Modern samurai story weaving bushido and Buddhism into new context, 1 December 2016
"Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai" (1999) is a deep movie. It can be appreciated superficially as a crime story, but its title, structure, and themes are deep; and they are about Buddhism most fundamentally. The central text of the film that divides it into chapters and parts of which are shown and read to us are from Hagakure, written by a Buddhist monk and important for bushido, the samurai warrior code.
Jim Jarmusch has written a film that has many levels, all of which are integrated seamlessly into the story. Buddhism is not all there is here. The film references Melville’s "Le Samourai", for example. At the same time, it presents myths and turns them on their head. It shows us clashing myths. Modern culture knows many myths, from worldwide and from the past, because we know history. Modern man still faces the quandaries always faced by man. Who are we? What are we? What’s the meaning of our existence? How do we deal with knowledge of our death? Different myths, ways and traditions have emerged. They are transmitted by texts. This movie is a text and shows a Buddhist text. So it is transmitting a philosophy as the title suggests; and the movie itself shows Forest Whitaker as having received the text and then transmitting it to a little girl who is an avid reader. Jarmusch is capable of a kind of mirror effect in creating multiple parallels.
Whitaker’s character is not crazy, as Roger Ebert thought. He has merely adopted a religion or code, a comprehensive one, and he sticks to it.
The Mafia in the film are no longer vigorous. They are decadent and failing. They are old and failing. They watch cartoons impassively. These cartoons, by the way, are another level Jarmusch uses to deepen the movie because the action they show is mirrored in the story’s action. The best that the Mafia figures can hope for is to go out the old way, being disposed of by Whitaker efficiently. They await death, as Henry Silva even says.
Communication by words is not all there is. Zen promotes a wordless awareness at its deepest level. This happens between Whitaker and his Haitian friend, Isaach De Bankolé who speaks only French that Whitaker does not understand.
TransBuddhism: Transmission, Translation, Transformation by Nalini Bhushan, Jay L. Garfield, and Abraham Zablocki discusses this movie. It’s obvious that the movie is about eastern philosophy, but their discussion amplifies its nature. Insightful portions about "Ghost Dog" can be read free using Google to search.
As a movie that transmits feelings to us as viewers, we get the feeling that Whitaker’s character is at peace with himself and his profession as a hit man. He’s loyal to his boss and is willing to die for him if need be. He has found his way through life and needs no more. His ordinary emotions are muted. The religion he has adopted is eastern, and it’s much more fatalistic and submissive as compared with a western religion like Judaism or Christianity. They are poles apart, even though both cultivate a spiritual tradition which is their meeting place. Whitaker as an actor is fine in his part. The acting and staging of the film are as good as the writing and directing. It’s the depth of the story and its originality that raise it to the excellent category.