This past weekend at the reelydopehouse was a quiet one. Mostly because I wasn’t there. Word to Tahoe. However, in time past, I had worked on this piece on a much quieter weekend. A weekend of introspection, videogames, and even some Smirnoff Ice. Smirnoff, while not the king of malt beverages (and not even close to the archduke of cheap six-pack delights) does go well with leftovers. Leftovers, in effect, were the stuff of my life thar weekend: from The LadyKillers to the Kill Bill series, I revisited the cinema of yesterday. While Skyline was basura on a stick, Kill Bill reignited in me a love for one person: O-Ren Ishii.
A member of the Deadly Viper Assassination Squad, O-Ren (played by Lucy Liu) is the most intriguing (and arguably skilled) of the crew. That is, until she is murdered by Uma Thurman’s Beatrix Kiddo in the climactic showdown of Kill Bill Vol I’s conclusion.
So what makes O-Ren intriguing? Well in my opinion, outside of Bill and Beatrix, she is the most 3D character presented in the series. And, as a result, I personally, felt like the series’ greatest insult was killing her off.
Yeah, O-Ren is a villain. And a damn fine one at that. But there’s no way in hell she was bested by Beatrix.
Let me tell you why.
Kill Bill relies heavily on the Impossible White Man trope, the twist being that we’re given an impossible white woman instead. With this hallowed mantle, Beatrix cuts a swath of pure mayhem through several countries and two continents, murdering those who foolishly left her alive. It’s a story we’ve seen before, time and again. But this time it’s supposed to be fresh and new because it’s a woman ya’ll!
You’re telling me that, through the sheer strength of Whiteness™, Beatrix spent 4 YEARS IN A COMA and bested a woman who’s been kicking ass left, right, up, down, and around in the same span of time? All while handily taking over the entire Yakuza syndicate in Tokyo?
O-Ren is eloquent. O-Ren is deadly. O-Ren da baddest.
In a way, considering the beautiful texture to her character’s background, I almost feel as though she was too big a character for this story. Beatrix’s simple storyline, from an assassin-bride to a vengeful mother, pales in comparison. Fight me.
So, let’s get into some real shit.
O-Ren watched as her parents were murdered by a pedophile, who also happened to be Yakuza boss. She waited years to finally have a shot at the crown, and cut that motherfucker up from the rooter to the tooter. At like 12, yo. She then spent years becoming a top assassin, kicking asses and taking names. And, to top it all off: she took over the very organization that employed her family’s murderer. All while brutally establishing her ethnic and racial identity in a world that placed a premium on the perceived purity of one’s race.
In fact, that last one might be the most impressive.
Without making too sweeping a generalization, it’s no secret that there is some historical animosity between those of Chinese and Japanese descent, depending on who you’re talking about. If you don’t know why, use your Friendly Neighborhood Google. However, for this particular conversation, it’s important to note that O-Ren’s entire arc is in a way a violent reclamation of her own racial identity.
As an American-born-by-way-of-military-territory, mixed-race(see: Chinese-Japanese) child, she was immediately the product of American neo-colonialism. In a sense, this makes her very existence in the eyes of the Yakuza, an organization and culture built on perpetuating and observing a (criminally) authentic (see: “pure”) Japanese identity, an abomination. If we take this as plausible, Boss Tanaka’s killing of her parents can be a meta representation of a “pure” solution to the encroachment (Chinese identity) spurred by a foreign entity (the American military) that then birthed O-Ren’s existence.
Inversely, O-Ren’s bloody life of retribution is analogous to reconciling her clashing identities, with the metaphorical and figurative clashes taking on physical and literal manifestations in her person and craft.
I know that’s a lot to swallow. But, in short: O-Ren’s character speaks as much to the narrative as she does to the larger conversation of establishing racial and cultural authenticity as a person of mixed heritage. Thus, O-Ren is not just an assassin or a kick-ass ball of woman power; she’s also a symbol for a greater set of issues that are all too real in many folks’ lives.
Sadly, if we return to the current narrative, O-Ren’s only real flaw is a slight insert that many villains fall to: arrogance. Which, is possibly bred by her own approximation of Beatrix’s lack of practice in the last 4 years. For that, she can be forgiven. For, even in her final moments, she is begrudgingly respectful of Beatrix’s purported commitment to the cold, hard revenge and warrior spirit. This last bit, for me in my well of pettiness, feels like a bit of an allowance on Tarantino’s part. In his quest to invert this revenge narrative, he actually holds even closer to the Great White Warrior trope.
While Beatrix is highly observant of both Japanese custom and martial practice, there’s something not right about O-Ren’s loss. From her uttering the line “silly Caucasian girl who likes to play with samurai swords” to her later loss, O-Ren’s death feels like a humbling that the narrative insists upon. In a way, O-Ren’s death is the catalyst by which Beatrix’s quest is ultimately vindicated. Yes, we’ve seen her fight. But it’s O-Ren’s death at Beatrix’s hands that is the orgasmic climax, of both the film and Beatrix’s bloody road to revenge.
While it pains me to recognize this, it also vindicates my points about how awesome O-Ren is. She is the Big Bad, the Final Boss. Without her, and the challenge she represents, Beatrix’s quest is not the same. So like any good villain, the hero is nothing without them. And, as much as it is Beatrix’s story, Kill Bill Vol. I is nothing without the mystique, history, and badassery of O-Ren Ishii.
Game recognize game.
Thus, while we can only dream of what a Kill Bill prequel with a young O-Ren would look like, we can be content to know that she will always be far more than meets the eye. And, (problematic themes and tropes aside) Kill Bill Vol. I’s greatness is not in spite of her, it’s because of her.
[Note to reader: Watch Lady Snowblood. This 70’s film, and the title character, served as inspiration for O-Ren.]
The Original Homeboy with a Keyboard ™, dap wants to be an enigma, but he’s pretty transparent. A transplant from “Back East,” he found himself in Oakland writing about alla the fun things. He’s in love with the coco(a) (skinned women and butter,) among other things. @dapisdope