By Olavo Passos de Souza, Doctoral Candidate, Stanford University
Featured image created by Sam Nystrom-Costales
Quentin Tarantino’s revenge two-parter Kill Bill remains a staple of movie culture, regarded by some as the director’s finest work, while at the same time solidifying his “ultra-violent” style genre defying narratives in the public’s mind.1 Divided into two volumes, the story follows former professional assassin Beatrix Kiddo (played by Uma Thurman) on a quest for vengeance against her former mentor and lover, the titular Bill (played by David Carradine). Through her story, viewers become acquainted with the two men who taught Bill most of what he knows in the way of killing: sword maker and (presumed) swordsman Hattori Hanzo (played by Shinichi “Sonny” Chiba), and Kung Fu master Pai Mei (played by Gordon Liu). How do these two characters which, as we’ll see, serve as opposites, hold different values they’re beholden to when it comes to being a teacher?2 And, as a result, how can understanding the values of Hanzo and Pai Mei help us comprehend the concept of pedagogical responsibility?
Professor of mathematical education Ilana Horn gives a definition for the pedagogical responsibility as a teachers’ sense of their obligations, which may include moral, ethical, institutional, legal, instructional, and situational concerns.3 Does a teacher feel responsible primarily to the transmission of knowledge, the proper use of said knowledge, or some other authority? Professor Fani Lauermann and Jean-Louis Berger define it as “a sense of internal obligation and commitment to produce or prevent designated outcomes or that these outcomes should have been produced or prevented.”4 In short, the manner and the content that one transmits to their students can be, in the end, an expression of their own set of ethical beliefs. But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. Let us first take a look at the background of these two standout characters and the role they carry in each movie.
Tarantino’s Hattori Hanzo and Pai Mei are based on historical figures from Japanese and Chinese history respectively, both of whom have been widely portrayed in popular media throughout the twentieth century. The first Hattori Hanzo was a ninja in service to the Tokugawa Shogunate, known for his great martial abilities and profound sense of loyalty to his master, Tokugawa Ieyasu. Following his death, at least twelve of his descendants bore the name Hattori Hanzo.5 Pai Mei (or Bak Mei, which means “white eyebrows”) is the semi-legendary and historically contested Taoist Monk who developed the martial art style of the same name and took part in the massacre of the Shaolin Temple in 1723.6 Pai Mei was portrayed as the antagonist in three of the Shaw Brothers Hong Kong Kung Fu movies in the unofficial “Pai Mei Trilogy,” composed of Executioners of Shaolin (1977), Abbot of Shaolin (1979) and Clan of the White Lotus (1980). The Shaw Brothers, often regarded as pioneers of the Kung Fu movie, had a major role in popularizing the genre in the west, and Tarantino drew inspiration from Hong Kong movies during his early career.7 Hattori Hanzo would also feature in media before Tarantino’s approach to the character, though the character would vary significantly more than that of Pai Mei. In the 1972 Japanese sexploitation film Hanzo the Razor, the character is a vagrant heroic and fearless samurai. In the much more popular tv series Shadow Warriors, multiple generations of Hanzo’s would be portrayed through each season, all well trained ninjas.
These earlier portrayals of these two figures in popular media guided the way Tarantino wrote his versions of the characters, as well as the casting. For the role of Pai Mei, Tarantino chose the actor Gordon Liu, not only a veteran of Shaw Brother movies, but an actor in two of the “Pai Mei Trilogy” movies, playing the heroic protagonist in Clan of the White Lotus who challenges Pai Mei to a duel. In Tarantino’s work, the Taoist Monk remains very much the proud master that we see in the Shaw Brothers trilogy, though now we witness his character not from the perspective of his opponent, but from his pupil (Beatrix Kiddo). For the character of Hattori Hanzo, Tarantino cast Sonny Chiba, who played the eponymous character in the aforementioned Shadow Warrior’s series. In a 2003 interview, Tarantino stated about the character: “Every time they did a new series it was always a different Hattori Hanzo. It was set a little further in history… so now Sonny Chiba is playing Hattori Hanzo the one hundredth and continuing that character.”8 By simply continuing the tradition of portraying Pai Mei as the villainous teacher and Hanzo as the honorable samurai, Tarantino is almost making his movies into direct sequels to the past portrayals of these two characters.
