The Way of the Samurai
Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai
Directed by Jim Jarmusch
Screenplay by Jim Jarmusch
Music by RZA
Produced 1999; released 2000
With Forest Whitaker, John Torney, Tricia Vessey, and others
The film starts with shots of a courier pigeon slowly crossing a vast empty sky, and with aerial views of a contemporary industrial landscape. A sparse tune with an unhurried beat sets the calm and almost solemn tone of the story. These visual and auditory spaces are the parameters within which Ghost Dog, a professional hit man, lives his strangely ceremonial life.
Ghost Dog (Forest Whitaker) lives by the old Japanese warrior code of the samurai. We first see him as he sits reading in his roof top shack, surrounded by his pigeons, beat-up furniture, and the tools of his trade–guns, silencers, repair kits, and a slew of electronic gadgets. What he reads is the Hagakure, a sort of philosophical handbook for the ethics and conduct of samurai warriors, compiled at the beginning of the 18th century in Japan.
In a close-up shot we see one of the key passages of the book, as the protagonist reads the text in an even and measured voice:
The Way of the Samurai is found in death. Meditations on the inevitability of death should be performed daily. Every day when one’s body and mind are at peace, one should meditate about being ripped apart by arrows, spears, and swords, being carried away by surging waves, being thrown into the midst of a roaring fire, being struck by lightning or a great earthquake, falling from thousand foot cliffs, committing seppuku [ritual suicide] at the death of one’s master. And every day without fail one should consider himself dead. This is the substance of the Way of the Samurai.
Action starts when Ghost Dog leaves his abode to take care of an assignment. It is night. He solemnly bows before a little altar at the edge of the roof, and then walks calmly through the mostly deserted streets of his run-down neighborhood. When he passes a cemetery he gestures a greeting to the dead. Eventually he spots a nice car, checks whether anyone is around, expertly breaks into the vehicle, gets it started with one of his gadgets, and quietly drives away. He puts a CD into the disc drive and listens to a melancholy RZA tune. Another page from the Hagakure appears on the screen:
It is bad when one thing becomes two. One should not look for anything else in the Way of the Samurai. It is the same for anything else that is called a Way. If one understands things in this manner, he should be able to hear about all Ways and be more and more in accord with his own.
At this point the viewer is introduced to some of Ghost Dog’s future antagonists, members of a Mafia crime family who are discussing the planned assassination of one of their own. “Handsome Frank” has an intimate relationship with the crime boss’ daughter, and Ghost Dog has been contracted by one of the mobsters to “whack” him. The portrait of this group of mobsters is somewhat humorous. In spite of their deadly demeanor they look like a group of retired store clerks. They are gray-faced and middle-aged, and most of them are overweight and badly out of shape. They are scolded by their landlord for not paying the rent on their meeting room. They spend much of their time watching juvenile cartoons on TV. Their talk, however, is tough: They talk the way gangsters talk in old noir flicks. And they still are involved in typical Mafia pursuits.
Ghost Dog enters Handsome Frank’s shabby apartment, shoots the sleazy looking gangster (Richard Portnow), and then is surprised by finding a girl (Tricia Vessey) in the room. “Did my father send you to do that?” she asks. She seems terrified, and her voice is that of a frail girl. Ghost Dog leaves her alone; killing a woman is not part of his assignment. As the hit man does not say anything, she gives him the book she had been reading while Frank was watching cartoons on TV. It is a copy of Rashomon, a collection of stories about ancient Japan. She timidly recommends that he read it. The scene ends with another projected Hagakure text:
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. Not to forget one’s master is the most fundamental obligation for a retainer.
Frank’s assassination, although untraceable for the police, creates problems. For one thing, Louise, the boss’ daughter, was not supposed to be present during the murder. For another, the death of a gang member has to be avenged–particularly if the assassin is a “nigger.” That does not make much sense, as Handsome Frank’s death had been ordered by Ray Vargo (Henry Silva), the boss of the crime family. But logic is not much of a concern for these men: they have a code to obey and a tradition to follow. Since it was Louie (John Torney) who made the killing arrangements with Ghost Dog, Louie has to see to it that Ghost Dog is “liquidated–removed from the face of the earth.” Louie does not like the idea. He points out that Ghost Dog has always been an efficient and highly dependable operative for the mob. He also warns that going after this accomplished assassin could be dangerous. But the gangsters insist: It is either Ghost Dog or Louie himself. Reluctantly Louie prepares to move against his faithful retainer.
