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Ghost Dog

This is an old essay on the movie Ghost Dog I wrote for an university course in March 2005. I made some improvements to the original text based on the corrections by Dr. Dorothea Fischer-Hornung who marked the essay but in essence it still is the same text I handed in then.

I didn’t mention it in the original essay but there are some parallels in Jarmusch’s narrative and that of Tarantino’s Kill Bill, which at the end of Volume 2 presents a similar outlook on cartoons and their influence on the child’s mind as Ghost Dog does. The TV series The Sopranos also dealt with the relationship between the hip hop gangster types and the mafia in the tenth episode of their first season, A Hit is a Hit. Both of these provided valuable insights which indirectly contributed to the analysis in this essay.


Essay question

Is Jim Jarmusch’s Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai a convincing portrayal of contemporary encounter with ancient Asian philosophy and martial arts?

The nature of the encounter with Asian martial arts

As opposed to the film character Ghost Dog, for most people, martial arts is not a part of their daily routine; for them, encounter with martial arts remains firmly situated in movies rather than in real life. Of course there are people who actually practice martial arts, or become interested in the philosophy involved. But even they have probably first encountered it in movies, or other popular culture.

Martial arts is thus first and foremost an attraction used in action movies. Rush Hour and Romeo Must Die are certainly examples of this, but Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai (abbreviated as RH, RMD and GD:TWOTS from here on) is a bit different. Its director, Jim Jarmusch, is an independent film-maker, and although GD:TWOTS was relatively successful, it can’t compare to the mainstream success of Hollywood blockbuster movies like RH. GD:TWOTS doesn’t offer the usual gratification promised by entertainment media: no happy end like in RH, no hero coming out on top as in RMD. Thus the topic of these movies (martial arts) is similar, but the way they deal with it is different.

If we view martial arts this way, we need to adjust our original working frame of “Asian and African America Meet”. One can of course view RH as a meeting of a black cop and a Chinese cop, and RMD as a rivalry of a black and a Chinese gangster family, and interpret them as stories of culture clash. But we can also view them simply as examples of blending two marketable trends, hip-hop/gangster rap and martial arts; we could thus interpret them as mixtures of two different pop cultures rather than as encounters of two cultures/ethnicities.

The next question to arise from such a conclusion is, why do these trends enjoy such popularity all over the world? Why are they even popular with audiences they were not originally intended for? Why do white American kids (and in fact kids all over the world, including Asia) listen to hip-hop, which is basically a black subculture? Why did the members of the Wu-Tang Clan, a black hip-hop band, choose Chinese Kung Fu as the basis for their rap style? While most action movies just cash in on this phenomenon, GD:TWOTS actually reflects on these questions.

Differences and similarities – separators and bridges

In GD:TWOTS, upon reading Rashōmon1 A collection of short stories by early 20th century Japanese author Akutagawa Ryūnosuke, with varying Japanese historical settings., both the Mafiosi’s daughter Louise and the young black girl Pearline comment: “Ancient Japan was a pretty weird place I guess.” This quote gives us a hint at why Asian (pop)culture like martial arts might be so popular. It is exotic.2 This common reaction to foreign cultures is of course an example of Orientalism. The East is perceived as weird, because it is different from the Western standard, which is assumed to be normal. Said 1979. But it is also not easily understood, which is why we would expect it to be rather inaccessible. But apparently, this inaccessibility doesn’t hinder its popularity. So there must be some common ground, something in the foreign culture which Western audiences can relate to.

This common ground is expressed in the opening sequence, when Ghost Dog first reads out loud a passage in the Hagakure3 Hagakure means hiding in the leaves and is the title of a book explaining the code of the samurai, written in the Edo period (1603~1868). Tsunetomo 1979.. During the course of the movie 15 of these quotes are read, usually while also showing the text before a black background. But this first quote is juxtaposed with glimpses at the interior of Ghost Dog’s dwelling, comparing the world of the samurai with his own reality. During the narration the camera’s viewpoint changes ten times which is why I divided the quote into ten parts (labeled a ~ i):

