Everyone loves a hero, but we worship a good villain. Strong women come in all shapes, sizes, and flavors, and sometimes that means looking up to a character who has no interest in being your role model. All this month, we're presenting Not Your Shero, a series that celebrates antiheroes, villains, and all the women way too busy wreaking havoc to save you.
Let’s talk about Bill. Kill Bill.
This year marks the 15th anniversary of Quentin Tarantino’s martial arts saga. When it landed in theaters back in 2003, the film was revolutionary. It cherry-picked its way through the best genres, delivering intricate and exaggerated fight sequences, and featured a female protagonist who roared, rampaged, and revenged her way through two films, hell-bent on collecting her justice in blood spilled.
Beatrix Kiddo (Uma Thurman) aka Black Mamba may have been the heroine of Kill Bill, a woman wronged by those she trusted, but watching the film 15 years later, it's clear there’s another member of the Deadly Viper Assassination Squad that we’ve been sleeping on for far too long: O-Ren Ishii.
To understand how O-Ren became an anti-heroine rather than a clear-cut villain, we have to go back to the beginning.
When Tarantino presented his masterpiece to audiences years ago, the concept of an “unlikable woman,” especially in a villainous role, was cut and dry. We’re talking Sahara Desert dry. Women were rarely given layered, complicated roles to fill, especially in action films. Sure, we were treated to a look into Kiddo’s past, into the beatings and murders that contributed to her quest for revenge, but Tarantino used those flashbacks to position us in the corner of his female lead. We were supposed to root for Beatrix, this poor (white) woman who had been betrayed and left for dead by people she loved for no explicable reason. It was easier and a hell of a lot more fun to watch Thurman slice up members of The Crazy 88, knife housewives in their kitchens, and literally break hearts when we believed her to be the one who had been abused, mistreated, f*cked over.
And she was. Beatrix Kiddo earned every limb she severed, every beating heart she tore from a man’s chest, every red strike through her kill list, but while Thurman’s arc felt predictably clear, and while her participation in an organization that employed murderers for hire was never more than a blip in her backstory, it’s the winding, morally questionable, deliberately-chosen path of O-Ren Ishii, the Queen of the Tokyo Underworld, that’s truly interesting.
Whether intended or not (and let’s be honest, Tarantino probably didn’t intend for any female character to elevate herself above his own interests), Lucy Liu’s Yakuza crime boss transcended the cookie-cutter version of “villain” that the film tried to mold her into. In fact, as a grown woman watching the film 15 years later, it’s O-Ren — her struggle, her past, and her eventual downfall — who seems more relatable. Beatrix may have been filling that Roaring Rampage of Revenge trope, but O-Ren wasn’t the evil Ice Queen she was supposed to be. Instead, she was the anti-heroine we just didn’t deserve.
Tarantino’s first Kill Bill installment deals almost entirely in O-Ren’s backstory. After Beatrix Kiddo emerges from her coma with plans to kick a** and take heads, it’s O-Ren, a young woman who transformed herself from an outcast orphan to the leader of a feared and powerful crime syndicate, that’s the easiest head to locate. We get a glimpse of Beatrix enacting revenge upon Vernita Green (Vivica A. Fox), another member of the Viper Squad, but their fight is short, bloody, and brutal. Vernita pleads for her life, using the excuse of motherhood as a way to worm sympathy from Beatrix before ultimately revealing her lack of remorse for attempting to murder her colleague all those years ago with a cereal box and a handgun. If the viewer felt any sympathy for Green, her daughter, and the life she had tried to create following the massacre at Two Pines, it vanished in a cloud of Kaboom marshmallow dust.
O-Ren’s arc felt different. Unlike the other assassins, Tarantino devoted time to fleshing out his “villain’s” backstory. Born to a father who served in the United States Marine Corps and a mother who was a housewife, O-Ren fought against her mixed Chinese-Japanese-American ancestry her entire life. When she was 9, her parents were brutally murdered as she lay quietly beneath her bed. At age 11, she disemboweled the man responsible for their deaths. By 20, she had become one of the most feared assassins in the world. It was a path O-Ren chose, partly because of circumstance but mostly because of her violent past at the hands of morally corrupt men inspired her to earn power over them. It’s telling that the Yakuza clans are what O-Ren hoped to rule over once her time with Bill was done. Perhaps she intended to right wrongs, maybe she just longed to take back the power that was stolen from her. We never truly find out, because Tarantino is more interested in painting her as an unyielding, unsympathetic villain and dabbling in worrisome tropes about Japanese culture (the Inscrutable Oriental trope) and Asian women (the Dragon Lady).
What we do witness is O-Ren’s life after the massacre at the chapel, how even at the pinnacle of her power, with an army of samurai henchmen and the Yazuka clans bowing before her, she still must prove her worth, as a woman and a woman of mixed heritage, to men who’ve been born into the life she spent years carving her way into. She leaves the Vipers with Bill’s blessing, and presumably his financial support, but it’s O-Ren who must do the hard work of lording over the vice in her city. She hasn’t retired to a strip club, become a housewife, or become Bill’s backup girlfriend — she’s accepted the darker parts of her nature and her business and embraced them. It’s what makes her eventual showdown with Beatrix so interesting.
When Kiddo finds O-Ren dining with her mob squad the two are positioned at opposite ends of parallel arcs. O-Ren began as a woman whose life was stolen from her, intent on revenge. When she meets Beatrix again, she has become the evil she fought against as a child, a crime boss who slaughtered an entire family. It’s a tragic sort of mirroring, but as they clash steel in the snow, O-Ren seems to realize where she’s ended up. She battles Beatrix with a measure of respect none of the other Vipers afforded her — sure, Elle, Bud, and Vernita spoke about regret and praised her abilities, but their actions didn’t reflect their words — and both women seem to project regret at their current circumstances. Beatrix shows remorse at killing O-Ren, while O-Ren apologizes for ridiculing and underestimating her, actions she’s been on the receiving end of her entire life. It’s a tangible change from Kiddo’s subsequent fights. For Beatrix, O-Ren’s death meant more than just a run-of-the-mill vanquishing of her enemies. For O-Ren, her final fight recalled memories of her beginnings and allowed her to accept the mistakes she made — chiefly, the mistake of attempting to murder her old friend.
O-Ren is not a perfect character, and she leans more evil than good, but she’s able to face the consequences of her actions in a way that none of her peers could. Even Beatrix doesn’t confront the horrors of her own past in the same way – sure, she’s the hero of this story but let’s not forget she used to murder people for a living, not because her upbringing introduced her to that life but because she fell in love with a bad man. O-Ren deserved better than she got — in life and in Tarantino’s film — but it’s about time we stop labeling her something so simplistic and boring as just “villain.” She was a woman, doing the best with what she had, making bad decisions, grabbing for the power of men, living unapologetically on her terms, and staring down her mistakes with a quiet sort of acceptance and humility. O-Ren Ishii wasn’t a hero, she wasn’t a villain; she was just the kind of female character we weren’t used to seeing on screen, the anti-heroine we didn’t deserve.