3) The Bride vs O-Ren Ishii
- The Bride aka etc etc. Looking pretty tore up and bloody (much of it not hers) after finishing her symphony of death, but still ready for one last movement. Played by Uma Thurman.
- Armed with: The Hattori Hanzo blade that just mowed down the entire Crazy 88.
- O-Ren Ishii aka Cottonmouth. The daughter of a Japanese mother and a Chinese-American soldier, O-Ren (whose origin we see extensively, in a gruesome anime flashback) was orphaned by yakuza violence at a young age, only to take revenge on her parents’ killer at age 11 (!), gradually becoming the deadliest assassin in the world and a member of the Deadly Viper Assassination Squad. During the Bride’s coma, O-Ren became the queen of the Japanese underworld, thanks in part to Bill’s backing.
- Armed with: A hilt-less katana. Probably not a Hanzo sword– she expresses hostile jealousy and disbelief when the Bride claims that her own is– but still very impressive.
The Setup: After dispatching the army that stood in her way, the Bride follows O-Ren Ishii to an outdoor garden that bizarrely adjoins the House of Blue Leaves– on the second floor, no less. It’s unlikely, though not impossible, that an expensive restaurant in the middle of Tokyo would have such a beautifully picturesque slice of nature in its backyard, but it’s safe to assume that this battle site was chosen by Tarantino as a conscious flight of fancy. Again, despite the movie’s gritty realism, it’s also established that it sometimes operates by a sort of crazy dream logic, so characters can have their showdown in the Japanese equivalent of a Thomas Kinkade painting if they darn well please.
There’s some opening dialogue, but nothing as significant as the discussion between Beatrix and Vernita. O-Ren acts oddly detached and actively refuses to be impressed by the Bride’s superhuman accomplishments. Calmly telling the Bride “swords however, never get tired. I hope you saved your energy. If you haven’t, you may not last five minutes,” Ishii seems to espouse some sort of coldly utilitarian view of people; I imagine that helps, in her line of work. The Bride, like anyone else, is just a weapon, useful only until she breaks.
As the yakuza boss unsheathes her own sword, an extended & highly Latinized cover of “Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood” begins to play, the lengthy instrumental passage serving as an excellent build-up to the showdown.
The Fight: Much more measured, deliberate and classy than what we just came from.
Unlike all the faceless mooks the Bride just destroyed, Cottonmouth is every bit the Bride’s equal, and has been at this since she was a child. The two opponents take careful consideration before every clash of blades, and the result is close to what we saw in the climactic Rob Roy fight: a series of short but furious exchanges.
O-Ren starts out using sword & scabbard simultaneously, but after a few passes the Bride’s deadly Hanzo steel slices right through the latter, leading her to casually discard it. But before Kiddo can get too cocky, the next exchange ends with Ishii’s katana landing a painful strike on her upper back, dropping her to the ground as her blood leaks into the snow. The music stops, and from here on the only sounds to be heard are the occasional sword strikes, bits of a dialogue and, most prominently, the persistent thumping of a shishi odoshi.
O-Ren takes the opportunity to get in some possibly uncharacteristic and definitely uncalled-for catty barbs, telling the Bride that she’s a “silly Caucasian girl” who “likes to play with samurai swords.” Look, I know she’s trying to dishearten her opponent and she’s a cold-blooded killer besides, but O-Ren just watched the Bride pull off some next-level Jedi stuff; the trash talk rings hollow. And paradoxically, Ishii gives her a modicum of passive-aggressive respect with her follow-up: “You might not be able to fight like a samurai, but you can at least die like a samurai,” and waits as the Bride recovers.
And recover she does: slowly, but with unmistakeable grit. A slash like that would send pretty much anybody running to the nurse’s office even if they hadn’t just spent the last hour kicking all the ass in Japan, but the Bride is nothing if not determined. That determination is what drove her to survive what should have been a fatal head shot, what woke her out of her coma, what willed sensation back into her atrophied limbs one toe at a time, what allowed her to triumph against an army, and what will eventually allow her to make her final and most tragic decision. Heck, it’s probably what made Bill fall in love with her. Beatrix Kiddo is defined by her willpower, by her actions and by her choices. Unlike the supposed girl power saga of the The Hunger Games, whose agency-denied protagonist actually makes the story a misogynist fairy tale, the Bride is a doer. And what she does is get revenge, at any cost.
Resuming the fight, it’s the Bride’s turn to show up O-Ren, ducking a mid-level strike to land a decent slice at her old friend’s leg. We see the blood on her pretty white kimono (and the snow), and she’s limping. Realizing that this won’t be so easy as she thought, Ishii apologizes for her previous rudeness, which the Bride accepts before renewing the fight.
But it’s already over. At the end of the next lightning-fast exchange, one swing from the Hanzo sword lops off the top of O-Ren Ishii’s skull. The audience is treated to the holy-crap-am-I-really-seeing-this visual of the poor lady’s hair & scalp sailing quietly through the air, before the camera returns to her face and slowly pans up to show her exposed brain. O-Ren takes a moment to marvel at the feel of Hattori Hanzo steel, then slumps to the ground dead. Charlie’s angel has gone to hell.
The Bride limps over to a nearby bench and collapses as a melancholy Japanese song plays. She’s not just exhausted but visibly upset; it’s unknown if she’s sad because of lingering personal affection for O-Ren, or if she’s just overwhelmed with emotion over having just killed two soccer teams’ worth of people. Speaking of which: tired or no, she really ought to be booking it out of there, before somebody sees the mess inside and calls in the national guard.
Together, this fight and the previous one make up the chapter called “Showdown at the House of Blue Leaves,” and though I’ve split the thing into two portions’ for sanity’s sake, in a way this duel is the climax to the battle that began with Gogo and the Crazy 88. Or at the very least, O-Ren is the end-of-stage boss and they were the entire level.
So it is an interesting, and indeed admirable choice that Tarantino made to tone things down once the Bride enters the garden, rather than trying to top it. It’s as stately as the last fight was chaotic. Minus the amusingly gruesome bit at the end, of course; that might be a bit of a misstep depending on how tonally jarring you find it. Also there’s no duel as formal as this one in either volume, so it’s a nice change of pace. The Bride’s showdown ends with a climax that is more emotional than kinetic, a technique Tarantino would take to an even greater extreme for the Bride’s eventual meeting with Bill at the end of Volume 2.
Coming Attractions: I call that bold talk, from a one-eyed blonde woman.