By Afra Nariman
Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai (1999)
Directed by: Jim Jarmusch
Stars: Forrest Whittaker, John Tormey, Henry Silva, Isaach de Bankolé, Camille Winbush, RZA,
A contract killer, named Ghost Dog (played by Forrest Whittaker), who lives his life according to the ancient traditions of the Samurai, has pledged his loyalty to a small time mobster named Louie, who saved him years earlier. After being seen on his 13th job for the mob, he finds himself in danger with the mob and takes matters into his own hands.
Jim Jarmusch’s interest in Eastern philosophies and spirituality has never been as apparent as it is in Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai. In this film, he combines Eastern spirituality with American street culture. The hero of the film is Ghost Dog, who follows the way of the samurai; as the title infers. Years earlier, he was saved by Louie from a group of thugs who were beating him. Since that time, he has adapted the Samurai way, and believes that he owes his life to Louie. He spent the following years serving as a hired contract killer for Louie and his mobster friends.
The film begins with a quote:
The sentiment of this quote foreshadows the end of the film, when after killing every other member of the mob, Ghost Dog comes face-to-face with Louie, who has come to return the favor and avenge his fallen friends. Rather than kill Louie, the one person he believes that he is bound to serve as a Samurai, he allows Louie to kill him. He doesn’t want to keep killing, he is prepared for death, as implied by many of the quotes from his book that are enveloped throughout the film, and he ultimately accepts it at the end.
At one point in the film, Ghost Dog claims that he and the gangsters are from two different ancient tribes. At the core of the film there is a critique of racism. This is most evident in the scene where Ghost Dog comes across two racist bear hunters who claim they killed the bear because there aren’t many of them left; and then they threaten to do the same to Ghost Dog for the very same reason. Less obviously, the gangsters represent white people, while Ghost Dog represents Black culture — lively and inventive. The mob used Ghost Dog, until they decided to kill him. Both in protective retaliation and in staying loyal to his Samurai tradition, Ghost Dog then goes on to kill every member of the mob that he can find, without blinking an eye. Ghost Dog’s morality is always in flux. He has his values, but murders, yet only when/because he feels he has to.
The reason behind the fact that he decides not to kill Louie at the end is more significant than just because he views Louie as his boss, and it would be disrespectful and honorable for a Samurai to kill his master; he doesn’t kill because he knows it will not change the sickness that has grabbed hold of the world. This sickness is subtly and metaphorically implied throughout the film as racism, hate, and violence.
At different points throughout the film, the gangsters were seen watching cartoons. And it seemed as if each cartoon was foreshadowing what is about to happen next in the film. The most comedic example of this is when Ghost Dog shoots the gangster from the pipeline leading to his sink; just as the cartoon that the gangster was just watching showed us. The reason I believe this detail is important, is because at the end of the film, we see another cartoon, but rather than foreshadowing what’s about to happen on screen; it explains what just happened, why it happened that way, and foreshadows what could come in the world. The cartoon depicts two characters pointing guns at each other. Continually, they take out bigger guns and bigger guns, until the entire world is covered by their gun fight, leading to the world’s end. Just before we see this, Ghost Dog had done a few notable things. Before he saw Louie, he spoke to the little girl, Pearline, who he had given the book Rashomon to, and then gave her another book, his samurai book. He also caught his good friend, the ice-cream man, with a gun and took it from him, implying that he shouldn’t succumb to fear or violence; that violence is not the answer. If you have to use violence to protect yourself, then you aren’t protecting your “soul,” or whatever you want to call your level of humanity. This sentiment makes us think that Ghost Dog now feels conflicted about all the killing he has done in the recent days. Following his conversations with his only two friends, he sees Louie standing in middle of the street, calling out his name. This feels very much like an old-western shootout scene, where one character has come to challenge another. Ghost Dog walks over in front of Louie, without a loaded weapon and accepts his fate as a Samurai: death (see opening quote). He has had enough killing and does not want to continue to kill. He allows Louie to kill him, but before passing he pleads Louie to read Rashomon when he has the chance.
Ghost Dog’s intent on passing on his books and philosophies to Pearline and Louie insinuate his hope for a better future. The cartoon of the two characters constantly trying to out-gun each other, which led to the end of the world, is obviously how Ghost Dog has come to see violence. Although he felt that it was his duty as a Samurai to kill everyone that he did, he also felt conflicted about the very nature of killing, even in the form of retaliation or protection. In the end, he decides to not kill, and accept his death. The final quote of the film is:
That last sentence is paramount in understanding the film’s overarching message: The end is important in all things. Although throughout the film, Ghost Dog’s objective morality is in constant conflict, in the end, he chose not to kill and accepted his death. He left this world with his last actions being to pass down the values of education, philosophy and spirituality to others, most importantly to the next generation in Pearline, with hope that these new values can prove to be an alternative to the never-ending violence that persists in the world. With those three values being emphasized more, there is hope for a world that is free of racism, prejudice, violence and hate. Through them, perhaps the evils of the world can be eradicated. For as long as violence is used as retaliation, protection or in any other form, evil will persist. The end is important in all things
Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai is Jarmusch’s twist on the ‘hitman’ genre. Like all of his films, there is a subtle, layered message to his film, even if it isn’t always obvious from the first viewing. Aside from the message denouncing racism and violence, the film is also particularly entertaining to watch. With ancient Samurai lessons interwoven throughout, a mixture of hip-hop culture and Japanese samurai culture, strange scenes with pigeons, a fun scene showing a group of friends free-styling, and a comedic element to it; Ghost Dog is a strangely cool film. The comedy of it is highlighted by Ghost Dog and his ice-cream man friend. Neither of them speak or understand each other’s language, yet they are constantly on the same page and consider each other best friends. Jarmusch combined multiple styles and genres in this film: hip-hop/street culture, the hitman genre, crime and gangsters, Japanese Samurai, and more. It’s an imaginative work of art that stresses to us the importance of education as a combative of violence, rather than meeting violence with violence. Part of the film’s message can be understood through the famous quote: “An eye for an eye makes the whole world blind.” Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai is cool, funny, meaningful, deep and original. It absorbs you into Ghost Dog’s world, teaching you and entertaining you at the same time.