Thoughts on Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai

“There is something to be learned from a rainstorm. When meeting with a sudden shower, you try not to get wet and run quickly along the road. But doing such things as passing under the eaves of houses, you still get wet. When you are resolved from the beginning, you will not be perplexed, though you still get the same soaking. This understanding extends to everything.”

The name Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai could easily conjure up the wrong sort of images. That’s a name that speaks of pulpy fun and guilty pleasure more than refinement and sophistication. It’s a practically a shy away from Female Convict 701: Scorpion. Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai, Jim Jarmusch’s eighth full-length film, isn’t quite refined, but it’s certainly not pulpy either. It’s also not about ghosts. Or dogs. (Though there is one mysterious recurring dog, I suppose.) It’s almost completely devoid of martial arts. It’s very calm and understated. Unlike this:

That video is pretty cool isn’t it? Besides having some pretty clever editing on display, it also kind of helps me make a point. Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai seems like it could’ve almost been completely inspired by Enter the 36 Chambers and the subsequent albums inspired by it. The central conceit – combining black gangster culture and samurai films – is pretty much identical. Plus RZA literally sound tracked the movie and also cameos briefly. Jim Jarmusch is a big music guy. He even had a well-liked No Wave band, The Del-Byzanteens. A lot of his films seem to be about hanging out with musicians. It’s clearly a culture he’s drawn to. So it’s not surprising he would draw from the Wu-Tang Clan, conceptually speaking. Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai, however, is far more toned down comparatively. It’s completely devoid of that sort of braggadocious baddassery. In terms of music it’s basically more “C.R.E.A.M.” than “Bring Da Ruckus.” It takes its central conceit incredibly seriously. So much so that, as a film, there’s a noticeable attempt at maintaining a somber, un-fun tone. This is despite some inherently goofy scenes and concepts.

Now for an opening précis. The movie follows a mysterious assassin who goes by the name Ghost Dog. He’s played by Forest Whitaker. Ghost Dog, in order to pay off a debt, has found himself working for a notable white mob boss. He never interacts directly with the mob. Instead he sends the man he owes a debt to a pigeon once a day, and that man sends it back if he wants anyone killed. Ghost Dog has never once failed to eliminate a target, and never once left any kind of traceable evidence. When the movie starts, he’s been asked to pull off a hit on an underling who’s been sleeping with one of the main mob bosses’ mentally unsound daughter. The hit goes normally, except for one thing, the boss’ daughter is still there when the hit happens. Everyone (other than Ghost Dog, who never interacts directly with any of these people) had been assured she’d been put on a bus, and didn’t expect her to be at the site of the killing. Ghost Dog knows better than to kill her, but because he was witnessed killing an important figure in the mob there has to be retribution. It doesn’t seem to have particularly distressed the girl, she even gives Ghost Dog a copy of Rashomon, but it certainly distresses her father.

The reason why Ghost Dog has such a high success rate – and the reason why he’s so secretive and still uses things like passenger pigeons – is that he tries to live by the samurai code. He meditates on death every day. He practices martial arts and swordplay, neither of which he uses in the movie to any combative effect. He swears absolute loyalty to his “lord”. Except his lord is just a mid-level mobster that happened to save his life one day. He lives a solitary existence and obeys a surprising number of the antiquated rules, including holding bears sacred, and something about rouge. Of course that ends up being a flimsy justification for wearing a disguise. Forest Whitaker doesn’t actually apply rouge. Though that would be delightful. It’s not entirely clear where Ghost Dog picked this up. The only flashback we get has a few clues that this mindset had already developed for Ghost Dog. There’s no origin story portion, or even an explanation. He doesn’t ever refer to the Bushido Code, but I think it might be safe to assume that’s what the movie means by samurai code. Correct me if I’m wrong Internet!

“It is said that what is called the Spirit of an Age is something to which one cannot return. That this spirit gradually dissipates is due to the world’s coming to an end. In the same way, a single year does not have just spring or summer. A single day, too, is the same. For this reason, although one would like to change today’s world back to the spirit of one hundred years or more ago, it cannot be done. Thus it is important to make the best out of every generation.”

The movie handles the character of Ghost Dog really well. It would be too easy to make the character a generic over-the-top badass (Overused word of the day?). Instead Jim Jarmusch hones in on something that probably holds truer to the concept. Ghost Dog is a pretty weird guy. He’s a social outcast, a loner, and a man completely possessed by his beliefs. He lives in utter solitude, and his one friend, played by Isaach De Bankolé, who you’d totally recognize, doesn’t even speak English. As the movie goes on, he strikes up a strange friendship with a little girl he meets in the park. They bond over books; including a book on being African American, Frankenstein, and the aforementioned copy of Rashomon. This all seems like a far more truthful depiction of the kind of person who would isolate himself and worship the tenets of a long gone foreign warrior-class. That’s not the behaviour of a well-adjusted person.

The whole movie feels like it carefully dodges expectations. The premise and plot could lend itself to a Quentin Tarantino type treatment – stylized, cool, hyper-violent, and snappy. Instead the movie, above all else, feels measured. There’s a careful, methodical quality to the pacing. It slowly pushes forward. There’s actually quite a bit of a momentum to it, just no rush. The stylization Jim Jarmusch does employ seems carefully calculated to enforce this effect. When action scenes start to break out, Ghost Dog moves carefully, but not swiftly. More importantly Jarmusch uses an after-image effect a lot, which alleviates tension and makes the already fairly un-dynamic actions even less exciting. Multiple Ghost Dogs slowly swing their hand around to fire off a shot. There are several long uneventful scenes of Ghost Dog driving in stolen cars and quietly grooving his head to some RZA provided hip-hop. These all go somewhere, but mainly in the sense that literally Ghost Dog arrives somewhere. Really these moments are all about maintaining the film’s laid back tone.