Hattori Hanzo first appears in Kill Bill: Vol. 1 in his restaurant, where he is tending bar. He is initially welcoming to Beatrix Kiddo, and attempts to strike a conversation with her in English and takes interest in her Japanese skills. When she confronts him with her real identity and asks for a sword, he refuses because he swore an oath never to make a killing weapon again. It is only when she states that her intent is to kill Hanzo’s former pupil, Bill, that he relents and forges a weapon for her. This relatively short portrayal of the character tells us that he is an amiable, welcoming, and even humble individual who takes great shame at the actions of his student, to the point where he is willing to break a promise to help Kiddo kill Bill.
Pai Mei is first introduced to viewers by Bill when he recounts how the monk slaughtered many Shaolin warriors for taking offense at a small gesture. When we finally see the character, he is meditating. His first words to Beatrix Kiddo are insults, and he expresses contempt for her based on her nationality, gender, and customs; he is only interested in training her as a personal favor to Bill, his former student. Indeed, the character shows almost a level of pride when mentioning the titular antagonist of the movie. From that point forward, the scene escalates into Pai Mei beating Kiddo in a duel and coercing her into submission. His portrayal is antithetical to that of Hanzo, as Pai Mei is hostile, unwelcoming and proud of both his own abilities and the actions of his student. Hanzo only practiced his discipline, sword-making, when Kiddo asked for his help to kill Bill, while Pai Mei only taught Kiddo his discipline, martial arts, when Bill asked him to train her.9
From a spatial point of view, the manner in which each character is introduced is also relevant: Hanzo is first seen standing at an equal or lower footing to Beatrix Kiddo when she first enters the bar. Pai Mei is sitting atop a long flight of stairs, with Kiddo being forced to kneel before him when they meet for the first time, clear indicators of the former’s humility contrasted with the latter’s pride.
So now that we’ve seen the character’s backgrounds and their personalities, let us understand how each perceives pedagogical responsibility. We can do that by taking a look at the ethics of Hanzo and Pai Mei, determining what they are beholden to as teachers and human beings. Hattori Hanzo’s pedagogical responsibilities lay first and foremost with the manner in which his teachings were carried out. He was beholden to his ethical belief that knowledge should be utilized in a proper and “honorable” manner. That is why, when Bill uses his fencing skills to become a ruthless hired killer, Hanzo gives up on his profession, only ever making a sword again to help Beatrix Kiddo kill Bill. He is, therefore, bound to a sense of morality, fitting with the elements of the archetype of the benevolent “honorable warrior,” which is often associated with the historical Hanzo.
Pai Mei’s responsibility rests solely upon his students. He is beholden to the ethical belief that transmitting his knowledge to the student efficiently is all that matters. Unlike Hanzo, Pai Mei never openly discusses what Bill does with his abilities. He simply confirms with Beatrix that she’s indeed a student of Bill before giving out a prideful smirk, indicating that he’s proud of his students’ talents. The audience learns that he’s agreed to teach Beatrix Kiddo what he taught Bill after we witness the latter descending the mountain covered in bruises. This indicates that Pai Mei’s only condition to educating Bill’s disciples is that his former student remains skilful enough to challenge him to a fight. We never learn if Pai Mei is aware of Bill’s profession as a contract killer but, judging from Pai Mei’s own murderous past narrated by Bill and of his proclivity to violence, it seems unlikely he would care. Pai Mei’s responsibility, therefore, is to disseminate his skills to his students, regardless of the purpose to which such knowledge will be utilized.
In short, both teachers presented in Kill Bill hold vastly different ethical beliefs that shape their sense of pedagogical responsibility and the outcome that they wish to obtain from their transmission of knowledge. Hanzo’s desired outcome of his teaching was for Bill to use his knowledge according to his master’s concept of ethics, not performing “dishonorable” acts like committing murder. Pai Mei’s desired outcome is simply that Bill absorbs as much of his knowledge as possible.
What does the eventual demise of their student tell us? Hanzo broke his oath and forged a sword for Beatrix to use against Bill. In the end, however, though it proves essential for her quest of vengeance, it was not that sword that killed Hanzo’s former student, but a fighting technique taught to Beatrix by Pai Mei. It is a great irony that the titular killing of Bill was made possible by the lessons of a man who did not care how his education was utilized. The teacher who is implicitly proud of Bill and unbothered by his deeds, not the one that is regretful and takes responsibility for them, gives his new student the tool to kill Bill. Furthermore, Beatrix was given Hanzo’s sword with the express purpose of killing Bill, while Pai Mei taught her the deadly blow before she ever thought of pursuing revenge. Therefore, while the former cares primarily about how his sword is used, not for the quality of it, the latter cares only that Beatrix master the killing blow, with no thought for her life following her education.