(a) The Way of the Samurai is found in death. (b) Meditation on inevitable death should be performed daily. Every day when one’s body and mind are at peace (c) one should meditate upon being ripped apart (d) by arrows, rifles, spears and swords, (e) being carried away by surging waves, being thrown into the midst of (f) a great fire, being struck by lightning, (g) being shaken to death by a great earthquake, (h) falling from thousand foot cliffs, dying of disease, (i) or committing seppuku at the death of one’s master. (j) And every day without fail one should consider himself as dead. This is the substance of the Way of the Samurai. (Jarmusch 2000: 00:02:50)

The corresponding camera shots are as follows: first we see a) Ghost Dog reading the book, then b) a glimpse at the page he’s reading, then c) again Ghost Dog’s face, then d) his guns, e) some burning candles, f) his books and CDs, g) his sink, stove and kettle, h) a newspaper and a framed picture of a woman on top of it, i) again candles and sculpture of an Asian monk, and finally j) again the page he’s reading. Obviously Ghost Dog strives to be like the samurai, by meditating and contemplating on the samurai code, but his reality is still very different from the narrated samurai one.

Compared to the dangers the samurai face daily his dwelling is rather peaceful, and the fire of the candles doesn’t really compare to the dangers of the natural disasters threatening the samurai’s life. Instead the impression we get from looking at the inside of the barrack on a rooftop which is Ghost Dog’s home is that he must be rather poor. Of course poverty can be as threatening to one’s life as nature. The common ground of Ghost Dog and the samurai would then be the hostile environment they find themselves in.

But the most obvious similarity in their lives is the presence of weapons. In the narration the samurai are shown as targets of weapons / victims of violence, but we can imagine that on a different occasion they might use weapons themselves. Ghost Dog is shown as an owner/user of weapons, but we can assume that he also already has become the target of violence (which is confirmed later in the film.) So although Ghost Dog has never gone to, seen or experienced Japan (let alone ancient Japan), he can somehow relate to their way. He’s separated from the samurai by time and space, but the fact of violence in his life bridges this gap.

This circumstance is not limited to Ghost Dog and the samurai. We find many examples of people who are separated by one thing or another, but bridged by some common ground. Let’s take Ghost Dog’s master, the Mafiosi Louie, for example. He and Ghost Dog communicate almost exclusively by means of a carrier pigeon, rarely occupying the same space. The pigeon bridges Ghost Dog’s home and Louie’s home, which look decidedly different. Louie has a nice apartment, with gold plated framed pictures on the wall, corresponding well with the blue wallpaper. He’s obviously wealthier than Ghost Dog. The gap is a spacial, but also a social one. The bridge is a pigeon, which is on the one hand a symbol for escape from the harsh realities of life, but on the other hand a means of communicating the orders for assassinations. Again the bridge is violence.

There are two more examples for spacial gap and violence as bridge: when the Mafiosi killers search for Ghost Dog, and mistakenly kill another random black man, they are on the opposite rooftop, and thus don’t occupy the same space. Also, on his way to meet his boss Vargo, Louie stops to talk to a young boy, who is locked up inside an apartment by his mother. The young boy can only communicate his frustration by aggression, throwing things down to Louie on the street.

Another major separator is the language gap. Ghost Dog doesn’t speak Japanese and can read the Hagakure only in translation. This is symbolized in his relationship with his best friend Raymond, who is Francophone Caribbean. Raymond doesn’t speak any English, nor does Ghost Dog speak any French. They don’t understand each other’s words, but they grasp their meaning instinctively, or guessing it using common sense. In this way, Ghost Dog’s best friend Raymond is like the Hagakure: they are not supposed to understand each other, but they still do.

Again, their common grounds are:

a) the hostile environment: Raymond lives with the constant threat that the emigration bureau might send him back to the islands.

b) The urge to escape from the harsh realities of life: Raymond shows Ghost Dog a ship someone is building on a rooftop. Like the pigeons Ghost Dog keeps in a cage on a rooftop, the ship symbolizes an escapist dream. (The one building the ship also apparently only speaks Spanish, and cannot directly communicate with both Raymond and Ghost Dog. Nevertheless they understand each other’s dream of freedom.)

c) Violence, in the form of chess. The rules of this game of war are universally understood, and it can be played even if the players don’t speak the same language.

