Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai (1999) IMDb


Criminal drama.


Saved by a mafia boss, a black man considers his life forfeit to that boss and spontaneously becomes his “samurai” years later, reading Hagakure, practicing with a katana and so forth, while living on a rooftop and communicating by carrier pigeon. Still more bizarrely, he is skilled, but after a sensitive hit on a wiseguy, the mafia—mostly old morons and one guy who wants to be Kitano Takeshi—turns on him.


I see people praising this film for its multiculture, its clash of cultures, its coolness, its good fight scenes (!?), its comedy, its sadness, its trendy hip-hop soundtrack. I’d say it’s worth viewing only as an oddity, for Jarmusch’s quirks, even though his usual realism has been pulled out from under those quirks, greatly weakening them.

Ghost Dog has virtually nothing to do with samurai. Yamamoto Tsunetomo, the author of Hagakure, was a safe and crusty old hawk who idolized a class of warriors made virtually obsolete decades before his birth. The samurai of his time were bureaucrats with occasional duties to butcher disobedient regular people, so Yamamoto embellished samurai “history” with ideals further distorted by the “translation” used in this film. Ghost Dog acts as if he were one of the last samurai in the world, when in fact, the warrior samurai went extinct almost 400 years earlier, and acted very differently, because of a very different context. They weren’t assassins, for one thing. Ghost Dog is modelled after Le Samouraï (1967), not history.

This is disappointingly exoticizing after Jarmusch’s portrayal of the Japanese as human beings in Mystery Train (1989), and it fatally undermines the film’s clash between two different “ancient codes”. With the ridiculous literary show and tell (Ghost Dog is also Frankenstein’s creature, an “artificial” man? Deep, dude!), the ark etc., pathos is also lost. Without Whitaker’s clichéd cool, it might have worked as a comedy of Japanophilia, along the lines of the gangster dancing to gangsta rap, but it manages neither comedy nor drama.

Japanese production fiction moving picture