Whether the fact that Pai Mei’s disregard indirectly caused the death of his former pupil was meant as a lesson by Tarantino on a teacher’s responsibility, or just a coincidence, we don’t know. However, the fact that Beatrix slaughters dozens of enemies with her Hanzo sword, meant for the express reason of killing Bill, and that she finally achieves his death with a technique taught with no such intention, might be the director’s way of saying that a teacher can never predict the manner in which the lessons and tools they provide to their students will be used.
Hanzo and Pai Mei’s portrayal as an amiable retired swordsman and an amoral kung fu master are fundamentally at odds when it comes to educating their student Bill. When one considers their role as a teacher, be it within or without an academic setting, one has to decide what is more important: what a student learns, or how they put that knowledge to practice. Is a teacher responsible for the actions of their students, like Hanzo believes, or is a teacher’s primary responsibility to ensure that their students learn, and all else is secondary, as dictates Pai Mei’s philosophy?
Olavo Passos de Souza is a Ph.D. Candidate in Latin American History at Stanford University. His research focuses on the intersection of political and social history during the Early Brazilian Empire, specifically the dissemination of ideas and the adoption of political trends. Most recently he’s written a series of articles concerning the upcoming Brazilian Election for the Jacobin Magazine and will be teaching a course by the name of: Independence or Death: The Transformation of Latin America in the Age of Revolution (1808-1831) in Spring 2022-2023 at Stanford. His hobbies include discussing movies ad nauseam, fantasy novels ranging from A Song of Ice and Fire to Discworld, TV shows, and practicing the piano.
- For an excellent exploration of Kill Bill‘s refusal to bend to a single genre, see Fandor’s YouTube video, “How Many Genres are there in ‘Kill Bill’?” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=n1MqG9T-eds&ab_channel=Fandor. For Tarantino’s approach to violence in his works, see The Discarded Image’s YouTube video, “How Quentin Tarantino Uses Violence,” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jzCLBLX3z4o&ab_channel=TheDiscardedImage.
- This quick definition is presented in Grace A. Chen, Samantha A. Marshall, and Ilana S. Horn, “‘How Do I Choose?’: Mathematics Teachers’ Sensemaking about Pedagogical Responsibility,” Pedagogy, Culture & Society 29, 3 (2021): 379-396. In this article the three authors introduce the ethical element to pedagogical responsibility, an element I consider to be key to the concept.
- This definition, first presented in I. S. Horn, “Supporting the Development of Pedagogical Judgment: Connecting Instruction to Contexts through Classroom Video with Experienced Mathematics Teachers,” in International Handbook of Mathematics Teacher Education: Volume 3, eds. by G. M. Lloyd and O. Chapman (Leiden: Koninklijke Brills NV, 2020), 321-342, is reused by Horn in her aforementioned paper with Grace Chen and Samantha Marshall.
- Fani Lauermann and Jean-Louis Berger, “Linking Teacher Self-efficacy and Responsibility with Teachers’ Self-reported and Student-reported Motivating Styles and Student Engagement,” Learning and Instruction 76 (2021).
- Japanese Military historian Stephen Turnbull mentions the figure of Hanzo in Stephen Turnbull, Ninja AD 1460-1650 (Osprey Publishing, Oxford, 2003) 12.
- The figure of Bak Mei, also spelled Bai Mei, Pak Mei or simply Pai Mei is one deeply rooted in oral tradition. He is described as having taken part in the massacre in the text Wan nian Qing qi cai xin zhuan, often translated as “Evergreen,” one of the only written sources produced during the Qing period that mentions the event. For a good guide to sources concerning the legend, both in English and Chinese, visit http://www.yokoiscool.com/southernshaolin.html. Chris Crudelli briefly discusses the legend when talking about the Bak Mei fighting style in Chris Crudelli, The Way of the Warrior: Martial Arts and Fighting Styles from Around the World (DK, New York, 2008) 56.
- For more concerning the influence of Hong Kong film on Tarantino’s work, see Greg Cwik, “Here’s the Movie that gave us Quentin Tarantino’s Career,” Indie Wire, June 26, 2015, https://www.indiewire.com/2015/06/heres-the-movie-that-gave-us-quentin-tarantinos-career-248039/.
- The quote from the interview was found in Katherine Rife, If you Like Quentin Tarantino: Here Are Over 200 Films, TV Shows, and Other Oddities That You’ll Like (Limelight Editions, Milwaukee, 2012), 128.
- The contrast can be expanded to nationality, Hanzo being Japanese and Pai Mei Chinese, both east Asian cultures Tarantino wanted to pay homage with his movies, as well as their own disciplines, with Hanzo focused on bladed weapons and Pai Mei being a master of hand-to-hand combat.