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Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai

by John Bloner, Jr.

I've seen most of writer/director Jim Jarmusch's feature films to know this: his characters take their time. They are nimble and sly, moving behind the beat, just like Miles Davis and Lady Day did, but know when to strike.

Think of Clint Eastwood in A Fistful of Dollars or Kyuzo, the master swordsman, in Seven Samurai.
They're killers, yes, yet they're elegant assassins. These men don't have a lot to say and are deadly when the occasion calls them to action.

Ghost Dog is such a man. He's the title character, played by Forest Whitaker, in Jarmusch's film of the same name. He haunts an urban jungle known as the "Industrial State" and lives in a rooftop shack with his pigeons, while he hones his craft as a modern-day Samurai. He knows how to wield a sword and adheres to the Samurai code, Bushido.

Forest Whitaker plays the title role in Ghost Dog: Way of the Samurai
This code teaches him to respect the roles of servant and master. Eight years before the film begins, Ghost Dog was saved from a savage beating by Louie, an Italian mobster. From that moment on, Ghost Dog has pledged his service to this man. If his master told him to walk into a fire, he would willingly wrap himself in its blaze.

Instead, Louie orders him to make gangland hits, which Ghost Dog carries out without emotion or hesitation. He is serene and intense in his work, stealing cars and putting bullets into Louie's enemies.

Ghost Dog is alone in the world. His best friend is a French-speaking Haitian, even though Whitaker's character doesn't speak French and the Haitian doesn't know English.

Small-Time Crooks, Sonny Valerio (Cliff Gorman) and Louie (John Tormey)
While watching this film, I was reminded of two stories from the Book of Genesis. One was the story of the Tower of Babel, in which people build a giant tower that can reach to the heavens. The Lord looks upon this tower as a symbol of man's hubris and decides to punish them. He puts different languages on the tongues of the people, so they will not understand each other, and scatters his creations across the world.

This film demonstrates the difficulty of connecting with another human being, whether the challenge is through language, culture, customs or age. Still, the picture's characters make attempts to connect.

Ghost Dog and his friend, the French-speaking Haitian, have bonded even though they can't communicate through words. In one scene, the Haitian leads Ghost Dog to a rooftop to show something he discovered: a man building a boat, high above the streets. The Haitian attempts to speak with the boat-builder, but the man only speaks Spanish. The reason for his work remains unanswered, at least directly, in the film.

Ghost Dog's best friend, Raymond (Isaach de Bankole), looks over a modern-day Noah and his wooden ship
A second story from the Book of Genesis, as you may have already guessed, is the story of Noah and the Ark.  The boat is a powerful symbol of being able to rise above the corruption of the world. Ghost Dog lives on a rooftop, and his friend has found an element of mystery there. Their conscious minds don't understand why the boat is there, other than it's a cool sight to see, but their subconscious selves seem to recognize its importance.

While watching this scene, a song that Yoko Ono released six months after the death of her husband, John Lennon, played in my head.  In my reading of the lyrics to this song, "Toyboat," Ono seeks passage from pain. Her son, Sean, was a young boy at this time, so I think of the boat as his boat, floating in a bathtub of water, his mother watching over her boy and his toy, bobbing on the ripples.

I'm waiting for a boat to help me out of here
Waiting for a boat to help me out
The boat that reached my shore was a toyboat
Waiting for a boat to help me out.

Ghost Dog, Louie, Raymond and others in this film are all waiting for a boat to take them away.

"The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere/The ceremony of innocence is drowned." --William Butler Yeats
In the film's opening scene, a pigeon flies alone above the industrial skyline, free from the mean streets below. Like a boat, this pigeon is able to rise above a damaged world.  It also serves as a symbol that the world shown in this film is coming to an end. Read a stanza from William Butler Yeats' poem, "The Second Coming," after watching Ghost Dog and see if you agree.

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world.

In the Industrial State, things are falling apart. The old ways are dying. Louie and his fellow mobsters wouldn't last five minutes in the Godfather films. They're dead inside. Their homes are for sale. They have a hangout in the back of a Chinese restaurant, but are behind in their rent. They have a look like they're trapped in cage.

The mob ponders the fate of Ghost Dog after a hit goes wrong.
Life isn't much better for Ghost Dog. He lives in a rooftop shack with only his birds for company. He kills people at his master's instruction, yet he hasn't lost his soul. His days are spent in reading from the book, Hagakure: Book of the Samurai, a code of ethics for a warrior class.

The Samurai code calls for a warrior to be "deadly in combat, yet gentle and compassionate with children and the weak." Ghost Dog lives by this precept.

Louie, however, has lost his way. He once saved a boy from a beating, but he cannot save himself.

He cannot save Ghost Dog when the mob decides he must die. From that moment in the film, the hit-man becomes the hunted. In the violence on screen, worlds die away. As Yeats wrote, "the centre cannot hold."

Out of the chaos, however, a light still flickers. A small flower opens. Her name is Pearline. She's a young girl, whom Ghost Dog meets her one day at the park, where they talk about books. She shows a copy of Frankenstein to him. He gives her a book, Rashomon and Other Stories

The reference to Frankenstein isn't casual. Like the mad doctor's creation, Ghost Dog is a monster, both in size and in his profession, yet he is also sensitive and seeks to share his life with another. He makes attempts at friendship with the Haitian ice cream salesman, but there remains a gulf between the two men. They can sense what the other one is trying to say, but they go no deeper.  

Similarly, Ghost Dog and Pearline share a love of books, but he is a grown man and a killer. She is only a little girl, adrift in a big city, seeking anchor. She is seeking a place in a society, described by Joseph Campbell, that no longer honors ritual or teaches youth how to behave in a civilized society. 

15 years after Ghost Dog was released, I still wonder what has become of Pearline. I hope she is all right.

Ghost Dog and Pearline (Camille Winbush) form an impromptu book club
The monster (Boris Karloff) and Little Maria (Marilyn Harris) in the film, Frankenstein (1931)
Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai is a complex motion picture. Depending on the viewer, it may play as a dark comedy, social commentary, a warning, a send-up of gangster pictures, or a a film buff's reference manual. It features a marvelous marriage of image to sound, courtesy of a score by RZA, chief producer to the Wu-Tang Clan, that may be described as ambient hip-hop. It oozes out of some deep, dark place.  "It is mournful and elegiac in a way you'd never expect," says Erin Aubry Kaplan, writing for LA Weekly.

Forest Whitaker and Ghost Dog's director, Jim Jarmusch
Ghost Dog was the seventh feature directed by Jarmusch. I have only tapped into some of the wealth of images, story elements, film history references and sounds found in this picture. Explore it for yourself to see what you can find in its tale of darkness and light. 

TRIVIA: Jim Jarmusch's original title for his 1995 film, Dead Man, was Ghost Dog. To read 2FL contributing author Dave Gourdoux' article on Dead Man, click here