RETROSPECTIVE: Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai [Blu-ray]

Ghost Dog

“The Way of the Samurai is found in death.”

With Ghost Dog: Way of the Samurai, it seems like Jim Jamursch set out to make the coolest movie ever.

An RZA-soundtracked crime-drama in which a cornrow-wearing Samurai-hitman played by Forest Whitaker must take on the Italian Mafia? Jean-Pierre Melville’s Le Samourai meets Goodfellas, it could almost play as parody, were it not that Jarmusch and Co. keep it so resolutely grounded, despite all the pigeons

The film also has something to say about cultural synthesis and how life can imitate art. Beyond the core text of the Hagakure, the book of the Samurai, from which our titular protagonist relays excerpts, there’s the love of books that he shares with Pearline (Camille Winbush), a precocious little girl who he meets in the park and with whom he exchanges reading tips.

The gangsters, meanwhile, are always watching cartoons, whose exaggerated actions their deaths seem to ironically recreate.

Like Yabu no naka, the Japanese short story that inspired the movie Rashomon, the book of which changes hand repeatedly over the course of the film, there are many ways to interpret events.

However, as shown by Ghost Dog’s friendship with Raymond (Isaach de Bankolé), an ice-cream seller who only speaks French, goes to show, it’s more about the feeling, the connection.

Is it plausible that a stocky, hoodie-wearing guy could slip through the world, even the anonymous urban environment of Ghost Dog, without drawing attention. Or that he should have an electronic device that, like Felix the Cat’s magic bag, seems to contain whatever he needs. Or even that he should have devoted himself to the service of Louie (John Tormey), a Mafia underboss with a touch more honour and loyalty than the walking clichés he serves – Henry Silva as the stony-faced Ray Vargo, Cliff Gorman as the slick, preening Sonny Valerio, and Gene Ruffini as Old Consigliere, who bears a striking resemblance to The Sopranos’ Uncle Junior and only repeats stuff or says racist shit.

They have a shorthand, too, but it’s one based on a commonality of racism and hatred: “Indians, n****rs, same thing.” As Gary Farmer succinctly puts it, essentially playing a modern-day version of his character from Jarmusch’s Dead Man, “Stupid fucking white man”.

Whitaker’s performance, gentle, watchful, and, on occasion, charming, makes us care about a character who could too easily become a cipher. Jarmusch treats his material with equanimity, a sort of deadpan humanism. He respects his character, but treats them lightly and with humor. The Mafia bosses may be hypocritical in demanding the death of Ghost Dog
– after all, they contracted the hit on their colleague that led to the situation – but at least, to misquote the Big Lebowski, it’s a code.

With its deployment of gangsters, assassins, Eastern philosophy, and hip-hop, Ghost Dog‘s disparate elements flow together like verse poetry, or rap; aided gracefully Robby Müller’s vibrant yet balanced cinematography, which lends proceedings a dreamlike feel.

“It is good viewpoint to see the world a dream”, so quotes Ghost Dog, so runs the Hagakure. Perhaps the same applies to film, or at least this one.

A new release of Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai is now available to buy on 4K UHD, Limited Edition UHD Steelbook, Blu-ray, DVD, and Digital, courtesy of Studiocanal.

Author: robertmwallis

Graduate of Royal Holloway and the London Film School. Founder of Of All The Film Sites; formerly Of All The Film Blogs. Formerly Film & TV Editor of The Metropolist and Official Sidekick at A Place to Hang Your Cape. Co-host of The Movie RobCast podcast (formerly Electric Shadows) and member of the Online Film Critics Society.

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