Anyone that studies a particular art form long enough will begin to be able to deconstruct the inspirations that make up a particular piece of art. For those that understand all art is a summation of previously created art, this process makes it more enjoyable as the artist’s vision can become clearer. For those that see any form of inspiration as lack of creativity, finding the inspiration behind many seminal works will only disparage the work in their eyes. Recently, I viewed a Japanese film from a few years ago called, Why Don’t You Play in Hell?. The modern day, samurai driven, in your face absurdity merged with tranquil compositions reminded me of Quentin Tarantino’s film, Kill Bill Vol. 1. At times, shots and sequences in Why Don’t You Play in Hell? play out exactly as its ten-year-old predecessor. Yet, to call Why Don’t You Play in Hell? a Tarantino rip-off is absurd, especially considering how much of Kill Bill was influenced by other films in its genre. After finishing the film, I did some more background research on Why Don’t You Play in Hell? and discovered that while many others have connected the film to Tarantino’s style, not only was the script for the film written five years before Kill Bill was released, but it is also in line with the director, Sion Sono’s, other films. With this information, I began to wonder why Kill Bill has received such high praise from audiences and critics and why Why Don’t You Play in Hell? went unnoticed earning only $1 million at the box office. The surface level answer largely has to do with the difference of mainstream appeal with American versus Japanese cinema, but deeper down the answer lies in one of the things that has allowed Tarantino to subvert common film techniques. Because of Tarantino’s understanding of how to make his style work to compliment the story his is trying to tell, he is able to disregard common conventions of filmmaking.
Before seeing how Tarantino and Sono’s films differ in story, it is important to understand where they are similar in style. The average viewer will note that both films climaxes take place in a dojo, contain a teenage girl who is not afraid to kill, and share an affinity for dressing there characters in Bruce Lee’s Game of Death yellow jumpsuit. Alone these similarities can be written off as coincidences, but combined with other elements in terms of style that the films exhibit, it is apparent they are both trying to emulate the great martial art films of Bruce Lee and Sonny Chiba from the 70’s. In both films viewers will find highly choreographed fight scenes with Samurai Swords that are highlighted by unconventional camera techniques, which serve as the film’s main spectacles. While both films borrow from Asian cinema of long ago, they also indulge in elements from modern Japanese gangster films. Integral to the plot of both films, are Yakuza bosses that are loud, irate, and quick to kill anyone that attacks their honor. Once these similarities are tallied, it is understood that the style Tarantino and Sono are not trying to generate a new style from scratch but instead are looking to combine traditional Chinese martial art films with modern Japanese gangster films.
While both films follow the same style, Sono’s approach to story is much different than Tarantino’s, most notably during the climax. For those not familiar with Asian cinema, or Japanese cinema in particular, a lot of the films from this region deal in extremes. What this means is both violence and comedy is absurd and at times cartoonish, while the subject matter can wander into dark tones. With this taken into account before watching Why Don’t You Play in Hell?, the film’s first act is definitely more extreme than what American audiences are use to, but it is not overtly gory. During the first act, instead of using the extreme moments to keep viewers engrossed, more emphasis is put on the story and characters making audiences want to see what is going to happen in the story over the course of the film. As the film progresses, the plot begins to lose its intrigue as some of the characters in the film meander around until certain plot points occur for the story to continue. It is during this stretch that the audience starts to lose its fascination for the story and realize the only thing keeping them engaged is the stylization of the film. When the film starts to reach its climax, what is left of the story goes off the rails and any message it was building towards dies with it. During the climax of the film, instead of tying up lose ends poetically; Sono opts for nonsensical violence, where in several scenes in a row, each of the main characters dies (or in one case runs around the set with a sword severing his brain) in a more shocking way than the last. By having the ending of the film rely so much on its style for entertainment, it does not provide the audience with any satisfaction as the characters they started off caring about slowly are turned into props with a stunted character arc.
In contrast, Tarantino’s film, Kill Bill, prides itself in thematic exploration and only uses style as a means to better tell its story. Much more inline with the martial art films it is trying to replicate, Kill Bill asks the audience questions that pertain to morality and through the duration of the film provides examples of characters that have different attitudes towards revenge. By having the concrete understanding that his film is about revenge, Tarantino is able to edit his story down to the necessities so it does not drag in the second act. This editing allows Tarantino to keep story at the forefront of creative decisions and not to resort to maintaining the audience through spectacle. As a result, once the film reaches its climax the story is still intact and able to tie up any lose ends needed to express its message.
At face value, Kill Bill Vol 1 and Why Don’t You Play in Hell? seem like a perfect double feature as they both pay homage to a similar set of films, yet each encapsulates its audience using different methods. Sono’s film, Why Don’t you Play in Hell?, towards its later half chucks its story to the wayside and instead becomes a series of absurd scenes that the audience watches to see how they could be topped. In comparison, Tarantino’s film, Kill Bill, sets out to make the audience ask questions about their morals towards revenge, and only uses its intense stylization to better convey its message. While Sono’s film contains the same level of spectacle as other American action films that have grossed millions, Kill Bill’s adherence to story is what has allowed it to appeal to both critics and audiences alike.
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