Ghost Dog is shown napping peacefully in the sun among his pigeons. He has a dream, a dream that reproduces in the form of a recurring nightmare the event that made him a retainer of Louie. Eight years ago a couple of racist thugs were about to kill young Ghost Dog in a back alley when Louie interfered by shooting one of the attackers, thus saving the young man’s life. From then on Ghost Dog considered himself the lifelong “retainer” of Louie. Like a retained samurai of Japan’s feudal past, Ghost Dog committed himself with unconditional loyalty to his chosen war lord. Over the years Louie paid Ghost Dog for hit jobs on a regular basis. Although they rarely saw each other in person, they had the sort of respect and warm feelings for each other that master and retainers often had during Japan’s classical samurai era.
The disquieting dream is a reminder of Ghost Dog’s precarious situation. The samurai knows that trouble lies ahead. Louie had sent him a message indicating that the crime family is unhappy about his last job. Ghost Dog also uses his gadgets to spy on the gang’s conversations; he knows far more about their plans and operations than the gangsters suspect. But he is not particularly perturbed by the future; the philosophy of his code has taught him how to take things in stride. The following Hagakure passage appears on the screen:
It is a good viewpoint to see the world as a dream. When you have something like a nightmare, you will wake up and tell yourself that it was only a dream. It is said that the world we live in is not a bit different from this.
For a while nothing happens, although the gangsters keep preparing for the liquidation of the samurai. We see how Ghost Dog interacts with his few friends and neighbors. He plays chess with Raymond (Isaach de Bankole), a Haitian ice cream vendor who speaks only French, and he discusses books with Pearline (Camille Winbush), an inquisitive little girl from the neighborhood. He leisurely listens to youngsters in the park who are trying out rap songs. Ghost Dog seems most happy, however, when he lets his pigeons swarm out to see them wheel in the sky. (This is the only time when we notice a genuine radiant smile on the warrior’s face.) Ghost Dog prays before his little altar, and he practices his athletic and ceremonial sword exercise with great prowess and aplomb. The following Hagakure text appears:
Among the maxims on Lord Naoshige’s wall there was this one: Matters of great concern should be treated lightly. Master Ittei wrote: Matters of small concern should be treated seriously.
One day two of the gangsters appear on a roof among pigeon stalls in the samurai’s neighborhood. They are looking for Ghost Dog, but they do not know where exactly he lives. They shoot one of the pigeons and threaten a Cayuga Indian who happens to be on the premises. A few days later two other mobsters kill a neighbor on another roof because that neighbor vaguely fits the description of Ghost Dog (“a big black man”). It is clear that the samurai has to prepare for battle in earnest. While Ghost Dog cleans and readies his weapons, the following Hagakure passage appears:
According to what one of the elders said, taking an enemy on the battlefield is like a hawk taking a bird. Even though it enters into the midst of a thousand of them, it gives no attention to any bird other than the one that it has first marked.
The gangsters intensify their hunt. Their cars cruise Ghost Dog’s neighborhood, and the samurai surprises Louie not far from his place. “You may as well shoot me,” Louie tells Ghost Dog. “For they’re gonna whack you, Ghost Dog. And if they don’t find you, they’re gonna whack me instead. Probably they’re gonna whack me anyway.” While they are talking, another gangster approaches. Ghost Dog kills him with three rapid shots. Louie is aghast. “He would have killed you,” Ghost Dog explains. “Now you should really shoot me,” Louie exclaims. “I’ll never be able to explain this to them. Go ahead, shoot me!” Ghost Dog shoots him in the arm, and Louie cringes in pain. “Why the fuck did you do that?” he asks. “You told me to,” Ghost Dog answers. “Besides,” he adds, “this way you can say that both of you got attacked by me.” As Ghost Dog disappears, Louie shouts after him: “I’m trying to warn you. The whole family is looking for you!”
The war escalates. One day Ghost Dog finds almost all his pigeons killed, and his entire place ransacked. He decides to launch his big strike. A Hagakure passage reads:
In the words of the ancients, one should make his decisions within the space of seven breaths. It is a matter of being determined and having the spirit to break right through to the other side.
