Loving Theft

Quentin Tarantino

There is no disputing the fact that filmmaker Quentin Tarantino fills his films with references to other movies and works of art. It is a defining characteristic of his work, and one he gladly acknowledges.

"Great artists steal, they don't do homages." - QT

Whether it is low-budget grindhouse, exploitation, B-films, or auteur cinema, Quentin steals from the best and smoothly synthesizes what he absorbs to create new films with his own unique vision and entirely inimitable style.

"As I watch movies I make some version of it in my head that isn't quite what I'm seeing - taking the things I like and mixing them with stuff I've never seen before." - QT

Seijun Suzuki

Seijun Suzuki was a contract Japanese filmmaker, responsible for directing over 40 films over 12 years. With a stripped-down, fast-paced approach to filmmaking he explored the gangster and samurai films, coming to define many genre tropes from the relative obscurity of his B-films.

"Why make a movie about something one understands completely? I make movies about things I do not understand, but wish to." - SS

As the title of this piece suggests, I would like to focus on the similarities between one of Tarantino's films from his middle period, Kill Bill Volume One, and the film Tokyo Drifter (1966) by Seijun Suzuki. There are certainly overlaps with other works in Tarantino's filmography, as well as notable similarities on the soundtrack, but I will limit discussion purely to the visual and color language of the two directors.

Career overview

Seijun Suzuki wished to distinguish himself from his Japanese contemporaries in the film industry, namely Yasujirō Ozu, whose films were typically set in ordinary Japanese family homes, something Suzuki seemed to think of as boring. In one of his rare interviews he expressed a desire to give his actors sets that would inspire them to inhabit their characters and spark their imaginations.

"My set has to give my actors motivation, something that's different from their lives." - SS

This trait has also become an integral component in Tarantino's work. The set and art design for Kill Bill are certainly of a much higher budget than Tokyo Drifter - or indeed any film by Suzuki - and this eliminates a need to make the most of bare bone set design and symbolic lighting choices.

Those very budget constraints forced Suzuki to make bold, subtle choices with regards to lighting, set construction, and locations. His desire to exert an artistic vision beyond the bounds of his studio would eventually cost Suzuki his contract with the Nikkatsu Film Company and get him blacklisted from all Japanese film for ten years.

It is interesting to note that while Suzuki ostensibly took his contract with Nikkatsu out of a desire to be paid better than with his previous company, he consistently worked to maintain a level of control over his pictures that was not in line with his career's successes. He never achieved the kind of critical or box office success of his contemporaries, even as his films were often purposely crippled by studio heads, but he developed a cult following among famous filmmakers in the decades following his time with Nikkatsu.

While Quentin Tarantino has not been nearly as prolific as Suzuki in his three decades of filmmaking, he has been no less imaginative in constructing his film world - enjoying critical and public acclaim for almost each and every one of his uniquely stylized, highly violent films.

Color & meaning

In Tokyo Drifter, Suzuki limits the colors of his film's settings and uses distinct lighting choices to affect moods.

Chiharu sings a romantic song about her "boyfriend" Phoenix Tetsu. As the song reaches its climax, red light bathes the decorative object hanging in the background.

The rise and fall of the red light doubly conveys the danger of the situation that is quickly defused by the cool headed Tetsu.

The final enemy dies and the set glows with white light. The red light drops off the sculpture
Phoenix Tetsu holds Chiharu after defeating their enemies, and the sculpture is now lit in yellow.

Suzuki does not employ these flat, descriptive lighting schemes for every scene, but when he does, he imbues them with strong moods and characterizations.

Tetsu retreats to a sanctuary bathed in green, representing hope for a new life. The Yakuza bosses confer over the fate of Tetsu in a violet room, representing their collective wealth and privilege. Gangsters taunt Chiharu over Tetsu's presumed murder as she sings in the yellow nightclub, symbolizing her courage and beauty. Chiharu is forced to sing for the Yakuza boss intent on making her fall for him. She and the piano are the only bits of white in the dark room, with the sculpture above her head lit in blood red, symbolizing the imminent danger.

Since Tarantino had an enormous budget at his disposal, it likely never occurred to him to stylize his shots so starkly as Suzuki did, but his uses of color are no less descriptive of character and setting.

Many times he is ironic with his color choices, as when he puts a deadly assassin in a vintage, white, starched nurse's uniform. Or when the Yakuza boss, O-Ren Ishi, dresses in formal black attire with her fellow Yakuza bosses and in white when dining with her own henchmen.

BLACK & White

Both filmmakers utilize color and black & white stock in their films. Suzuki during the prologue as Phoenix Tetsu is introduced (with a brief moment of color) along with his Yakuza rivals.

