2017 Film Essays

The Birds and the Beats: How ‘Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai’ Achieved Ultimate Serenity

Samurai lore has been championed and exploited on screen since the medium’s inception. Whether it’s an Akira Kurosawa film or a Hollywood B-Movie, there is something undeniably exciting and intriguing about viewing the medieval Japanese practice. Often associated with intricately choreographed fight scenes and bloody messes, Samurai culture has had a huge influence on Japanese and global cinema alike.

Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai stands far from the volatility of what you might expect from a film with the ancient practice in its title. Instead of focusing on physicality, director Jim Jarmusch expertly narrows in on the philosophy at the heart of the culture through the astutely named enigma Ghost Dog. Forest Whitaker’s character is immersed in the Samurai way of life via Yamamoto Tsunetomo’s Hagakure, with passages frequently appearing on screen in accordance with Ghost Dog’s actions. This anchors the meditative rhythm at the core of the film, which extends into every facet of the tranquil cinematic experience.

The extracts allow for Whitaker to narrate with the profound brevity of a spoken word poet, particularly when coupled with the serene drumbeat of RZA’s hip-hop inspired 90s soundtrack. This creates a slow, and perpetually meditative, style reminiscent of the likes of Gil Scott-Heron. The simplicity of the calm tempo means it seeps into one’s subconscious like white noise and creates a dream-like effect.

This effect is no coincidence, as Ghost Dog internalises Tsunetomo’s phrase: “It is a good viewpoint to see the world as a dream” and, like many teachings from the Hagakure, it is replicated in Jarmusch’s direction. The dream sequences are peace-inducing, as images are crossfaded over each other softly to reflect the Samurai-cum-hitman’s inner serenity. After receiving a message (via pigeon, of course) instructing him to leave urgently, Ghost Dog instead lays undisturbed for several on-screen minutes. With no sound but the faint flutter of birds, it is clear that he lives by his code where he is able to ignore the happenings of others in a dream-like state.

As a viewer, it feels like you are very much in Ghost Dog’s world, with a distancing from reality that is only really connected through the cartoons that Louise (Tricia Vargo) observes. People acknowledge Ghost Dog on the street as if were a walking deity, and he nonchalantly commits crimes. He understands that “A man’s whole life is a succession of moment after moment” and therefore lives his life inconsequentially, whether it’s stealing a car or taking down the mob. This distancing creates an ethereal atmosphere where the rules of real world don’t seem to apply, as he is too far submerged in the ancient world.

This creates a weightless aura around Ghost Dog where he can meander peacefully, and people will remain oblivious to his crimes. When he indiscreetly swaps over two license plates, a nearby family is passive in the background despite his huge presence and slow, methodical manner. Jarmusch edits this scene with another series of slow fades to denote the other-worldly nature of his existence, like he is floating between frames and transcending normal editing techniques.

The ubiquity of birds is a tribute to the Samurai’s dedication to animals, hence why Ghost Dog nests with them on top of a building. The film opens with the archetypal image of tranquillity: a bird flying through an empty sky. The camera then switches to an aerial shot of the city as a suggestion that the birds are looking out for Ghost Dog, an idea which concludes with a pigeon visiting him upon his death.

Ghost Dog glides through the story with the swiftness of an avian being in a film that never fails to be cathartic. By means of Tsunetomo’s mantra, he agrees that the way of the Samurai is found in death: by which point, and by his own admission, he has seen everything he wanted to see and died by the hands of who he considers to be his master. His journey is complete as he passes on the Hagakure to Pearline (Camille Winbush), who concludes the film neatly with her own narration. Despite Ghost Dog’s homicidal streak, there is a lot to learn from his inner-serenity. Perhaps he’s right in saying that “sometimes you gotta stick to the ancient ways.”

Tom Williams (@tomwilliams__) is a literature graduate from the University of York and a freelance film critic. He has written for Little White Lies, HeyUGuys and is currently the film editor for The Essential Journal. Tom enjoys all things Keanu Reeves.