“Nothing makes sense anymore,” says a character in Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai (now available on DVD).
In a movie where a black American man follows an ancient Japanese code to serve his Italian-American mafia boss, the most likely explanation is that the protagonist is not following the same definition of sense as most others.
Forest Whitaker is Ghost Dog, a character who, if not exactly crazy, is not exactly sane, either. A hired assassin, he works for the mafia underling who once saved his life. When a hit goes wrong, however, the mob turns on Ghost Dog.
“If one were to say in a word what the condition of being a samurai is, its basis lies first in seriously devoting one’s body and soul to his master,” reads Ghost Dog from his bible, Hagakure: The Way of the Samurai.
But does the master-retainer relationship have any meaning when the master doesn’t follow – or even know about – the samurai code? Ghost Dog seems not to care.
In fact, he seems not to care about much. An almost palpable melancholy emanates from Ghost Dog, who becomes animated only in the presence of his beloved carrier pigeons. Whitaker brings an oddly innocent quality to the role, allowing the viewers to be drawn to the introverted character.
His alienation from the world around him is nicely told in brief encounters with others in his neighbourhood. His best friend is a Haitian who speaks only French, which Ghost Dog does not understand, and his only other human connection is with a little girl named Pearline. Their interactions provide some genuine levity in the occasionally blackly comic but often sombre film.
Images of death abound, including the not-so-subtle name he adopts, and his actions indicate a man who is living a kind of life after death.
In the end, Ghost Dog’s reliance on the samurai ways seems to be a contradiction he does not understand. He quotes the Hagakure: “Although one would like to change today’s world back to the spirit of 100 years or more ago, it cannot be done.”
With his isolationism and reverence for the ancient Japanese code, Ghost Dog does not fit into the world he has created for himself.
Directed by Jim Jarmusch (Dead Man), Ghost Dog lingers on its character development and philosophy without abandoning the shoot-em-up action to be expected in a story about Mafiosos. It also sends a nod or two in the direction of obvious influence Akira Kurosawa, director of the Japanese classic Rashomon.
Originally published in The News (Mexico City), October 2, 2001.