Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai (Jim Jarmusch) 1999

Ghost Dog is a personal favorite of mine and the movie that got me into Jim Jarmusch.  It is about an African American hit man only known as Ghost Dog (Forest Whitaker).  His life was saved in childhood by a mobster name Louis.  Ghost Dog follows Louis orders as a samurai to his master and does hits for Louis.  One of the hits goes wrong, and Louis is ordered to kill Ghost Dog and sets off a war between the two sides.

As I said this was a favorite of mine so I wanted to include it in this month’s reviews.  Not only was it the break out performance of Forest Whitaker but this movie is a little about black culture.  The original soundtrack was done by the RZA of the Wu Tang Clan and is almost another character in the movie.  Instead of doing a straight up review (I would just recommend you watch the movie) I thought I would do a brief analysis of the theme of the movie.  That is of the death of two cultures and the problem of not adapting to the times.

For as much as Ghost Dog is painted in a kind of positive light (Forrest Whittaker on commentary states he is noble because of his faith.  I have to disagree because, well of my own opinions, but also from the very Hagakure that Ghost Dog lives by.

“It is said that what is called ‘The Spirit of an Age’ is something to which one cannot return…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.  This is the mistake of people who are attached to past generations.  They have no understanding of this point.”

Both sides of this war are outdated; an endangered species.  When we look at the state of the Vargo crime family it is desperate.  All of the members of the family are senior citizens, they are low on members, and most important (to them anyway) they are making no money.  Seemingly their crimes (more explained in the deleted scenes) are outdated also and they struggle to pay their rent for a back room in a Chinese restaurant for their meetings.  Their biggest problem is seemingly that of adaptability.  They have no idea of what to do with themselves or even with the culture they live in.  Even Sonny, who loves rap music and sings it comically to the other bosses, is by Jarmusch’s statements, still about ten years behind the times.

I guess another major problem they have is they do not have what some would classify as “honor among thieves”.  At the first sign of trouble, they decide to sell out Ghost Dog and try to betray him.  Ghost Dog is their best assassin who does perfect jobs every single time.  Despite all that, they expect Louis to eliminate Ghost Dog because they are scared of Vargo’s daughter selling them out.

By the same token, we see the flaws in Ghost Dog’s way of life and his morality.  The way of the samurai was in giving your entire life to your master which in some cases is seen as a living god.  Unwavering loyalty and subservience to your master is equal to being a spiritual person and anything less is dishonorable and should be punishable to death.  The obvious flaw being you have no choice in who your master is.  He could be moral/immoral, or intelligent/rock stupid.  In this case we see these flaws in full force.  Ghost Dog is in debt to Louis because he saved Ghost Dog’s life.  Louis though, is a simple underling in a small time crime family on its last legs.  He is an immoral criminal who is fine with murder and theft and has no qualms about selling out even his most loyal retainer.  Sure enough, Ghost Dog is tasked with doing the immoral act of murder and is also by extension and immoral/evil person.  Many people try to excuse their actions by saying it is part of the job or “I’m just a professional.”  That still doesn’t change the fact you are choosing to commit an immoral act in the name of that person/organization.

In the end, both groups get what they want.  The Mafioso are happy in the knowledge they died as “real gangsters” instead of wasting away as irrelevant goons.  Ghost Dog makes his “noble sacrifice” to his retainer and is happy in the knowledge he lived and died as a samurai.

The end is also a reminder of the new replacing the old; the strong overtaking the weak.  Louis is now working for Vargo’s younger daughter.  Vargo’s daughter is riding in a limo, already more high class than her father, and is able to finish the job Vargo could not complete.

This is also a deconstruction and parody of the mob/gangster genre of films.  Films like The Godfather, Goodfellas, and even Le Samourai (of which this film is based) portray gangsters as being stylish and cool.  From my own personal experience I have seen more Scarface memorabilia than I ever wanted to see.  These items are not so much an endorsement of the quality of the film itself but a glorification of the lifestyle.  People want to be Scarface because he is a symbol of wealth, power, and masculinity.  Its strange but I believe many people put Scarface on their Top lists because it is a way of showing to internet geekdom they are masculine and have a big penis.  But to get back on point, Ghost Dog mocks the representation of the mob as stated earlier.  They are feeble, old, out of touch with the world around them, unable to pay the rent, unable to control an unruly daughter, unable to control kids throwing toys from a window, etc.  They are racists and misogynists with not a penny to their name and dead to the world.  Even Ghost Dog is not completely glorified.  Samurai films usually are stylish with the samurai in decorative armor.  Here, Ghost Dog wears dirty baggy clothes and lives on top of a rooftop with pigeons.  We are not mislead by flashy clothes or masculine coded imagery.  Instead we focus on the characters and their actions.

This is not the only theme or message to note on; it is simply the one I chose to explore.  I still recommend you watch it for yourself for the performance by Whitaker, the atmosphere/music, the action, and the quirky humor.  You will absolutely love Ghost Dog’s friendship with a Haitian ice cream man who both speak different languages.  But give it a shot.


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