In summary, the separators are time, space (physical space and social space) and language. The bridges are hostile environments, urge for freedom and violence. Even the Mafiosi are faced with financial troubles (capitalism as hostile environment), and at one point even have to retreat to Vargo’s mansion, because they cannot pay the rent for their apartment in the city anymore. And Ghost Dog’s master Louie buys lottery tickets in hope to escape his harsh financial reality.

Violence

Now that I’ve established the idea of violence as a common ground, I’d like to take a closer look at the different kinds of violence as shown in the movie.

1. Weapons

a) Swords: Ghost Dog uses swords to exercise the samurai kata4 A Japanese term for a sequence of movements or figures in martial arts.. It is a kind of meditation, very elegant and aesthetically pleasing. In this regard it is more like a dance than real violence, because nobody is hurt. But both the swords and the exercised moves are potentially harmful, as they are designed to kill.

b) Guns: The Mafiosi often use them in rather crude ways, and very clumsily, but still deadly. Ghost Dog on the other hand uses guns elegantly and efficiently, much like a samurai sword. They are very much harmful.

c) Things: The young boy locked up by his mother throws things on the street to vent his aggression. It is also a childish attempt at rebellion against his mother and the system she enforces.

2. Cartoons: During the movie the characters keep watching cartoons, and often the events shown in the animation reflect the plot of the movie. They are used to comment on violence. You could call them ridiculous and childish, which is also what makes them entertaining. They are comparatively harmless, since neither the characters in the cartoons nor anyone in reality ever dies. But the juxtaposition with the real violence in the main plot questions their harmlessness (a point on which I will elaborate later.)

3. Chess: Although a game, it is not considered childish. Actually, playing chess is considered a very mature and civilized pastime. It is not harmful and the violence is very abstract, although it is based on the concrete idea of war.

4. The Hagakure: a book of war philosophy. Vargo also calls its contents (Even if a samurai’s head were to be suddenly cut off, he should still be able to perform one more action with certainty. ) poetry of war (Jarmusch 2000: 01:03:37ff.). Although it’s Japanese in origin, its message is instinctively understood by Ghost Dog and Vargo. It’s not immediately harmful, but not decidedly harmless.

5. Hip-hop lyrics: the soundtrack of the film is provided by the RZA, a member of the Wu-Tang Clan. Like Ghost Dog the Wu-Tang Clan is heavily influenced by Asian martial arts and the philosophy connected to it. A basic concept of rap is that of one MC battling another, trying to outsmart each other by use of rhetorics (dissing) in a competition of words. Hip-hop can both be a harmless substitute for gang violence or escalate into harmful real violence.5 Footnote preview: Hip-hop is said to have stopped gang violence in the Bronx in the early 80-ies by giving youths an alternative way to vent their aggressions. Also many of today’s rap stars were former gangsters who could break free from their criminal lifestyle by becoming famous and rich. But the opposite also happens, as for example in the case of the murders of The Notorious B.I.G. and Tupac, who were ap...

In summary, violence can be crude or efficient, childish or mature, harmful or harmless, primitive or civilized, abstract or concrete, etc. The scope of types of violence is thus quite broad, and it’s neither necessarily bad nor good. The existence of violence is a fact, and maybe somehow rooted in human nature, although the degree of violence can apparently be restricted. Violence is also a very male, and primal concept. From a civilized viewpoint, most types of violence are not very desirable. Civilization suppresses violence, which can result in stronger outbursts once they cannot be suppressed anymore.

Resistance to change

Louie often complaints about, and even laments the fact that the world is changing, and that nothing makes any sense anymore. Ghost Dog claims that both he and Louie belong to different ancient tribes, which are on the verge of becoming extinct. He also says that sometimes you have to stick with the ancient ways, the old school ways.6 All of these quotes are found in the last few scenes leading up to and including the showdown between Ghost Dog and Louie. Jarmusch 2000: 01:37:40ff. These ancient ways are the primal male ways of violence. The changes Louie laments indicate the world’s becoming more complicated: in the new world order, violence doesn’t solve problems anymore.

