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 in the employ of the mafia, who strictly adheres to a samurai code derived from The Hagakure (a collection of quotations and musings from a famous samurai), snippets from which pop up during the movie.The titular Ghost Dog sees himself as a retainer (in the servant sense) of a local mobster, who had saved his life years ago. As a result, a couple of times every year Ghost Dog performs totally untraceable assassinations on behalf of the mobster. But during the latest hit things get complicated, and the plot moves forward from there.It's quirky 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.
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.
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.
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 as a pissed-off Native American mystic who lives on a rooftop and is briefly mistaken for Ghost Dog. "Stupid fucking white man!"
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.
The Don: Ray Vargo, although he seems to care about nothing except his daughter anymore, so the Family is falling apart.
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 assumeThe 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.
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.
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.
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.
Rashomon Plot: The scene where Ghost Dog's life is spared is seen differently. As Ghost Dog remembers it, Louie saves him from being killed by thugs as a boy. When Louie relates the story to his fellow mobsters, one of the thugs draws a gun on him and he shoots 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.
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".
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.