Conceived as a loving homage to French director Jean-Pierre Melville’s 1967 classic Le Samourai, Jim Jarmusch’s Ghost Dog: Way of the Samurai is a strange combination of a multitude of genres and influences, ranging from Japanese literature (specifically samurai fiction) to Italian mob dramas to even cartoons. In Le Samourai, a samurai code from the “Book of Bushido” appears at the beginning of that film (which was later revealed to be made up by Melville himself). But it’s a totally different story with Ghost Dog. Jarmusch takes it one or two steps further. His protagonist follows the samurai way of life religiously with him actually reading passages from the “Hagakure”, (a spiritual text written by an ancient samurai) and even practices his samurai rituals systematically every day. Ghost Dog (played by Forest Whitaker) is an African-American hitman-for-hire who thinks of himself of as an ancient creature – a samurai – living in the modern world. He leads an austere life and is an extreme introvert who shares his place of residence with a flock of pigeons.
Whenever his employers need to get rid of somebody, they communicate with him with the help of a messenger pigeon. Upon receiving the message, he would proceed to carry out his mission. He calls a local mafioso capo his “retainer”. In the past, this capo had saved him from a vicious attack by a bunch of racist bullies when he was a young boy. Since then, Ghost Dog owes his life to this man. When one of his assignments don’t work out as planned, his employers order the capo to find a way to eliminate him. Under no circumstances would Ghost Dog kill his “retainer” but he shows no hesitation when it comes to going after those who have disrupted his peaceful and lonely existence. He is methodical and moves swiftly, just like a samurai. For the purpose of his missions, he steals a luxury car and he always prefer one with high-end equipment so that he can break in using a special electronic gadget. In this area, he is almost like James Bond. (In Le Samourai, the protagonist had only a set of different car keys) At multiple points in the film, various passages from the “Hagakure” appear on the screen and are simultaneously read by Ghost Dog. Each passage pertains to a particular scene (or action) that has just preceded it or follows it.
Like I said earlier, Ghost Dog doesn’t have any friends and is a recluse. His only friend – whom he calls his “best friend” – is someone who doesn’t even speak English, a French ice cream seller played by Isaach de Bankolé (who starred in Casino Royale and played the protagonist in Jarmusch’s The Limits of Control). At one point, this man takes out a book about bears and reads from it. This is where an obvious parallel is drawn between the animal’s nature and Ghost Dog’s. As Ghost Dog, Forest Whitaker is an imposing figure given his appearance and exudes an aura that is usually attributed to Buddhist monks. He remains a likable character despite his eccentricities (don’t we all have our own?). The sense of humor in the film is provided by the interaction between the Italian mobsters and here, a slight influence of Scorsese can be felt. And almost every character is shown at one point or the other watching cartoons. It’s as if Jarmusch is telling us not to take his film seriously and not view it as another “art-house film”. There is also a nod to Seijun Suzuki’s Branded to Kill, as in one scene, Ghost Dog takes out a target by pointing his gun through a drain pipe just like Joe Shishido did in that film.