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Ghost Dog The Way Of The Samurai

The Deconstructive and Spiritual World of Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai

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As part of our Party Like It’s 1999 series this March, Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai stands out from the others for its spiritual life, deconstructive nature, and storytelling.

Jim Jarmusch’s Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai tells a story of survival, confrontation, spirituality, and ordinary life – all told through a samurai genre inspired. As established, the story is genre-bending through its samurai and gangster film influences. There is even the non-genre element of neo-noir scattered through the narrative and the interpersonal dialogue Ghost Dog has with himself and us as spectators. The film is methodical and reminiscent of Gendai-geki films. It is a story packed with themes of morality, yet focused through the scope the story tells. With that, the story follows Ghost Dog (Forest Whitaker), a hitman who follows the book Hagakure as his guiding moral, spiritual, and principal life. Ghost Dog lives by the code found within this book, as found in the introduction quote of the story to the very ending moments. Ghost Dog lives with his messenger pigeons in a cabin fixed on a roof found in this metropolitan city. The story traverses a modernity-stricken city, one interestingly never solidified and always in flux, with licenses plates also alluding to a fictional state and/or city.

The exact location does not necessarily matter, although the consistency of East Coast infrastructure is what creates a concrete world of its own. It is one never solidified geographically, yet still found within its familiarity of spatiality. To continue, the small plot circles around Ghost Dog working as a hitman for the Mafia, particularly working with Louie (John Tormey), a mobster who saved his life years prior. One hit that Louie wants Ghost Dog to carry out comes with consequences not realized upon committing the hit. What follows is Ghost Dog’s tale of survival, perseverance, and morality against the Mafia. It is a contemporary hero’s journey, one founded in the influence of Japanese literature via the Hagakure, although codified as an American-made hero’s journey. While the baseline story follows this voyage, the inherent thematic elements coincide with the people he knows or meets. Whether it be the mobsters he encounters, the animals he shows admirable respect to, or the community formed around the people he encounters in the park he frequents. Also, the score by Wu-Tang Clan’s RZA brings in a mysticality that underscores the whole film; the specific, silent charm of Ghost Dog rides along with the soundtrack. From his mediative moments of solitude to his contemplative times of peace behind the wheel. While RZA scores the film, the movie also features songs by Public Enemy and Killah Priest, mostly in a diegetic form. This is an exceptional film by Jarmusch, unexpected but masterfully done.

Ghost Dog The Way Of The Samurai 2What stands out is the awareness given to the characters directly involved in Ghost Dog’s life. It is both a specific attention to characters he connects with and deals with an underlining criticality found in other characters, such as the mobsters. It feels less of a critique of organized crime than a critique of elements of whiteness absorbed in Black culture. While the mob listens and enjoys music by artists such as Killah Priest, they are also the ones profiting off Ghost Dog’s work while degrading Ghost Dog for his Blackness, with them being openly racist to him. The racism Ghost Dog faces exists through multiple elements of the story, both by the mobsters but also by others, such as two hunters he encounters. This side-eyeing behavior is one Jarmusch does not instill lightly but reinstates as an issue to address within the genres. Ghost Dog does have a way of dealing with such bigotry. I am thinking of one particular scene that must be seen to feel the revel of redemption.

An element also missed in discussion on this film is the communal aspect throughout, one designed around class consciousness and mutual support. Ghost Dog’s consistent relationships with Raymond (Isaach de Bankolé), a French-speaking, Haitian ice cream-man, and Pearline (Camille Winbush), a young bookworm, shine throughout the movie to its very end. Raymond and Ghost Dog do not speak a common language yet understand one another as if close friends for years. This element speaks to the deep respect they have for one another, one that gets solidified in the ending moments of the story. Ghost Dog supports Raymond and Pearline in a caring manner, not insinuated through any father figure, or mystical caricature, but one found in honesty and ordinary life. This, to me, is what stands out in this film, it is both one so struck by mundanity in life, yet still so packed with elements of allure in the characters and world built. Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai works in multiple ways and can prelude a slew of thematic principles. It can be seen as a deconstructive tale of the gangster genre, a recontextualizing of samurai films through an American neo-noir story, while all existing in a world laid with racism, cultural differences, profiteering, and violence. It is a story realized through its American context, yet still one that creates a world of its own. In doing so directly confronts these deconstructive elements and works to address where to go from here.

Ghost Dog screens starting Friday, March 15th.
Friday, Mar 15th – 10pm
Saturday, Mar 17th – 8pm


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