Kate: Admiration, Appropriation, or Neither?

A few months ago, Netflix releases Kate, a high energy, female-led, action revenge story in the vein of a John Wick after the massive success that series became. It was not the only such film. Hell, it was not the only such film that Netflix released though, to be fair, unlike there other movie (Gunpowder Milkshake), this one was definitely intended to be more of a single narrative as opposed to an attempt to create a new franchise.

All in all, it is a fine film. Mary Elizabeth Winstead, the titular Kate, has, in recent years and projects, established herself as a legitimate action star with the talent and acting chops to support her physical performances. Woody Harrelson, Kate’s mentor, friend, and eventual betrayer Varrick, is always a blast to watch. Miku Martineau, a target and niece of Yakuza clan bosses, walks the tightrope of being a believable child in this world without falling into utter annoyance. The remainder of the supporting cast is acted well with good action sequences. The music, aesthetics, and overall atmosphere of the film and scenery plays well. The actual story is admittedly a bit derivative and does not add anything new to the genre or niche of female led assassin films that premiered this year alone. So, again, fine film but nothing special.

What was rather surprising was the criticisms and reviews that derided the film of cultural appropriation or racist undertones because of the setting and chosen enemy of the Yakuza for Kate to fight against. I will admit that this criticism was present in the back of my mind when I decided to randomly watch this film; thus, I did not have high expectations and assumed the worst upon first viewing. However, after seeing the movie in its entirety, I am left wondering if those who made those claims actually bothered to watch the movie.

I know nothing about gun etiquette, but this isn’t right. Right?

One of the major criticisms many lobbed against the film was that it was appropriating Japanese culture and aesthetic in its story. The story is set in Japan and one of the antagonists is a Yakuza clan, but neither Kate nor Varrick actually appropriate anything. They don’t fight with swords like samurai. They don’t wear Japanese clothing or do anything traditionally or stereotypically Japanese. They are not trying to become Yakuza nor Japanese. They do happen to speak some Japanese, but that is mostly a work related skill since they are doing business with the Yakuza, a Japanese organization. Now, the film is set in Japan, but even then none of the white characters are assimilating or using Japanese aesthetic to construct their characters or backstories. The job they are undertaking simply happens to be in Japan. Is there some aspect of romanticizing the setting and aesthetic? Sure, and there is some criticism to discuss how media uses foreign elements to add aesthetic, but this film is hardly the only one to do so, nor is this a trait relevant to only American media; thus it is odd to place that solely on Kate.

As well, the accusation of “white savior syndrome” was particularly odd since Kate was involved in the final resolution but hardly was the sole savior of the narrative. Even more so, she did not impart any wisdom or perspective or reinforcement of the Yakuza’s own culture or ideology back to them. If anything, the Yakuza and Ani were more involved in saving and redeeming Kate without being reduced to secondary sidekicks without purpose or personality a la the “helpful minority” trope. In fact, one of the key story aspects is specific commentary on how Varrick is representative of Western culture which simply consumes and consumes taking in culture and past without any respect to its origins to sate its unceasing hunger even if only momentarily. Kate comes to the realization that she is also a victim of Varrick’s manipulations and hunger for power, money, and influence. While hardly a perfect reflection, the film’s story and eventual ending is far more a criticism of the Western culture than a “feel good” story about a white person learning a lesson as is traditional of that specific trope.

Frankly, it seemed as though there was a contingent of people that didn’t like the film and had to find some reason to justify that opinion. Which is utterly stupid. As stated earlier, this film was just okay, so it is fully understandable that many didn’t enjoy it. But there is also no need to justify that reaction. Sometimes you simply do not like something. Beyond that, there was also the group that are chained to the algorithm of various channels and sites that require some semblance of outrage and discourse to subsist. And if we are going to rightfully call out the ones that make entire content based on bashing “woke”, “sjw”, or whatever is this week’s preferred term without any real analysis, then it is only fair to do so for those on the other end of the spectrum.

Like I said, pretty cliché, but sometimes that works.

In the end, Kate was pretty standard fare with an extremely talented cast and production who will undoubtedly continue to find work that was, or will be, easily forgotten by most who saw it. Recommend watching for background viewing or if you don’t want to rewatch John Wick or Gunpowder Milkshake.

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