Rival gang-members escort Phoenix Tetsu. (Notice the similarity to Reservoir Dogs, in costume and framing.)

The rival Yakuza gang leader describes Phoenix Tetsu's abilities with intercuts of a short action gunplay sequence in color.

Tetsu is beaten by the gangsters like a rag doll.

The frame is tilted and the scene is colored (albeit desaturated), but the actors' blocking and framing in this animated sequence from Kill Bill and that of Phoenix Tetsu's beating above are nearly identical.

After suffering his humiliating abuse at the hands of the rival gang, Tetsu stumbles through the train yard and comes across a broken toy gun - stark red surrounded by black and white.

Tarantino uses black & white when the violence in the film is especially bloody. This could be seen as an effort to maintain an R rating from the MPAA, but it also makes a strong statement. As this is a tale of revenge, the violence can be seen in binary, black & white, good & bad terms.

Moments before Bill shoots The Bride in the head, setting the plot in motion.
A green monochrome filter is the subjective POV of Sheriff Earl McGraw.
During the battle with the Crazy 88's, the Bride plucks out an enemy's eye, which initiates the black & white portion of the battle and the Bride wreaks bloody havoc on all who challenge her. The battle winds down to the final dozen combatants and color returns to the scene with the blink of her eyes.

copy cat

There are numerous instances where Tarantino borrows compositions and settings straight from Tokyo Drifter, but he colors those scenes and his characters with entirely different palettes.

(L) Dancers unaware of the dead body beneath their feet. (R) Dancers flee the advancing Bride.
(L) Phoenix Tetsu sings his theme song as he walks through the snow. (R) O-Ren Ishi prepares to battle with the Bride.
Both films wait to reveal their villain in full until later in the story.
Another case of similar setting & framing, with varied color schemes to emphasize character traits. (L) Chiharu & Tetsu in cheery yellow. (R) Gogo is about to murder a nameless man in the pink bar.
(L) Tetsu has been tracked down. (R) The Bride battles Gogo

I'm sure I don't have to supply an example of the many scenes of bloody the violence in Kill Bill, but here is a comparable sequence from Tokyo Drifter.

historical context

It's important to note each respective film and their place in the timeline of film history. Tokyo Drifter arrived at a time when the French New Wave was changing the entire language of cinema by discarding many of its formal rules in favor of high-energy, low-budget revolts against Hollywood filmmaking.

Despite the popularity of the style, this would mark one of many times Nikkatsu would become angry with a director choosing to work in a style they did not fully understand or appreciate. They ordered reshoots of the final scene, unable to comprehend what Suzuki had filmed to follow the climactic action sequence.

Kill Bill Volume One was released six years after Jackie Brown, and it represented a turning point for Tarantino. It retains all of his hallmarks of mashing genres and styles with dialogue-driven, non-linear plotting and extreme violence, set to an incredible soundtrack. It also heralds the beginnings of his inclusion of more idiosyncratic elements, with no particular importance to plot or story, all in an effort to emulate the style of the genres and time periods he is so lovingly copying.

(L) Nikkatsu - Tokyo Drifter (R) Shaw Brothers Studio - Kill Bill Volume One


Suzuki's film acted as a commentary against the staid and what he presumed to be boring films of his contemporaries. Their films that aimed to be taken seriously but he felt they had no momentum. Suzuki wanted to make films that moved his actors as well as the audience.

It seems more than fitting that Tarantino should borrow elements from a film that was itself borrowing elements from the emerging styles of its decade, a style that is clearly another major influence on Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction.

But while Suzuki was punished for his attempt to expand Japan's cultural cinematic language by subverting the genres he had practiced and honed for years, Tarantino is handsomely rewarded for his work as he continues to create ever grander, more elaborate copies of his favorite artworks with each successive film.

Ultimately Tarantino is creating "original" works, with their references worn lovingly and without any desire to be hidden. The plot of Kill Bill is not the plot of Tokyo Drifter, and yet it bears the mark of men who love their art form.

I don't believe Tarantino wishes to be these other directors. He can only be Tarantino. I think he wants to acknowledge the fact that we are all products of the art, culture, and life we let in, so why not just put all those influences right out in the foreground?

He fills his movies with the works of those who came before.

And I think Suzuki would dig his stuff.

"I write movies about mavericks, about people who break rules, and I don't like movies about people who are pulverized for being mavericks." - SS
Created By
john rowland


photos from Tokyo Drifter - Nikkatsu Corporation ||| photos from Kill Bill Volume One - Miramax

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