Film / Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai
Live by the code, die by the code

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.

An unusual mix of samurai and gangster genres, Ghost Dog: The Way Of The Samurai is a 1999 movie by independent filmmaker Jim Jarmusch, starring Forest Whitaker.

The story follows a hitman who calls himself Ghost Dog in the employ of the mafia. Ghost Dog has a Foreign Culture Fetish for Japan in general and the samurai in particular, and strictly adheres to a samurai code derived from The Hagakure (a collection of quotations and musings from a famous samurai), and snippets from the book pop up during the movie.

Ghost Dog sees himself as a retainer (in the servant sense) of a local mafia member named Louie, who saved Ghost Dog's life years ago. As a result, about a couple of times a year Ghost Dog performs totally untraceable assassinations on behalf of Louie and the mob family that Louie is a member of. But during the latest hit things get complicated, and the plot moves forward from there.

It's a quirky movie to say the least: Ghost Dog's habits and friend(s) are rather unusual, and the random happenings of Ghost Dog's life are interspersed with or interrupt the greater plot often. (This makes the film a character study of the protagonist as much as anything else).

The movie was a hit with fans of Wu-Tang Clan since Jarmusch, ordinarily a (white) B&W indie filmmaker, got the RZA to compose the soundtrack. (Years later he also did the Kill Bill soundtrack and the theme tune for both Afro Samurai installments.)

Its independent nature prevented it from receiving much attention, but it did receive fairly good praise from critics and has become a rather minor Cult Classic. Not to be confused with Cop Dog, a film about a ghost dog, who is also a cop.

This film provides examples of:

