Review of Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai (1999)
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.
Criminal drama. I see people praising this film for its multiculture, its clash of cultures, its coolness, its fight scenes, its comedy, its sadness, its trendy hip-hop soundtrack. It’s all bad.
Given Jarmusch’s portrayal of the Japanese as human beings in Mystery Train (1989) and his sincere use of native American history and culture at the centre of Dead Man (1995), it would have been reasonable to expect some history in Ghost Dog. However, this film is modelled after Le Samouraï (1967), not history. 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. In shame, Yamamoto embellished his life with ideals further distorted by the “translation” used in this film. Not even Yamamoto claimed that samurai should be assassins; that’s antithetical. There’s no relationship with reality, not even Dead Man’s all-too distancing psychedelic relationship.
Apart from the purported clash of cultures famous in cinema (samurai and mafioso), we’re given to believe that Ghost Dog is also Frankenstein’s creature, an “artificial” man, and there’s a biblical ark for some reason. 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.