Ghost Dog sends a message to his enemies. It is a Hagakure passage which reads:
Even if a Samurai’s head were to be suddenly cut off, he should still be able to perform one more action with certainty. If one becomes like a revengeful ghost and shows great determination, though his head is cut off, he should not die.
“What the fuck does that mean?” Sonny Valerio (Cliff Gorman), one of the gangsters, asks in exasperation. “It’s poetry,” Mr. Vargo tells him. “The poetry of war.”
As before, Ghost Dog sets out for his deadly mission with a sort of ceremonial solemnity. He moves through the desolate streets of the nightly city, passes the cemetery, expertly steals an expensive car from a fenced-in lot, plays a slow reggae tune on the car’s stereo system, and drives across expanses of dreary tenements, empty parking lots, gray warehouses, closed businesses, boarded up residences, and the grim illumination of desolate arc lights. There is a comic interlude, however. On this night Ghost Dog does not confront his enemies yet, but rather holds up a hooker and her client to relieve them of their expensive clothing. He wishes to make a present of a nice suit to his friend Raymond. A Hagakure passage quirkily advises:
It is good to carry some powdered rouge in one’s sleeve. It may happen that when one is sobering up or waking from sleep, a samurai’s complexion may be poor. At such a time it is good to take out and apply some powdered rouge.
The next day, however, Ghost Dog enters the lion’s den: the castle-like country estate where the leadership of the gangsters and their body guards has assembled for a meeting. In a daring surprise attack he rushes the whole family and kills or mortally wounds almost all of them, pointedly sparing only his master Louie. The execution of the head of the family is performed like a ritual. “I have been expecting you,” Ray Vargo says calmly while getting up and buttoning his coat. Ghost Dog nods, and then kills him with a couple of shots. Just ahead of the slaughter a Hagakurepassage declares:
When one has made a decision to kill a person, even if it will be very difficult to succeed by advancing straight ahead, it will not do to think about going at it in a long roundabout way. The Way of the Samurai is one of immediacy, and it is best to dash in headlong.
On the way back to the city Ghost Dog sees two hunters at the side of the road who are loading a dead bear into a pick-up truck. They are dressed in military camouflage. He stops, and they explain to him that they just “had to” kill the magnificent beast because there are not all that many bears around anymore, and because they happened to have a clear shot. When Ghost Dog expresses astonishment at their reason for killing a bear, one of the hunters aims a rifle at him and tells him to leave: “There aren’t all that many black folks left around here either,” he says. With a wry smile Ghost Dog pretends to comply, but then suddenly shoots the threatening hunter while wounding the other. “In some ancient cultures bears were considered the equals of men,” he explains. “This ain’t no ancient culture, Mister,” the wounded hunter whines. “Sometimes it is,” Ghost Dog replies, putting a final bullet into the man’s head. The appearing Hagakure text states:
Our bodies are given life from the midst of nothingness. Existing where there is nothing is the meaning of the phrase, ‘Form is emptiness.’ That all things are provided for by nothingness is the meaning of the phrase, ‘Emptiness is form.’ One should not think that these are two separate things.
Back in the city Ghost Dog presents his happy friend Raymond with the stolen suit. A Hagakure passage reads:
There is surely nothing other than the single purpose of the present moment. A man’s whole life is a succession of moment after moment. If one fully understands the present moment, there will be nothing else to do, and nothing else to pursue.
There is one more job to perform. Sonny, one of the nastiest members of the family, has escaped the big shoot-out. He has also been the one who harangued and threatened Louie the most. Ghost Dog follows his usual routine: He steals a choice car, listens to one of his RZA CDs, and drives at a measured pace through the nightly streets. It begins to rain. A Hagakure text appears:
There is something to be learned from a rainstorm. When meeting with a sudden shower, you try not to get wet and run quickly along the road. By doing such things as passing under the eaves of houses, you still get wet. When you are resolved from the beginning, you will not be perplexed, though you will still get the same soaking. This understanding extends to all things.
At Sonny’s house Ghost Dog kills the cartoon watching body guard in front of the television set, then goes to the basement where he removes the pipe that comes down from the bathroom sink. He kills the surprised Sonny by shooting him through the hole of the sink when the gangster bends over to check out the suddenly disabled faucets. The appearing Hagakure passage reads:
It is said that what is called ‘the spirit of an age’ is something to which one cannot return. That this spirit gradually dissipates is due to the world’s coming to an end. For this reason, although one would like to change today’s world back to the spirit of one hundred years or more ago, it cannot be done. Thus it is important to make the best out of every generation.