  • Animal Motifs: a dog appears twice in the film, both times staring directly at Ghost Dog. Ghost Dog is explicitly compared to a bear by Raymond, and kills two hunters who he encounters who have killed a black bear basically because they could; Pearline at the very end has pyjamas on with a bear pattern. There's also Ghost Dog's pigeons.
  • Apologetic Attacker: A mobster sent to kill Louie apologizes beforehand, but gets interrupted by Ghost Dog. Later, Ghost Dog apologizes for shooting Louie.
  • Avenging the Villain: After nearly all of the Vargo crime family is wiped out, Louise Vargo takes control and has Louie kill Ghost Dog to avenge her father.
  • Badass Bookworm: Ghost Dog apparently quite loves to read.
  • Badass Longcoat: Ghost Dog
  • Bilingual Bonus: Any dialogue between Ghost Dog and Raymond. "It's a Han-Chewie thing." In the French dub version, the barrier wouldn't exist, so they had the character's origin changed from Haitian to West African, and asked Raymond's Ivorian-born actor to dub himself in Yoruba.
  • Bittersweet Ending
  • Black and Gray Morality: Ghost Dog is arguably more honorable than the mobsters he hunts, showing undying loyalty and gratitude to Louie. However, he is not a good man. He kills people for a living, steals cars and license plates in the course of his work, and even steals an innocent couple's clothes at gunpoint.
  • Blood from the Mouth: Mauve Shirt Vinny has this just before he dies of his wounds.
  • Bookends
  • Born in the Wrong Century: Just about every gangster and Ghost Dog himself wishes they could live the "old school ways".
  • Brick Joke: The Italian mobster who professes his love for Public Enemy in a seemingly throwaway joke... but near the end of the movie is actually seen alone in his house blasting PE and rapping along.
  • Cameo / Actor Allusion: Gary Farmer briefly reprises his role from Dead Man as a pissed-off Native American mystic who lives on a rooftop and is briefly mistaken for Ghost Dog. "Stupid fucking white man!"
  • Contract on the Hitman
  • Cultured Badass: Lets see: Ghost Dog is deeply knowledgeable about and dedicated to the code of Bushido, has a love of everything from classic literature to social rights philosophy to fantasy, he has warrior symbols from multiple cultures in his shack, and raises and trains pigeons.
    • Also evinced by Ray Vargo, when the mafiosi receive a note from Ghost Dog with a quote from the Hagakure.
    Vargo: It's poetry. The poetry of war.
  • The Don: Ray Vargo, although he seems to care about nothing except his daughter anymore, so the Family is falling apart.
  • Double Standard: Hard to tell if it's being deconstructed or played for very dark laughs. Louie is horrified by a fellow mobster (who seems like bumbling, helpless nice guy) killing an Obstructive Bureaucrat female police officer. The following conversation occurs.
    Louie: Jesus, Vinny. You just iced a woman, you know that?
    Vinny: You know what you are, Louie? You're a fuckin' male chauvinist pig.
    Louie: What do you mean, I'm a male chauvinist pig? You just shot a broad.
    Vinny: A cop. I just shot a cop. They wanna be equal? I made her equal.
  • Dysfunction Junction: The relationship between Ray Vargo and his daughter Louise. He's bankrupting The Family for the sake of her trust fund. She's rebellious. He has her sleazy lover assassinated, (despite said lover being a Made Man within his crime family) then puts out a Contract on the Hitman because Louise was there and traumatized by it. They don't speak a word to each other in the scenes they share. When Ray dies at Ghost Dog's hands, Louise avenges him. There's probably another movie's worth of material just in telling the whole story between them.
  • Epigraph: The Hagakure is recited by the title character and, in the final scene, by Pearline.
    • Many viewers may assume The Hagakure, a 17th-century guide to the Samurai, is an Encyclopedia Exposita, but is in fact a real book on which the film is (loosely) framed.
  • Evil Old Folks: The Italian mobsters. Almost without exception they're all old and out of shape.
  • Face Death with Dignity: Ray Vargo. Also Ghost Dog.
  • Friend to All Living Things: Oh, so, played straight. Ghost Dog has a remarkable way with carrier pigeons. A sparrow even lands on Ghost Dog's sniper rifle and he pauses to admire it before scoping out the mafia hideout.
  • Gonna Fly Now Montage: Ghost Dog's dreamy martial arts meditation/power-up sequence on the rooftop.
  • Go Out With A Bang:
    "You know, Louie, there's one good thing about this Ghost Dog guy."
    "What's that, Vin?"
    "He's sending us out the old way. Like real fucking gangsters."
  • Go Out with a Smile: Ghost Dog.
  • Guns Akimbo: Ghost Dog calmly takes down the entire Mafia hideout in a subversion of John Woo style.
  • Gun Twirling: Sort of. Ghost Dog has an... interesting way of putting away his guns. He is actually doing a version of the shiburi, the traditional samurai sword-cleaning twirl, adapted for handguns.
  • Heroic Bloodshed
  • Heroic Sacrifice: Subversion, Ghost Dog appears to be under the impression that his death at the hand of his master is necessary to resolve the situation.
  • Hero of Another Story: The RZA's character is implied to be this, as both he and Ghost Dog share a mutual respect for one another.
  • Heterosexual Life-Partners: Ghost Dog and Raymond, even though they don't speak the same language.
  • Hitman with a Heart: Ghost Dog. An untraceable assassin who spares a woman from his latest job, (despite the fact that he has no idea who she is and could identify him) and forms a friendship with a young local girl over the books they read.
  • Hit Me, Dammit!: Louie, believing that Ghost Dog's actions have doomed him to being killed by his own Crime Family, tells Ghost Dog to just shoot him and get it over with. After Ghost Dog initially refuses, Louie just demands it again and louder so Ghost Dog shoots Louie in the shoulder, then justifies it after the fact by saying that Louie will now have a cover story and can claim that Ghost Dog attacked him. This buys Ghost Dog and Louie just enough time for Ghost Dog to wipe out the entire crime family.