But still Ghost Dog clings to the old ways. This behavior contradicts the last quote Ghost Dog reads from the Hagakure:

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. (Jarmusch 2000: 01:33:00)

Up until that point Ghost Dog’s actions were always in accord with the rules laid out in the Hagakure, but his very attempt to abide by the ancient code of the samurai is dismissed by the book itself as impossible and futile. This fact cannot escape the attention of the viewer, who must ask the question, does Ghost Dog indeed make the best out of his generation? Do we make the best out of our generation?

Directly after the above quote, Ghost Dog encounters a black man wearing a military camouflage uniform who greets Ghost Dog with respect.7 There are similar scenes like this in which other hip-hop and gangster types have greeted Ghost Dog in similar ways. He is played by the RZA, and his name is given in the credits as the samurai in camouflage. The hip-hop soldier RZA and Ghost Dog are clearly linked by this scene, and the question raised by the quote is thus directed at the RZA and the hip-hop culture he represents. Are they making the best out of their generation by taking pride in being samurai soldiers? What does it mean to be a samurai? The Hagakure answers as follows:

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 thing for a retainer. (Jarmusch 2000: 00:15:30)

Samurai in fact means one who serves. It is ironic that a denomination like samurai, that is associated so much with pride, would have an almost derogatory meaning. But they don’t serve just anyone, they serve the highest ranked man in their society, the emperor. Because their master is elite, the samurai are elite as well. This is why it’s impossible that the word samurai could be used in a derogatory way.

The word nigger on the other hand is used in a derogatory way, although it has a neutral meaning. In Latin, niger just means black. And African-Americans are proud of their skin color, which is why some have adopted the word nigger as a self-denomination, defying its original usage. But by continuing to use the word nigger they involuntarily continue the tradition connected to it as well. Perhaps one could say they try to elevate the term without entirely managing to break free from its connotation, which is mirrored in Ghost Dog’s and RZA’s aspirations to be like samurai, the noble servants. And it doesn’t stop there.

In a way the gangster rappers serve the white gangster tradition, much like the samurai Ghost Dog serves his Mafiosi master. Without noticing they are upholding a tradition of domination. Instead of abolishing slavery they are just aspiring to becoming slave holders themselves; instead of abolishing the system of suppression they just want to obtain a high position in it. This is reflected in the sometimes racist and sexist lyrics.

Gender issues

Before Ghost Dog is shot by Louie, he comments that the sole male survivor Louie is now the new boss of his tribe. But in fact it turns out that the former boss’s daughter, Louise, has taken that role. It is no coincidence that the two surviving Mafiosi are so similarly named. It indicates the shift of influence in the world from male to female ways. Not the representative of ancient male violence Louie, but the crazy girl Louise has taken control.

In Louise’s first scene she is told by uncle Frank to drink another glass of wine. She comments that she doesn’t want to, but complies nevertheless. She’s obedient towards the male Frank like Ghost Dog is obedient towards his master Louie. But in the end Ghost Dog conquers the Mafia clan, and Louise seizes control. The slaves win over the slave holders.

And even Ghost Dog himself, who tries to resist change, becomes somewhat feminized during the course of the slave holder elimination. When he steals a suit to masquerade as a realtor, for no apparent reason at all he also steals a woman’s dress. When he puts on the suit, the following quote from the Hagakure is given:

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 time it is good to take out and apply some powdered rouge. (Jarmusch 2000: 01:08:50)

It seems even the samurai have a feminine side. But after Ghost Dog has killed off all the “slave holders”, there is nothing else for him to do:

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. (Jarmusch 2000: 01:24:30)

Which is why he then dies at the hand of Louie, who now serves a female boss. The shift from male to female becomes thus complete, and the violence ends. Or does it?

Passed on knowledge

A recurring theme in Ghost Dog is that of passing on knowledge. Louise passes on Rashōmon to Ghost Dog, who in turn passes it on to to the young girl Pearline. Pearline’s teacher also passes on books to her, and near the end, shortly before his death, Ghost Dog passes the Hagakure on to Pearline.

