finding ways to work a dozen clever references into each episode, and lesser shows like Family Guy owe their existence to pop culture cutaways. Two of the writers of Scary Movie (2000) have even managed to build an entire franchise of execrable films that consist of nothing but references to other films and stories. Tarantino is no stranger to this technique; his films are full of references and homages, even though they are often too obscure to be recognized by the average viewer. What truly sets Tarantino apart from the hordes of hacks who appropriate images and stories from other sources in order to stimulate an audience’s collective memory is that he has an unparalleled ability to weave these references (quotes, songs, even biblical verses) together in unique ways so that they instantly emerge as new memes in popular culture.
In the opening moments of Reservoir Dogs (1992), Tarantino uses the familiar voice of comedian Steven Wright to introduce the George Baker Selection’s “Little Green Bag,” and uses the song to introduce his actors as they walk along a brick-lined alley in slow motion. Despite its simplicity, the resulting scene became a landmark in film and spawned countless homages in the following years. More often than not, the important moments in Tarantino’s films tend to benefit greatly from the music he chooses to accompany them. The memorable scenes in Reservoir Dogs wouldn’t have been nearly as powerful without the inclusion of songs from “K-Billy’s Super Sounds of the Seventies.” The scenes in Pulp Fiction (1994) where Uma Thurman’s character, Mia, is introduced and later when she accidentally overdoses are absolutely inseparable from the music that accompanies them (Dusty Springfield’s “Son of a Preacher Man” for the former and Urge Overkill’s cover of Neil Diamond’s “Girl, You’ll Be a Woman Soon” for the latter). And the scene in Kill Bill: Vol. 1 (2003) that shows the arrival of O-Ren Ishii and the Crazy 88’s to the House of Blue Leaves took a relatively obscure song by Japanese guitarist Tomoyasu Hotei and catapulted it into the American public consciousness literally overnight.
The Film: Kill Bill: Vol. 1
The Song: “Battle Without Honor or Humanity”
The Artist: Tomoyasu Hotei
Who’s Who: Tarantino famously began his career as a video store clerk in Manhattan Beach while he developed scripts for True Romance (1993) and Natural Born Killers (1994). After the critical acclaim and modest financial returns of Reservoir Dogs, he wrote and directed the box-office and pop-culture behemoth Pulp Fiction. His films often serve as a showcase for things that he personally likes, and the massive success of Pulp Fiction afforded him the creative freedom to demonstrate his affinity for blaxploitation films (Jackie Brown) and blood-spattered B-movies (From Dusk ‘Til Dawn and Grindhouse). In Kill Bill, he indulged his love of Chinese martial arts films (Wuxia), Japanese period pieces (Jidaigeki), Italian horror movies (Giallo), and Spaghetti Westerns.
Uma Thurman, a Tarantino favorite who helped him develop the story for Kill Bill during the filming of Pulp Fiction, inhabits the role of Beatrix Kiddo, a.k.a. “the Bride,” a woman whose singular quest for revenge is fueled by what she believes to be the murder of her unborn daughter. Lucy Liu is O-Ren Ishii, a former partner of the Bride’s from the Deadly Viper Assassination Squad and the current leader of the Tokyo Yakuza. Chiaki Kuriyama, in a role that has provided terrific fodder for Halloween costumes ever since, is O-Ren’s primary bodyguard Gogo Yubari. And the remainder of O-Ren’s entourage is made up of Johnny Mo and the Crazy 88’s (who chose the name because it “sounded cool”), and included a characteristic cameo by Tarantino himself.
Like most Japanese celebrities, guitarist and actor Tomoyasu Hotei enjoys astounding fame in Japan but remains effectively unheard of in the United States. At an unusually tall 6’3″, he is one of the most recognizable figures in the Japanese music industry, and has sold over 25 million albums during a career that has spanned nearly thirty years. He has also played several roles in Japanese films and as well as television advertisements. “Battle Without Honor or Humanity” was originally used in the Japanese film Another Battle (2000) before it was claimed for use in Kill Bill. Since its appearance in Tarantino’s film, the Hotei’s potent instrumental piece has been used countless times in both homages to Kill Bill and otherwise, most visibly during Bumblebee’s makeover in Michael Bay’s Transformers (2007) and in the trailers for the recently released Kung Fu Panda (2008).
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Why It Works: In a way, this scene is an updated version Tarantino’s original slow-motion “hero walk” in Reservoir Dogs. It’s edited differently, but it still carries the same essence as his original story of a diamond heist gone wrong. Quite simply, we’re being presented with a gang of bad motherfuckers. The scene even includes the familiar images of black suits, white shirts, and black ties, and features exactly six hired henchmen with masked identities. The slow burn of Beatrix’s glare through the visor of her motorcycle sets a certain level of emotional tension, and the interspersed establishing shots, close-ups of both faces and feet, and blending of slow-motion, normal speed, and synchronized cuts is a triumphant combination of images and sound. Even O-Ren’s coy gaze as she flirts with the camera is fun to watch.
What Goes Wrong: The fawning behavior of the restaurant owners is far too exaggerated, even for a film that deliberately oversteps at points.
Other Stuff: I can’t find any information on the actual restaurant where the showdown scene was filmed, though I think it would be a fun place to visit. It’s most likely located somewhere in Tokyo, one of the several locations where Kill Bill was filmed, including Beijing, Los Angeles, and Mexico.