“The Way of the Samurai is found in death. Meditation on inevitable death should be performed daily. Every day when one’s body and mind are at peace, one should meditate upon being ripped apart by arrows, rifles, spears, and swords. Being carried away by surging waves. Being thrown into the midst of a great fire. Being struck by lightning, being shaken to death by a great earthquake. Falling from thousand-foot cliffs, dying of disease, or committing seppuku at the death of one’s master. And every day, without fail, one should consider himself as dead. This is the substance of the Way of the Samurai. ”
Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai is an eclectic mishmash of cinematic tropes that can be described in one word as ‘weird’. But a good kind of weird. The kind that makes you feel vindicated for all that time you spent trawling through the web sphere and IMDB pages, in a trail of interconnected movie pages and articles, to find these unique (it’s an overused word these days, but sometimes the description is apt) works of art and craft. The director Jim Jarmusch is supposed to be something of a stylistic auteur, but this is the first of his movies I’ve seen and even then, more than two decades after it came out. Well, all good things come to those who wait and all that.
What is it about? Nothing too heavy on plot if we were being honest. There are some mobsters with a certain parodied Scorsese like air around them. A hit is ordered on a certain associate fooling around with one of the boss’s daughters. The hitman quite cleanly finishes the job and walks away. Or so it seemed. But all is not well. The boss’s daughter was on hand to witness everything and now the gangsters want the same hitman dead. They assign the task of finishing him off to his handler, who put him on the job in the first place. But, as the movie proceeds to let us know, that is much easier said than done.
For our hitman is the protagonist of the piece and he is no ordinary protagonist or hitman. Known only by the name Ghost Dog, he lives in a dilapidated shack on top of a building with only pigeons for company. He doesn’t appear to have any friends or talk to anyone. He is a black, heavyset guy who reads, and lives his life by, the Samurai code. These show up on screen, with his voiceover, at various points like intertitles in a silent film. His only loyalty and devotion seem to be to his handler, Louie (John Tormey), who is a mid-ranking member of the mob he does hits for. They have a past, which is flashed back to at multiple points in the narrative, in which Louie saves a younger version of our protagonist from a bunch of goons who meant him grave harm. From that point on, he considers Louie his saviour, and as another lesson from the Way of the Samurai tells us, the samurai must devote his body and soul to his master, to the exclusion of all else. Thus, while it’s obvious that his ‘master’ himself doesn’t particularly follow the Samurai code, our hitman is unstintingly devoted to him.
When the mob bosses ask Louie to take care of Ghost Dog, Louie is hesitant. After all, apart from the bond they have developed over the years, there are a few logistical issues involved. For one, he has no idea really where this guy lives. Their only contact is through the messages which they exchange about hits to be done, which are carried by… yes, carrier pigeons. Even in a pre-smartphone world, one has to admit that is stretching the bounds of credible interactions in the twentieth century. And yet, that’s how it is. Also, as mentioned before, he doesn’t have much human interactions. This leads Louie to a bit of a sticky situation which doesn’t look like it will have a clean resolution in any way. Thus, Ghost Dog decides to take matters into his own hands. Of course, there will be shoot ‘em ups involved. Blood will be spilled and the body count will go up. But how will Ghost Dog and Louie fare in all of this, and will their bond be tested?
The story really isn’t any great shakes. We’ve seen it all before. Mobsters and their trigger-happy decision making leading to a lot of bloodshed, with the supposed hero of the piece being only a few shades more likeable personally compared to the people trying to kill him. But the director has infused this with a panache that renders it an intriguingly mounted piece. And Forest Whitaker, who I would have never thought had it in him to play a Samurai code following gangster, really does make it work. The guy is, after all, an Oscar winner and he takes this outrageous conceit and runs with it. His only relationships (apart from with Louie) are with a Haitian immigrant who sells ice cream from a truck and keeps proselytizing about it’s supposed health benefits to attract customers. This is a funny, but humanely touching, little friendship. The immigrant hardly knows English and thus keeps yapping on in French, while Ghost Dog replies in English. At times, without knowing it, they echo each other’s sentences in their respective tongues. There is also a little girl who Ghost Dog gives books to and whom he would like for to learn the Samurai way. Most of their conversations too take place around the ice cream truck. Again, despite the ridiculous sounding character arcs, these things work primarily because of the acting and the writing.
By the end of the film, we do develop a soft spot for this unlikely assassin with an unlikely honor code. And this, apart from the stylistic flourishes, is the biggest win for the movie.