  • Homeless Pigeon Person: While he's not homeless, (if only because he lives in a one room shack on a roof) the lead character becomes known to the bad guys as 'the ***ing bird man' cause he keeps pigeons.
  • Hypocritical Humor: The Italian mobsters' conversation goes off on an incredibly racist tangent about how black guys and Indians continually name themselves after animals... and at the end of the conversation one of them yells for an underling named Sammy the Snake.
  • Improbable Aiming Skills
    You shot me in the exact same fucking place as last time!
  • I Owe You My Life: The main character, who sees himself as a follower of Bushido, swears allegiance to a mobster who saved his life in the past, and currently operates as an assassin for that mobster.
  • Kill 'em All: Ghost Dog and most of the mobsters are dead by the end of the film.
  • Make It Look Like a Struggle: Ghost Dog does this to Louie twice so that Louie's survival after encountering Ghost Dog won't look suspicious. The first time, Sonny Valerio is still suspicious, regardless. The second time, well... there's hardly anyone left to be suspicious by then.
  • Mauve Shirt: Louie's friend Vinny hangs around in the background, has a few lines, and seems like a nice guy. He dies seconds after proving himself to be not so harmless.
  • Men Are the Expendable Gender: Killing and combat are performed by male characters. Ghost Dog spares Louise after killing Handsome Frank. Finally, Louie is horrified when Vinny shoots a female police officer.
  • Mugging the Monster: While passing by an alley, Ghost Dog sees a young man following and about to attack an old Asian man who is carrying groceries. Ghost Dog seems to be considering intervening when the Asian man calmly puts down his groceries, surprises the would-be mugger by kicking him twice in the face, then picks up his groceries and continues on as the mugger leaves.
  • Notable Original Music: the soundtrack composed by RZA of the Wu-Tang Clan. The DVD offers the possibility of seeing the whole film as a silent, with no other sound than RZA's soundtrack.
  • Only a Flesh Wound: What's a bullet or two in the shoulder?
  • Passing the Torch: Ghost Dog bequeaths his copy of the Hagakure to Pearline. She also picks up his gun and aims it at Louie as he runs away, signaling that she might follow in his footsteps.
  • Perspective Flip
  • Pop-Cultured Badass: Sonny, the mafioso rap fan. We even see him rapping along to Public Enemy's "Cold Lampin' with Flavor" in his bathroom right before Ghost Dog kills him.
  • The Public Domain Channel: Cartoons. So many cartoons.
  • Rashomon Plot: The scene where Ghost Dog's life is saved is seen differently depending on who is recalling it. As Ghost Dog remembers it, Louie comes by to see what's going on when a group of thugs are giving GD a No-Holds-Barred Beatdown, and the leader of the thugs attacking Ghost Dog points a gun at GD, at which point Louie shoots the guy dead. When Louie relates the story to his fellow mobsters, the thug draws a gun and points it at Louie, not Ghost Dog, and Louie shoots the guy in self defense. Either GD's memory is playing tricks on him, or Louie is lying so he won't have to explain why he'd bother saving a black kid.
    • The book itself turns up in the movie, underscoring a theme of how various characters are essentially seeing completely different events depending on their point of view.
  • "Reading Is Cool" Aesop: Ghost Dog is well-read, and he and Pearline bond over their love of books.
  • Real Men Wear Pink: The Italian mobsters love old cartoons.
  • Reality Has No Subtitles: Zig zagged. Ghost Dog's best friend is a French-speaking ice cream seller, whose dialog is usually subtitled but every now and then it isn't.
  • Rebellious Mafia Princess: Louise Vargo has a rather weird, slightly gothy, slightly Broken Bird rebellious streak going on.
  • Running Gag: Ghost Dog only speaks English, his best friend Raymond only speaks French, but they keep saying the same thing.
    • Raymond is constantly going on about how nutritious ice cream supposedly is. Near the end, however, he admits that ice cream isn't very healthy.
    • The constant eating of chocolate ice cream. When both Ghost Dog and Pearline turn down a cone within seconds of each other, it's a good sign that the mood is about to change.
  • Shout-Out: to Frankenstein, as well as an appearance by Gary Farmer where he calls the gangster who shoots one of his pigeon "stupid fucking white man." Farmer is even credited as "Nobody," the character he played in Jarmusch's previous film Dead Man, whose catchphrase is "Stupid Fucking White Man".
  • Spiritual Successor: To Dead Man. The two films can be taken as part of a Thematic Series, similar to his early series of films. And to Le Samouraļ, (1967) which was also about a Bushido-following assassin.
  • Vicariously Ambitious: One way to interpret Ghost Dog's dying words to Louie at the their final meeting is that Ghost Dog has always had the intention of getting Louie to the top of the mob hierarchy, and part of why he allows Louie to kill him is because once Louie has avenged the death of his bosses, he can become a Boss with his reputation intact.
    You're gonna be the boss of your own clan now, right Louie? There's no one else left... ain't that right, Louie?
  • Wouldn't Hit a Girl: Louie wouldn't. Not everyone goes by those rules...
    • Ghost Dog wouldn't either. He spared Louise twice.
  • Worthy Opponent: Ghost Dog and Ray Vargo, in their brief scene together, show respect for each other. Also, Louie's friend Vinny, (who is literally seconds away from dying from a wound inflicted by Ghost Dog) is grateful to die a good death — it's better than continuing to grow old and toothless.