As a huge fan of Asian cinema and culture it was inevitable that I’d eventually get round to sharing my thoughts on this film.
Ghost Dog: The Way Of The Samurai (1999) follows a relatively linear plot; hired assassin is turned on by his crime employers and must strike back, standard Hollywood material at first glance. However, the films writer and director Jim Jarmusch is far from the Hollywood sentiments of this genre, being one of the most prolific independant filmmakers of the last few decades.
[wpaudio url=”https://www.thewordisbond.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/05/Flying-birds.mp3″ text=”RZA – Flying Birds” dl=”0″]
Ghost Dog (Forest Whitaker) is a hired killer who lives by the Hagakure; the bushido teachings of 17th century samurai Yamamoto Tsunemoto written whilst under the service of his lord Nabeshima Mitsushige. Residing in a dilapidated rooftop shack in the company of a flock of passenger pigeons, Ghost Dog is the Mafia’s “special guy” when it comes to assassination contracts. Louie (John Tormey) is his only contact to the Mafia (via passenger pigeons no less!), after he saved Ghost Dog’s life as an adolescent sparking him to devote his life to the service of Louie as his “retainer”. However when a recent “whacking” goes awry, the Mafia pursue a clean-up job which equates to hunting down and neutralising Ghost Dog. Unwillingly Louie must lead this operation as a servant of his own master, and so ensues the films plot.
It is familiar territory for viewers of the films thematic peers, Jean-Pierre Melville’s Le Samurai (1967), Seijun Suzuki’s Branded To Kill (1967) and an assortment of Akira Kurosawa’s works. Like these films, it relies on ancient Buddhist, Hindu and Bushido text as threads to weave the narrative, with the main concepts explored being honour, life and death.
The film is chaptered by excerpts from the Hagakure in monologue by Ghost Dog, making the film into a loose string of parables that serve to deliver a universal message that death comes to all. From the films opening we are given an aerial tour of the desolate, decaying, urban landscape that serves as the backdrop for the story. Everything in the film seems to be in degeneration. The city is inhabited by a sparse populace. The mafia syndicate is aged, weak, unable to pay their rent, shells of their former selves. While this all seems to paint the picture of a morbid film, the end product is quite the contrary…
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One of the many maxims from the Hagakure text in the film, reflective in tone to death, yet implying that by embracing and understanding its inevitibility one can appreciate life and live a more meaningful one – a fundamental belief of the samurai. Of all the recitals in the film I believe this one to be the key piece in what I think embodies the films meaning. Embracing death, Ghost Dog is stoic in the face of his circumstances, never flinching, never moving a muscle out of anything other than resolve for his task. A samurai devoting his life to a cause brings meaning to it, to live without meaning would be the worst fate for a Samurai. Ghost Dog, despite being under the service of his lord, is in control of his fate. He has chosen a code to live by, a task to accomplish, and he reacts in his modern environment according to it.
While all of this may make the film sound corny and ridiculous (a modern day urban samurai fighting the mafia) it never comes across as such when watching the film. Jarmusch seems to preoccupy his films with the figurative alien. Ghost Dog seems to be 3 centuries too late and 7000 odd miles too far from where he belongs, but the film successfuly portrays New Jersey as a modern day feudal Japan. The mafia: a dying clan, Ghost Dog: the samurai, Louie: the samurai’s master, and Pearline (a young girl who befriends Ghost Dog through books) is his apprentice of sorts, the Tsuramoto Tashiro to his Yamamoto Tsunemoto.
It bridges the two worlds, highlighting the similarities. As a dying mafioso says in his last words “He’s sending us out the old way, like real f**king gangsters…” in a respect to similar lifestyles they may have led in their prior days as mafia footsoldiers. Ghost Dog’s best (and only) friend is a Haitian ice cream vendor, yet he speaks only french and understands no english, rendering the conversations between the two comedically meaningless. However the sense of an underlying understanding beyond words is certain. Even the mafia boss’ daughter reads Rashamon, another fragment that serves to show that everyone in the film has a lot more in common then they think.
Now the link as to why this is on the Word Is Bond! Setting the pace of the film are the beats of none other than RZA (in my opinion a resident of the hip-hop Mount Olympus). At the personal insistence of Jarmusch, RZA crafted some of his finest work for this film, perfectly capturing the tone and spirit of the story that unfolds. Spiritual chimes (reminiscent of Lo Pan’s underground lair, check Big Trouble In Little China 1986) that follow Ghost Dog like an ominous cloud as he walks the streets, park bench freestyles exhalting him as a phantom hero, or defiant drums as he readies himself for war.
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The audio was released in two seperate forms, a soundtrack (focusing on the songs in the film) and a score (focusing on the original music). Links to purchase both are provided at the bottom.
Leaving his mark more widely, this film was also the acting debut for RZA, whose appearance as the Camouflaged Samurai is perplexingly profound. A passing nightclub “Liquid Swords” is also dropped in as a nod. It’s no wonder RZA was subsequently sought out by Tarantino for Kill Bill (2003-2004), and Takashi Okazaki for Afro Samurai (2007). Quality work like this can only be provided by someone in tune with the film’s soul, and RZA is no stranger to Asian cinema. In fact it probably isn’t a surprise to some that he is venturing into the directing chair himself with his current project The Man With The Iron Fists and rumours of a remake of The Last Dragon.
Ghost Dog: The Way Of The Samurai, perhaps not a film for everyone… but if you like hip-hop and Samurai, it’s a no-brainer.
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