The other effect Jim Jarmusch creates throughout Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai is the precise result of camerawork and editing. The character of Ghost Dog is the meeting point of two seemingly disparate cultures, and that concept is reflected in the filmmaking. There’s a blend of traditionally framed and edited sequences with some decidedly stranger techniques. For every dramatic wide-angle shot of a bird soaring through the sky or a stark text card there’s a weird series of jump cuts or a clip of Itchy and Scratchy that serves as unsubtle commentary on the events of the film. The entire film is shot in that wonderfully grimy 35mm style, which only adds to the immediacy of the street imagery and contrasts nicely with the long takes and cross fades. The effect of all this is a movie that’s equal parts meditative and jarring. Slow paced scenes of Ghost Dog sitting on a park bench and watching people wander by might be introduced by a series of skittish jump cuts, while an action scene might be shot completely placidly. The melding makes for a rather unique tone.

“It is bad when one thing becomes two. One should not look for anything else in the Way of the Samurai. It is the same for anything that is called a Way. If one understands things in this manner, he should be able to hear about all ways and be more and more in accord with his own.”

Here’s a slightly spoilery quote from Roger Ebert:

Jarmusch is mixing styles here almost recklessly and I like the chances he takes. The gangsters (played by colorful character actors like Henry Silva, Richard Portnow, Cliff Gorman and Victor Argo) sit in their clubhouse doing sub-Scorsese while the Louie character tries to explain to them how he uses an invisible hit man. Ghost Dog, meanwhile, mopes sadly around the neighborhood, solemnly recommending Rashomon to a little girl (“you may want to wait and read it when you’re a little older”) and miscommunicating with the ice cream man. By the end, Whitaker’s character has generated true poignancy.

If the mobsters are on one level of reality and Ghost Dog on another, then how do we interpret some of the Dog’s killings, particularly the one where he shoots a man by sneaking under his house and firing up through the lavatory pipe while the guy is shaving? This is a murder that demands Inspector Clouseau as its investigator. Jarmusch seems to have directed with his tongue in his cheek, his hand over his heart, and his head in the clouds. The result is weirdly intriguing.

Besides nicely quantifying the movie, that quote helped reinforce my own response to the mobsters in the movie. They come across as alien and surreal, and part of me wasn’t sure initially how much of that was intentional. There’s a distinct feeling that these racist old-fashioned septuagenarians had walked in from another world, or at least another movie. They’re even lit in a stylized, unnatural way absent from the rest of the movie. They blurt random racist sound bites or launch into impassioned rants about the stylings of Flavor Flav. It’s a clever way of separating them from Ghost Dog, who generally provides the lens through which we see the world in Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai. Ghost Dog doesn’t really relate to the mobster mentality (he’s not actually present for most of these scenes) so neither do we.

Let’s talk for a second about Forest Whitaker’s performance as Ghost Dog. The character he’s asked to portray is utterly reserved. The pinnacle of self-control and emotional stability. At least on the surface. There’s this element underneath where the character is completely self-destructive, obsessive, isolated, intelligent, and murderous. At times he’s sardonic, creeping right up to the edge of the samurai code without crossing over it. Forest Whitaker manages to capture this wide-range of emotional distress all while keeping a surface Zen. It anchors the whole movie and helps elevate the tone.

Everything in this movie is about imbruing that Zen-like surface quality with a sense of instability and mania, and Jim Jarmusch executes it perfectly, creating a thoroughly unique film.

“The Way of the Samurai is found in death. Meditation on inevitable death should be performed daily. Every day when one’s body and mind are at peace, one should meditate upon being ripped apart by arrows, rifles, spears, and swords. Being carried away by surging waves. Being thrown into the midst of a great fire. Being struck by lightning, being shaken to death by a great earthquake. Falling from thousand-foot cliffs, dying of disease, or committing seppuku at the death of one’s master. And every day, without fail, one should consider himself as dead. This is the substance of the Way of the Samurai.”

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Harry Edmundson-Cornell is obsessed with comics and film and writing, and he fancies himself a bit of an artist. He's dabbled in freelance video production, writing, design, 3D modelling, and artistic commissions. He mainly uses Tumblr to keep track of what he's watching and reading and listening to. Occasionally he uses it to post original works. You can find his email and junk there too, if you want to hire him or send him hate-mail.

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  1. Sean Yang says:

    Thanks for the review, Harry. There’s a lot to say about this movie, which I watched as a lark over ten years ago, but it’s stayed with me and has become one of my favourite movies. The thematic thrust of this film is derived from the Hagakure, or “Hidden Leaves”, an 18th century samurai text which is well worth reading as both a historical text, as well as for the substantive things it has to say about service and dedication. The line about the application of rouge, and I think all of the quotes you’ve included above, come from the Hagakure.

    • Sean Yang says:

      (Also, random sidenote from a dude you don’t know, just wanted to congratulate you on becoming a regular contributor to the site. I’m a good friend of a good friend of your granddad’s, and I’ve got your link bookmarked. Now I just have to figure out how to get rid of this WordPress avatar I probably set up 10 years ago and haven’t used until now …)

  2. Brent Holmes says:

    Harry, your article reminded me how much Forest Whitaker’s quiet dedication counterpoints everyone else in the movie. From a scene where the score is wonderfully, quietly synchronized to the flight of one of his pigeons, to the bizarre behaviour of the mob council. (‘It’s the poetry… of war’, insisting an assassin of Whitaker’s perfect track record and dangerous abilities must be killed, and the surreal imitation of a moose!) This movie is an underrated gem.

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