Pearline symbolizes the next generation, and is something of an alter ego of Ghost Dog. In a way, she’s his female version.8 Similar in how Louise is a female version of the Mafiosi Louie. She carries her books around in her lunchbox, which is reminiscent, Raymond comments, of Ghost Dog carrying around his suitcase. Ghost Dog keeps his guns in his suitcase, which is thus linked to violence. The books Pearline keeps in her lunchbox also contain violence. Her impressionable mind is exposed to violent cartoons, the samurai philosophy and the real violence she experiences on the street, when Louie shoots Ghost Dog. What kind of effect does this violence, both virtual and real, have on her? Jim Jarmusch chose this quote from the Hagakure to illustrate the relationship of the virtual and the real:

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. (Jarmusch 2000: 00:19:30)

If reality is no more real than a dream, than virtual reality can be as real as actual reality. In this light, cartoon violence does not seem so harmless anymore. Violence in entertainment, cartoons as well as action movies, is not real. In most cases it’s not even realistic, but rather exaggerated. Nevertheless it seems real.

After Ghost Dog has been shot, Pearline takes up his unloaded gun and shoots at Louie. The unloaded gun is supposed to be harmless, but nevertheless Louie flinches. What is supposed to have no effect does have an effect. Because virtual violence does have an effect on the child’s psyche.

At the beginning of the movie, when Louie is on his way to meet Vargo, he stops to talk to the aggressive young boy. One of the other Mafiosi dismisses this event as a mere distraction and asks Louie if he doesn’t have bigger problems than this. Shortly afterwards we are presented with this quote:

Among the maxims on Lord Naoshige’s wall there was this one: “Matters of great concern should be treated lightly.” Master Ittei commented: “Matters of small concern should be treated seriously.” (Jarmusch 2000: 00:22:50)

The main plot of the movie should be taken lightly. The distraction on the other hand (which most people will quickly forget again) should be taken seriously. In fact, this mere distraction from the main plot reveals Louie’s real problem. The Mafia violence isn’t all that different from the childish aggression. The adult violence has its root in childhood.

So is the violence which is passed on to children destined to repeat itself forever? The movie points both ways. On the one hand, Pearline falls under the spell of the Hagakure, as Ghost Dog did before her. On the other hand, the Hagakure also contains the solution, and the last passage quoted from it, by Pearline, reads like this:

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. (Jarmusch 2000: 01:46:30)

With this quote not only does the movie end, but also the lunchbox is dispatched. The lunchbox is associated with Ghost Dog’s suitcase, which contained his guns. So the hope remains that the cycle of violence can finally be broken.

Conclusion

I think Jarmusch succeeds in analyzing the attraction of Asian martial arts by exploring the differences and similarities of our cultures. The depth of his observations may not be immediately apparent to everyone, but the narrative manages to plant its message like a seed into the mind of the viewer.

Bibliography

      Primary Source (DVD)

    • Jarmusch, Jim: Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai. Kinowelt, 2000.

Secondary Sources

    • Yamamoto, Tsunetomo: Hagakure: the Book of the Samurai. Kōdansha, 1979
    • Akutagawa, Ryūnosuke: Rashomon and Other Stories. Tuttle Publishing, 1984.
    • Said, Edward W.: Orientalism. Vintage Books, 1979.

Footnotes

  1. A collection of short stories by early 20th century Japanese author Akutagawa Ryūnosuke, with varying Japanese historical settings. []
  2. This common reaction to foreign cultures is of course an example of Orientalism. The East is perceived as weird, because it is different from the Western standard, which is assumed to be normal. Said 1979. []
  3. Hagakure means hiding in the leaves and is the title of a book explaining the code of the samurai, written in the Edo period (1603~1868). Tsunetomo 1979. []
  4. A Japanese term for a sequence of movements or figures in martial arts. []
  5. Hip-hop is said to have stopped gang violence in the Bronx in the early 80-ies by giving youths an alternative way to vent their aggressions. Also many of today’s rap stars were former gangsters who could break free from their criminal lifestyle by becoming famous and rich.
    But the opposite also happens, as for example in the case of the murders of The Notorious B.I.G. and Tupac, who were apparently killed over an escalating rap rivalry. []
  6. All of these quotes are found in the last few scenes leading up to and including the showdown between Ghost Dog and Louie. Jarmusch 2000: 01:37:40ff. []
  7. There are similar scenes like this in which other hip-hop and gangster types have greeted Ghost Dog in similar ways. []
  8. Similar in how Louise is a female version of the Mafiosi Louie. []
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