Next day Ghost Dog goes to Raymond’s ice cream truck to wrap up a few things. He is, in fact, preparing the end of his own life. Raymond is very agitated: he tells his friend that one of the gangsters has stopped by, looking for Ghost Dog. Ghost Dog tells Raymond that everything is fine. He knows that Louie would be gunning for him. Louie, after all, lives under a code just like the samurai himself, and thus is under an obligation to avenge the death of his bosses. The problem–the comical tragedy of the whole story–is that Ghost Dog is both Louie’s antagonist and his loyal retainer. He has to face Louie as his enemy and master.
Ghost Dog locks all his weapons into a case and gives Raymond the key. All he keeps with him is an unloaded hand gun. When young Pearline shows up he gets back from her the copy of Rashomon that he had lent her, together with her promised comments. She finds that ancient Japan must have been a “weird place.” He gives her his copy of the Hagakure, recommending that she read it some time. “Is it good?” she wants to know. “Yeah, well, I liked it a lot,” he replies.
At this point Louie appears. He stands in the middle of the street, ready for a “High Noon” type duel. “This is the final shoot-out scene, isn’t it?” Ghost Dog asks. Drawing his gun Louie answers: “I guess it is.” “Well, it’s very dramatic,” Ghost Dog replies, walking leisurely toward him, “very dramatic.” When he reaches for his unloaded gun, Louie fires the first shot that hits Ghost Dog in the chest. Raymond desperately yells in French that Ghost Dog’s gun is not loaded, but the samurai orders him to stand back. As Ghost Dog keeps walking toward his master, Louie fires some more shots until Ghost Dog finally collapses. Dying. he gives Louie the bloodied copy of Rashomon. Louie looks at Ghost Dog, troubled. To calm his conscience he quotes something Ghost Dog had told him earlier: “Better you than me. Isn’t that right?” “That’s right, Louie,” Ghost Dog assures him. “I have seen all I want to see.”
Louie crosses himself and retires to the luxury car in which Louise is waiting. She is not the frightened girl anymore, but a young lady in control. She is Louie’s new boss. The gangster is in a hurry to leave, but she is watching, on the car’s television set, the end of a cartoon in which two Mickey Mouse types are shooting at each other with ever bigger guns–until finally the entire planet explodes in a big fire ball. At that point Louise turns off the set. “We can go now,” she tells Louie.
In a sort of epilogue scene we see Pearline sitting on the kitchen floor while her mother is cooking dinner. She does not pay attention to what her mother is saying: she is engrossed in reading the Hagakure. We hear her voice reciting the last passage that appears on the screen:
In the Kamigata area they have a sort of tiered lunchbox they use for a single day when flower viewing. Upon returning they throw them away, trampling them underfoot. The end is important in all things.
The Hagakure as a Philosophy of Life
It is clear that one has not seen the film unless one has also read the projected texts of the Hagakure: philosophy is an explicit component of the film The Hagakure provides warriors with a comprehensive philosophy of life. It was partly written and partly compiled from a variety of sources by Yamamoto Tsunetomo (1659-1719), a retired samurai who spent the last years of his life as a hermit, writer, and occasional teacher. Hindu, Chinese, and Japanese thoughts came together in his book that achieved the status of a classic. “Ghost Dog” presents fifteen key maxims of the book. They define the spiritual parameters of Ghost Dog’s existence as urban warrior and hired assassin.
The first and most basic maxim states: “The Way of the Samurai is found in death.” That death should be a major focus for professional warriors is not surprising. Risking and meting out death are at the center of a samurai’s obligations. This proximity of death produces the starkest possible contours of life; it provides the warrior with a clarifying perspective on people and things. By forcefully reminding him of his mortality, it lends a peculiar intensity and awareness to a samurai’s existence. A true samurai is likely to know more about living than most ordinary mortals.
