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  • Writer's pictureLucas Friesen

Sunday Cinema: Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai

Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai is a 1999 Artisan Entertainment movie written and directed by Jim Jarmusch. It stars Forest Whitaker. RZA did the score. On a budget of $2-million, it made $9.3-million.

Whitaker’s character, Ghost Dog, is an idiosyncratic, cold-blooded killer with a Zen quality that juxtaposes his brutality. Obsessed with the old way of things, Ghost Dog lives by the code of feudal Japan while living in a modern American neighbourhood. His passion for Japanese history is evident in everything he does: He trains with a samurai sword, lends his copy of Rashomon to a young girl, and constantly studies and quotes Hagakure, a book that outlines the warrior code of the samurai.

The blending of American and Edo Japanese cultures was prevalent in the 1990s, most notably through Wu-Tang Clan, which RZA is a member. This highly influential rap group first blended these two cultures in 1993 on their debut album, Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers), which featured excerpts from movies Shaolin and Wu Tang and Ten Tigers from Kwangtung. This album and subsequent Wu-Tang releases popularized the culture clash that would directly lead to the creation of such a movie as Ghost Dog.

This was RZA’s first movie score. Unsurprisingly, the hip-hop beats used throughout are def. I especially liked the instrumental for “Samurai Showdown” and “Flying Birds.” Ghost Dog was the start of a long-term, working relationship between RZA and Jarmusch, as RZA also appears in Coffee and Cigarettes and The Dead Don’t Die. The Wu-Tang rapper/producer cameos in Ghost Dog.

The big, bad gangsters in Ghost Dog are all noticeably stiff, old and out of shape. I don’t mean their acting is stiff; I mean they all move like they haven’t stretched in years. It’s comical compared with Whitaker’s fluidity. This caricature of old, out-of-shape mobsters is nothing new, but it usually is supplemented by a young bruiser who can do the grunt work for them – like Rocco in The Godfather. In Ghost Dog, these old cronies are out doing their own hits and they are no match for the guy who hangs out on a roof all day practising his swordsmanship. Whitaker is not even that young in this movie but, compared to his co-stars, he seems like a spring chicken. These old, stiff mobsters pose little to no threat for Ghost Dog. Thus, we rarely, if ever, feel like Ghost Dog is in over his head.

There are multiple assassinations in this movie and the best comes when Ghost Dog snipes a gangster through the drain in his bathroom sink. Jarmusch doubles his cleverness by having this assassination pre-empted by a cartoon on TV where the same action occurs. However, I was disappointed to learn that this killing was ripped from Branded to Kill, a 1967 Japanese movie. This is not the only movie Ghost Dog is indebted to. I am told that it has similarities to Le Samouraï, a 1967 French movie starring Alain Delon.

Ghost Dog has two characters that speak to each other in different languages (English and French). They understand each other because of their deep friendship. This clever trick is overused by Jarmusch and it goes from interesting to comical to dull. By the end, a look of understanding could have worked just as well as having the not-so-lost-in-translation characters repeat each other’s dialogue.

The character of a supreme, black killer with a code was used again in the 2000s via The Wire’s Omar Little. However, Omar’s conclusion seems more appropriate for Ghost Dog than the Wild-West-esque finale that Whitaker ultimately faces. The Wire fans will also note Jamie Hector’s tiny role in Ghost Dog.

Jarmusch’s Ghost Dog is a bad ass movie where Whitaker deals damage and teaches bushido. The lead’s superb acting alone makes it worth a watch. Anyone looking for an idiosyncratic action movie that takes a unique approach to gangster killings and good-for-nothing mob bosses will find Ghost Dog entertaining. As well, it’s essential viewing for hip-hop heads and those that love the Japanese old way.

A black man with cornrows holding a gun with a silencer at the camera with a backdrop of blue sky.

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