GHOST DOG: THE WAY OF THE SAMURAI: A Melange Masterpiece [Criterion Review]

A 1999 time capsule unlike any other

The Way of the Samurai is found in death. Meditation on inevitable death should be performed daily. Every day one’s body and mind are at peace, one should meditate upon being ripped apart by arrows, rifles, spears, and swords, being carried away by surging waves, being thrown into the midst of a great fire, being struck by lightning, being shaken to death by a great earthquake, falling from thousand foot cliffs, dying of disease, or committing seppuku at the death of one’s master. And every day without fail one should consider himself as dead. This is the substance of the Way of the Samurai. — Yamamoto Tsunetomo, Hagakure: The Book of the Samurai

Perhaps one of American cinema’s great raconteurs and renaissance men, Jim Jarmusch frequently mixes and matches disparate influences to create his distinctive cinema. Similarly, one of America’s most important and influential hip hop artists, RZA, draws inspiration from virtually everything he and his peers encountered growing up in New York City (though most importantly, his Wu-Tang Clan drew from martial arts cinema). So when Jarmusch and RZA teamed up to collaborate, along with star Forest Whitaker, a truly unique melange masterpiece was birthed.

It’s somewhat difficult to pinpoint which element or elements of 1999’s Ghost Dog: The Way Of The Samurai tip the scale and place the film into that elusive category of “masterpiece”. This is perhaps to be expected from a film which itself plays with so many varying genres and influences as to be quite hard to pin down. On its most basic level, Ghost Dog is the story of Forest Whitaker’s titular character, an assassin working on assignment for a somewhat ramshackle Italian organized crime crew in a similarly ramshackle (but unnamed) corner of perhaps New York City. Ghost Dog is an enigma to virtually every other character in the film. Indeed, he’s mysterious to even us audience members. But above all Ghost Dog is an adherent to a particular code. He’s an ardent student of the Hagakure, an ancient samurai text. A gentle giant, a professional assassin, an avid reader, a hip hop connoisseur, a friend to little girls and ice cream men, a loyal “retainer” to the mid-tier gangster who once saved his life and now feeds him hits (John Tormey as Louie): Ghost Dog contains multitudes. But it’s that code around which he builds his life which is of primary importance, it seems, to both Ghost Dog and to Jarmusch.

Via its own labyrinthine codes of conduct, our endearing and somewhat inept gaggle of gangsters hire Ghost Dog for a job (Louie communicates with Ghost Dog exclusively through carrier pigeon) to kill a made man. When Ghost Dog executes this mission, somewhat flawlessly on his part (although a witness who happens to be one of the head gangsters’ daughters is mistakenly present at the scene of the crime and, bizarrely, passes along a copy of Rashomon to him), the gang still sets out to execute Ghost Dog. Perhaps it’s because the witness can pin the execution on the gang itself, or perhaps it’s a confusing justification for their own actions as the victim was one of their own “made” men, so Ghost Dog has to die for killing their guy… even though they hired him. But ultimately it seems what Jarmusch is interested in exploring is the conflict that arises from varying codes clashing together and adherents following those disparate codes to their ultimate conclusions.

Unlike any other gangster or hip hop film, Jarmusch seems to be acting as DJ for the audience, picking and choosing the most unique hooks or breakbeats, character traits and stylistic flourishes, to keep the audience constantly guessing and looking forward to what’s next. But that analogy almost indicates a frenetic or climactic atmosphere, when in fact there’s a resolutely quiet soul to Ghost Dog. Yes, there’s an Italian gangster who spits Flava Flav lyrics, and yes Ghost Dog holsters his gun with a flick of the wrist akin to a samurai holstering his blade, and yes there’s a hilarious relationship between Ghost Dog and Isaach de Bankolé’s Raymond the Ice Cream Man where they don’t speak a single word of the others’ language but they communicate freely nonetheless. There are loud parts, in other words. Some “in your face” ideas that Jarmusch mixes in with the film’s many subtler aspects such as the small ways in which a young Black girl (Camille Winbush as Pearline) is an echo or heir apparent to Ghost Dog, or the seemingly non sequitur sequence in which Ghost Dog and Raymond observe a man methodically building a boat on an urban rooftop which will never see the ocean. The entire project, disparate as it may be, is held in an almost transcendent union by RZA’s absolutely singular musical score. A work of near perfection, Jarmusch apparently pushed RZA to create something entirely, uniquely his own, and this glimpse into the creative prowess of RZA’s 1999 brain is inspired.

Peppered throughout the film are dozens of Hagakure quotes, narrated by Ghost Dog and placed on screen with text. We’re meditating on the way of the samurai along with our character. The various readings don’t always seem to directly apply to the scenes they precede or follow, though certainly some do. And in the end it does seem that this exploration of the multi-dimensional Ghost Dog wants most to meditate on how far people are willing to adhere to the codes they espouse. While Ghost Dog follows an ancient code unlike that of anyone around him, he finds peace and a path through life. Alas, the way of the samurai is a path of death. And Ghost Dog will dispatch violently those gangsters who attack him. Yet he’ll also submit to the will of his master, even if his flummoxed and unworthy master has no idea he wields this kind of power over Ghost Dog. I could be misreading things, but I sense that Jarmusch paints Ghost Dog as a noble character precisely because he’s principled, and is willing to follow his code even unto its final consequence.

When a white-haired and white-skinned American filmmaker shined an enormous spotlight on hip hop culture in 1999, then mixed and matched that with Eastern philosophy and the Italian mafia, something uniquely special was born. Jarmusch and RZA have continued to have creative encounters through the years since, and Whitaker, Jarmusch, and RZA have all continued to contribute mightily to the arts as the decades have passed. This flashpoint in time that was Ghost Dog has retained all of the cool, the quirk, the profundity it captured in a bottle in 1999 and has perhaps even grown in my estimation in the decades since. One gets the sense that never before Ghost Dog could this film have been possible, and, never since.

The Package

The Criterion Collection is important. And while I’ve been a fan for decades, never before has the value of curation been more apparent to me than now, in the age of streaming, when content is released at such a breakneck pace it can be almost impossible to sift through the noise. With their selections of titles and reverent treatment of those films which become part of their catalogue, Criterion is doing the Lord’s work in a way that’s perhaps even more important now than ever before. This release is no different, with hours of bonus content and thoughtful essays which make you feel great about paying for a superior product.

Eschewing a traditional commentary track, Jarmusch none the less hosts an audio Q&A in which has answers dozens of curated fan questions and regales the audience with insights and opinions which are quite fascinating. Jarmusch riffs on what kinds of music he’s listening to today, contemporary thoughts about 2020 happenings, and of course, reflections on Ghost Dog. Perhaps most fascinating about this feature length audio track is that Jarmusch himself hasn’t seen Ghost Dog in over 20 years and is simply going off of memory in his anecdotes. Beyond that track the disc is packed with great and unique interviews, insightful essays, and even a pamphlet collection of the various Hagakure quotes collected from the film.

This is the kind of release that gives you new perspective and insight into a masterful film, which makes it an easy recommendation.

And I’m Out.

Ghost Dog: The Way Of The Samurai is now available on Blu-ray from The Criterion Collection

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