There are cultures that do their best to hide or deny the disquieting finitude of human existence, and this evasive attitude finds expression in a certain shallowness and vagueness of people’s lives. There have, on the other hand, been cultures that were intensely preoccupied with death and the perceived shortness and insignificance of human life, and life in these cultures has had a correspondingly somber and melancholy quality. The Hagakure attitude toward death is different from both these alternatives, for its keen focus on death is, paradoxically, geared toward heightening a warrior’s sense of life. The samurai, forever mindful that death will surely come, and that it may come suddenly and at any moment, lives his life with greater resolve and more vigorous determination than most other people. The life that he lives is primed to be an extraordinary one–a life, as will be seen, of deliberate simplicity, focused intensity, and impeccable performance. Seen in the perspective of death, the samurai’s life is consciously conceived and meticulously shaped as a most valuable and significant work of art.
The Hagakure says that “every day without fail one should consider himself dead,” i. e., done with the everyday concerns, trivial worries, and mundane tasks that make up most ordinary lives. Considering oneself dead is seeing life in a clear way. Trivial matters are recognized as trivial, and the usual cares and anxieties about ordinary affairs are seen as the trifles that they usually are. “Nobody on his death bed has ever said that he should have spent more time at the office,” an old saying goes. The clear anticipation of one’s end provides a person with a solid measure for the relative importance of things: it puts the self as well as the world into their proper perspective. Would someone aware of his or her mortality worry whether an investment will yield nine or thirteen percent? Would such a person be found screaming on the phone because some merchandise is not moving? Would a samurai take out frustrations and foul moods on the people around him? Ghost Dog is never fazed by untoward events. We never see him irascible, worried, complaining, or bent out of shape in any way, particularly not about trivial matters. By “considering himself dead” he maintains his composure. His peculiar awareness enables him to live a life of perfect equanimity.
Considering oneself dead also bears on one’s willingness to take risks. Naturally, most people fear injury and death, and this fear usually prevents them from undertaking things that could bring them great joy, if not an altogether more ecstatic life. A person who seriously considers himself (or herself) dead in the samurai way is free of crippling fears, and thus able to engage in extraordinary enterprises and to aim at exceptional goals. There is the real risk of losing one’s life, to be sure. But the rewards for overcoming the fear of death in terms of an ecstatic life are immense. “Live dangerously,” Nietzsche famously advised. (1) His inspiration, like that of the samurai, was not a morbid fascination with death, but a vision of life that is intensive and powerful because it is not encumbered by the hesitations that hold most people down. Ghost Dog possesses this power of fearlessness.
The second maxim that appears on the screen zeroes in on the systematic simplification of life: “It is bad when one thing becomes two.” Elsewhere in the Hagakure it is recommended that one should not hunt two rabbits at the same time. The point is clear: Conscious confinement to one task at a time is the best way to pursue one’s affairs. There is always the temptation to pursue more than one goal, or to live by more than one code. The danger of giving in to such temptations is distraction, half-heartedness, and sloppy performance. That is why the Hagakure insists that less is more, that concentrating on a few things is better than spreading out and diversification. That pertains to a person’s philosophical orientation as well. Adhering exclusively to one Way is not necessarily narrow-mindedness or intolerant dogmatism, but the will to follow a code with perfection. It is only through deliberate single-mindedness and unity of purpose that life can gain the intensity at which a samurai aims.
The sixth maxim essentially makes the same point: “Taking an enemy on the battlefield is like a hawk taking a bird. Even though it enters into the midst of a thousand of them, it gives no attention to any bird other than the one that it first marked.” Such a strategy concentrates one’s energy on a single point, and thus permits the full use of a person’s instinctual powers: “If one has made the decision to kill a person, it will not do to think about going about it in a roundabout way. It is best to dash in headlong.” Samurai have no use for the sort of vacillating and hesitating that paralyze a character like Shakespeare’s Hamlet. “And thus makes conscience cowards of us all,” Hamlet laments while observing with dismay how his endless deliberations undermine his ability to act. Samurai subscribe to the wisdom of the ancients: “One should make his decisions within the space of seven breaths. It is a matter of being determined and having the spirit to break right through to the other side.” Not thinking, but concentrated, energetic, and resolute action is at the heart of a samurai’s life.
Closely connected with this emphasis on immediacy and intensity is the philosophical idea of living in the present. The twelfth maxim advocates a carpe diem (“seize the day”) philosophy, a philosophy that states that the time to live is always now. “A man’s whole life is a succession of moment after moment,” the Hagakure reminds its readers. Each moment has to be lived at its own time. A life lived for past and tradition or for the future is a diminished life. “Let the dead bury the dead” is timeless wisdom, and “crossing the river when you come to it” an equivalent strategy. This does not mean, of course, that no thought should be given to past or future. Effective training and learning involves both. Care should be taken, however, that attachments to the past and minding the future do not eclipse life in the present. What one does now, such as studying for example, must be meaningful in itself, and not just a means for something else in the future.
