Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai (1999)

ghost dog

Balance between stark opposites is key in this simple but surreal story of identity and tradition. Forest Whitaker is enthralling and enigmatic as Ghost Dog, an African American hitman who methodically follows the code of the Samurai and works for the local mafia, but who finds himself hunted by those he serves after a hit goes awry. Surrounded by opposing cultures and customs, he recites quotes from Hagakure (an ancient guide for the Samurai warrior) in an attempt to maintain equilibrium in the face of an ever-changing world. One such quote begins: “It is bad when one thing becomes two”, and as the narrative progresses it becomes obvious that what is essential for our titular character is the unity of contraries. Gangster and samurai, hitman and friend: Ghost Dog is a true shape-shifter, a phantom in the city who embodies the antithetical East and West, but who achieves transcendence from social categorisation through adherence to an ancient “way” of life.

Two dying traditions are pitted against each other in the form of the ebbing mafia and the age-old Samurai code. Jarmusch cleverly sets his archaic characters against a backdrop of modern hip-hop, which works to highlight the irony of their individual causes. This is especially so in the case of the mafia bosses who are represented by a trio of idiosyncratic men stuck in the glory days of organised crime. Watching them awkwardly discuss rappers whilst seated at their small, Italian-style café table hidden at the back of a Chinese takeaway is a moment of biting comedy which reveals their reluctance to adapt. They would do well to take heed of one of the chosen passages from Hagakure: “although one would like to change today’s world back to the spirit of one hundred years or more ago, it cannot be done.” Ghost Dog, on the other hand, does not wish to change the world back. Instead he recovers an ancient spirituality and brings it into the present day, thus creating for himself a hybrid and honourable identity.

One of my favourite things about Jarmusch’s films is that they give you time to think. Extended, silent drives are not just throwaway breaks, but moments for concentrated reflection. As you read the quiet contemplation on the character’s face on screen, and muse as to what they are thinking, you in turn are drawn into your own mind and into thoughts that are informed by the images in front of you: an empty road at night may prompt meditations on life, wandering and ambition. The line between reality and dreams is also blurred through odd scenes such as Ghost Dog encountering the hunters with the dead bear on the road, and the repeated shots of children’s cartoons which eerily echo/foreshadow the actions of the main character. Heavily symbolic, the film’s images all wait patiently to be interpreted and connected to the wider themes of the story. The three main animals that make an appearance, for example, can each be related to an aspect of Ghost Dog’s personality: the pigeon is his ability to overcome situations and adapt, the dog is a representation of his obedience and loyalty, and the dead bear (of which “there’s not that many left”) is symbolic of his threatened and dying Samurai way.

I’ve never seen Le Samourai, and so I can’t talk about the references to the 60s film unfortunately (I hope to change this soon), but it’s obvious that Ghost Dog is loaded with a rich intertextuality. Much like the hip-hop of the soundtrack, Jarmusch’s film samples and then adapts a range of other works, and rather than view this as a weakness, I choose to view it as a sign of great reverence and inspired creativity. If you were to attempt to fit this into a genre, it would have to be something like: “gangster, samourai, western”. It is this ingenious jumble of allusions and types which makes the film such a profound and enjoyable oddity.

In the (slightly altered) words of Louise Vargo:

It’s a really good film. You should see it.

FINAL VERDICT: ★ ★ ★ ★ 1/2

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