Besides simplicity and intensity it is perfect performance at which the Hagakure aims. The following passages mention ways in which samurai may reach such perfection. The fifth maxim states: “Matters of great concern should be treated lightly.” Matters of great concern tend to make people nervous or bend them out of shape. A samurai cannot afford such loss of discipline and temper. Treating grave matters as if they were of little importance will help him to act flawlessly and with elegance.
The Confucian scholar Ittei seemingly gives the opposite advice: “Matters of small concern should be treated seriously.” The advice is added to the earlier passage to forestall an unwarranted conclusion. To treat matters of great concern lightly may encourage some to treat small matters even more lightly–or with no regard or care at all. That would not be the Way of the Hagakure, however: a samurai never conducts himself sloppily or without care. To do all things to perfection, and to conduct himself impeccably at all times, is part of the warrior’s code of conduct. It is for this reason that Ghost Dog is so meticulous in the pursuit of his trade, in spite of the ease with which he executes his tasks. Whether he shoots an assassin or cleans the parts of a gun, he always displays the same concentration and care. He is relaxed and intense at the same time.
“It is a good viewpoint to see the world as a dream.” To see life and the world as unreal is part of the Hindu tradition. The Hagakure does not necessarily subscribe to this metaphysical view, but the book recommends it as a useful metaphor. By treating reality as something like a dream, overwhelming circumstances will lose their potentially disruptive power. It is a way of treating matters of great concern lightly.
The eleventh maxim refers once more to thoughts from the Hindu and Buddhist tradition, to the famous “Heart Sutra” in particular. “Form is emptiness” says that the named and identified things that we think of as parts of reality are really only our mental constructions. Ultimately there is no such thing as my body, for example, because my body is nothing but a composite of so much dirt, water, and other more basic elements. And these elements, in turn, are nothing more than composites of still more basic elements, and so forth ad infinitum. There also is no such thing as my mind or my self, for my mind or thinking self are nothing but so many mental states, processes, memories, ideas, and so forth, and these in turn are composites of more elementary constituents. Ultimately there is nothing that is fundamental, simple, and of unchanging duration; thus ultimately there is nothing but “emptiness.” It follows that in one sense there is my body, my mind, and countless other things; there are these “forms.” But in the other sense (just described) these things or “forms” do not really exist; there is only “emptiness.” Hence: “Form is (ultimately) emptiness” and “Emptiness is (i. e., appears in this or that) form.”
The relevance of this reflection for the Way of the Samurai lies in its connection to the idea that the world is like a dream: It would be a mistake to attribute too much weight to the things whose existence is only appearance. The reflection also places the samurai into what might be called a moral emptiness. If everything is nothing but a sort of construct, obviously the world’s moral and legal rules are as well. Rules and laws have no true substance or validity in themselves. Every person can–or in a certain sense must–find or create his or her own code or moral “form.” These “forms” come out of emptiness, and ultimately they are emptiness. Emptiness is thus the ontological context in which the samurai chooses his moral code and lives his deliberately chosen life.
Ghost Dog is a criminal as well as a very moral person. According to American law he would be on death row if caught, but he follows his own moral code conscientiously and to the point of self-sacrifice. According to the ontology suggested by “form is emptiness” there is no way of determining which moral or legal code takes precedence or is more valid. They all are constructs, and it is up to the individual alone to decide by which code to live.
“There is something to be learned from a rainstorm,” the thirteenth maxim suggests. A lot of people do all sorts of things to avoid adversities that cannot be avoided–like people who dash through a downpour that they cannot really escape. A person who realizes the inevitability of certain calamities will not waste time and energy on futile counter-measures. Ghost Dog, accordingly, never complains about spilled milk, and he does not uselessly duck when the bullets are flying. What he has learned from the rainstorm enables him to move about without useless distress or contortion. His even demeanor manifests the grace of perfect form.
The last Hagakure maxim quoted in the film is an invitation to set a determinate end to one’s life—as an alternative to waiting passively for some indeterminate demise. “The end is important in all things,” says the book. As in the Kamigata area the flower box is destroyed after it has served its purpose, so the samurai is expected to commit seppuku, ritual suicide, once his master has died and his service has come to an end. (Tsunemoto himself might have committed seppuku, instead of becoming a hermit and teacher, if his master had not explicitly forbidden this traditional suicide.) The more general sense of the passage is the idea that a life should have the concentrated intensity that comes with a single purpose and the total dedication to that one task. Once a life does not have such a purpose anymore, it will begin to wane, and thus lose the very quality of life. Not to exist at all is better than surviving without a purpose to which one can dedicate oneself with undiminished intensity.
An Existentialist Samurai
The Way of the Samurai provides Ghost Dog with a philosophy that defines simplicity, intensity, perfection, and faithful service as the meaning of life. With this philosophy Ghost Dog’s existence attains structure and purpose, and compared to most people around him and to the average contemporary, Ghost Dog is well in control of his affairs, and to a large extent the master of his fate. At a time when many people are vaguely adrift and besieged by feelings of impotence and meaninglessness, Ghost Dog has a life that is consciously chosen, carefully shaped, and intensively lived.
One aspect of the Way of the Samurai may appear to negate Ghost Dog’s over-all self-determination: the warrior’s commitment to his master. The third quoted maxim states: “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.” Ghost Dog’s service to his master, however, is his service. He controls much of the form this service takes, and it is he who has chosen his master and employment. His commitment to his master is part of the Way he has chosen, just as the other rules and beliefs that a good samurai accepts. In this sense it is not Ghost Dog who serves his master, but the master who serves the higher purpose of Ghost Dog. Ghost Dog uses his master to enact his flawless performance of a samurai’s life.
What characterizes Ghost Dog’s over-all existence is not just the samurai code by itself, but also the social and historical context in which he lives his chosen philosophy. A retainer of a seventeenth century Japanese warlord is, after all, a quite different sort of figure than a twentieth century American hit man, even if they live by the same rules, and their lethal work and mode of employment show striking similarities. The difference between them, furthermore, is not just a matter of external details (different clothing, different weapons, different legal systems, and so forth), but a difference in the way in which their lives acquire meaning. A Japanese samurai assumed his role by growing into an established community and tradition, while Ghost Dog assumed his by making an eccentric and anachronistic choice. The role of a samurai is pointedly exotic in New Jersey, and playing it as an African American presupposes conditions and mindsets that call for an explication.
Most characteristic for the nature of Ghost Dog’s existence as a samurai is the sort of cultural void that has been described by writers like T. S. Eliot and Robert Musil, and that was analyzed in Existentialist terms by Jean-Paul Sartre. Ghost Dog is an exemplary denizen of the modern cultural “wasteland,” and as an Afro-American samurai a perfect illustration of an individual who chooses his life with the deliberate independence and resolve that Existentialism demands.
Ghost Dog’s home turf is a wasteland in more than one way. His physical environment is one of urban decay, and the wider context of his peculiar existence is a state of alienation and disorientation in which people either endure the senselessness of their lives, or seek an inner home by joining sub-cultures, gangs, or novel religious congregations. The possibility of a healthy and inclusive society with a vibrant, convincing, and integrating culture has disappeared in the New World—together with an expanding industrial America that provided good wages, generous benefits, and the kind of growing affluence that nurtured the American Dream and transformed people of many origins into a unified nation. The people in Ghost Dog’s neighborhood are inhabitants of a modern Babel: They speak various languages, and they are often not sure whether they understand each other or not. They come from different regions and backgrounds, and they do not share anything like a common view of things or a unifying purpose. The once compelling E Pluribus Unum (“out of many one”) has lost its traditional power. Ghost Dog’s world is a landscape of isolation and disintegration. “Everything seems to change all around us, Louie,” Ghost Dog once remarks. “You can say that again,” Louie replies. “Nothing makes any sense anymore.”
The reason why Rashomon repeatedly appears in the film is the fact that the characters of its lead story give quite different accounts of one and the same event. It is the melancholy relativism of Rashomon that is significant for “Ghost Dog.” For in Jarmusch’s film, too, people live in their separate inner worlds, and they look at things from their solitary perspectives.
Individuals around Ghost Dog frequently do what strikes their neighbors as crazy. A man, who speaks only Spanish, carefully builds a sizable boat on top of an apartment building, and nobody can figure out how he will ever get it from there to the sea. The man’s project is reminiscent of Noah’s preparation for the Flood, for the destruction of a failed world. But it may also just be one of the many oddities and disconnected events that characterize the entirety of Ghost Dog’s socially fragmented culture. Nothing hangs really together in this decaying civilization, and the isolated individuals living in it are left to forge a life for themselves as best as they can.
Enacting the role of a samurai in metropolitan New Jersey is as strange as building an ark on top of an apartment house; in some ways it has the quality of a surrealistic happening. The artificiality of Ghost Dog’s samurai existence is indeed that of an art work. The social role that he plays as a samurai is literally that: a role–something enacted as if on a stage. Sartre mentions the similarity that exists between creating one’s self in the way Existentialists do, and creating a work of art: “Man … makes himself by the choice of his morality,” (2) he observes in “Existentialism is a Humanism,” and he states that this “moral choice is comparable to the construction of a work of art.”(3)
The measured and almost ceremonial way in which Ghost Dog moves and acts in the world has its origin not only in the meticulously choreographed customs of ancient Japan, but also in the artistic artificiality of the protagonist’s chosen existence. Ghost Dog’s dignified composure and masterly executed deeds are always a carefully rehearsed performance. His whole samurai life is an exquisitely crafted show, an aesthetic composition that is honed down to the smallest detail. What he lives is existential theatre: utterly real in that it is his actual life, but strangely unreal in its total detachment from the mundane and historical context that once endowed the role of the samurai with a natural, organic context.
Ghost Dog chooses the form of his life with the radical freedom that Sartre postulates for any authentic existence. There is no tradition, social group, or institution of any kind that made Ghost Dog choose the Way of the Samurai. It is by having been exposed to the cultural void or modern “wasteland,” by having experienced the “nothingness” of which Sartre writes, that Ghost Dog has made his life truly his own.
In principle Ghost Dog could, of course, have chosen any role or Way. There is no reason in the Existentialist analysis of things that would make the life of a Buddhist monk necessarily better than that of a postal clerk or a dealer of used cars. It is worth noting, however, that Ghost Dog’s choice of the Way of the Samurai is particularly befitting for an Existentialist. The worldview of the Hagakure is remarkably similar to that of Sartre; it would not be much of a stretch to describe it as an Existentialist code. The aim of both is to inspire individuals to get a hold of their lives in more than an average way. They exhort their devotees to live with extraordinary concentration and resolve. They both do so by obliging individuals to explicitly face the reality of their death: “Every day without fail one should consider himself dead” is the Hagakure’s equivalent of the Existentialist “being-toward-death.” In both philosophies the experience of nothingness is the antecedent for a genuine life. They both emphasize the moral irrelevance of external conditions and the outside world–Existentialists by describing life and the universe as inherently unknowable and meaningless, and Tsunetomo by suggesting that reality is ultimately “emptiness.” In the thinking of either the only thing to rely on is radically personal decision and resolute action.
Both philosophies may also leave readers and viewers with a question. Ghost Dog is a hero, even a role model of sorts—but he is also a killer, and perhaps a cold-blooded one. The film shows him mostly as acting in self-defense, but it is clear that he “whacks” people for money. He may claim, as a famous mobster once did during his trial, that he “never killed an innocent man,” and that may carry a certain amount of moral weight. His dispatch of the two bear hunters, however, seems ruthless. The deed is explained as an act of revenge: in some ancient cultures the killing of a bear had to be atoned for just as the murder of a man.
Throughout the film there are hints that Ghost Dog’s mystic relationship to the animal kingdom, and to bears in particular, is part of his special spirituality. But killing the two hunters in cold blood seems barbaric, and the justification of that killing in terms of some atavistic religion outlandish. The strangeness of all this may make a viewer wonder: Are people really free to choose their morality and outlooks at will? Are there no valid constraints on what people can choose and do?
It is possible that the film is meant to raise such doubts. At the point where the samurai and his master have completed their final duel, we see Louise in her limousine as she watches yet another cartoon. We get to see Mickey Mouse types who are engaged in a violent shoot-out, and finally in the destruction of the earth.
The cartoon, one might think, is a comment on the Samurai Way. It sheds light on what Ghost Dog and the mobsters have been doing. What the Mickey Mouse types do looks so pointless that viewers must wonder whether there may not be a better Way.