Ghost Dog and Further Eastern Values

I looked over the notes I took on Ghost Dog and some of them, such as “shops all closed at night,” “Three mobsters = 3 Stooges,” and “Poetry of war,” made me start thinking about the analogy of East Meets West a little bit more.  With those three notes I specifically began to imagine the generic narrative of imperial Japan under circumstances of Yakuza rule, headed three idiot mob bosses who flamboyantly brandish their power.

The shops in the part of Jersey Ghost Dog drove through seemed predominantly closed and that made me think of japanese stories of the extortion of the poor and helpless, saved by the blade of the wandering samurai.  Although it was never explicitly said that shops were closed due to mob activity*, the imagery was dark and foreboding enough to seem that maybe there was a dark aura looming over the town, equating that aura to the presence of the mob.

As for the third note about the poetry of war, I’m not all too sure where it originated from, but I recall that there was a scene in the film that made me feel like there was some poetic aspect, either through mis-en-scene or narrative, and as causality, I thought of the Chinese treatise “The Art of War,” a book that each chapter deals with some aspect of warfare.  Although it isn’t Japanese literature, I think the inclusion of some reference to it is another analogy to how the East meets West narrative can be applied.  The way Ghost Dog takes down each boss is poetic in each way he decides to end them; instead of sniping the main boss from afar, he is met by a bird that changes his decision, making the kill personal by going in headlong, as he had described is the Samurai way.


*I acknowledge that there was a scene where the superintendent threatens the mob that he’ll throw them out if they don’t pay up their rent, which demonstrates that perhaps the common man isn’t as scared of the mafia as usually believed.

Ghost Dog as a western

After watching Ghost Dog I tried to figure out what genre this movie would be labeled as, but I found myself struggling to identify the genre of the film simply because it drew on so many disparate forms of film making. On the surface level it clearly possesses elements of the American Gangster crime drama because it deals with the mafia and revolves around a struggle for power, but if you look past this and focus on the plight of Ghost Dog the film can be read as a modern day western that follows an aging gunslingers’ struggle to adapt to a modernizing world.

The archetype of Ghost Dog is that of the classic western hero: a quiet loner that is constantly seeking justice in morally questionable ways. This is an archetype that has been portrayed by hundreds of characters from western movie history, ranging from Clint Eastwood’s character of The Man with No Name to John Wayne’s character Rooster Cogburn in True Grit. The only difference between Ghost Dog’s version of this hero and the versions of the hero portrayed by actors like Eastwood and Wayne is that Ghost Dog is guided by a set of principles and ancient beliefs rather than a thirst for revenge. Even so, Ghost Dog still fulfills his role as a western hero because he tries to the best of his ability to create justice in a world that is becoming filled with more and more moral decay. This is evident in the scenes in which Ghost Dog reads the ancient texts aloud. During these sequences Ghost Dog condemns the lifestyles and cultural attitude that many people have developed in the modern day world, thus solidifying himself as a cowboy-like hero that is on a quest to bring justice to an amoral world.

Another scene that embodies the western genre is the duel scene that occurs between Ghost Dog and Louie at the end of the film. This final showdown is a clear allusion to the type of western shoot outs featured in classics like “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly”, but unlike its predecessors the director puts a twist on this scene by having Ghost Dog openly accept his death by refusing to fire his gun. I thought this act was really important because it shows that even though Ghost Dog had lived a violent and morally questionable life he ended it with an act of kindness, which in this case was giving Louie the Japanese book so the way of the samurai would not die with him and the philosophy he lived by would live on.



Ghost Dog and Genre Hybridity

I wouldn’t call myself a fan of Ghost Dog. It was certainly an interesting film. It definitely was made by an artist who was knowledgeable of film, genre, and narrative arts. But something never really clicked for me. It could be as simple as I think Forrest Whittaker was completely wrong for the role. Or it could be the fact that I never really connected with the story. I’ll rest in terms of my critique, but the film did offer an interesting look into genre theory.

I don’t want to herald this film as a genre defying or film redefining because it is not the first nor last film to play with genres and make them something completely unique. In fact, this hybridity is pretty common now a days and it is actually rarer to get a pure traditional genre narrative where the film structure hits every single elements necessary to be considered a “fill in the blank.”

The film tackles the hit man genre, the Italian Mafia genre, the philosophical and eastern martial arts style films, and the crime thriller genre to form a unique tale of a samurai practicing contemporary black hit man working for the decaying, comical versions of the italian mafia in the dying post industrial “any town USA.” The story is simple… botched job, mob wants to kill the man responsible, the man responsible is a bad ass, and the bad ass takes down his pursuers until reaching his end. The film STRUCTURE isn’t anything new. What is unique, however, is the relationships between the characters who not only fall into different genre categories and represent separate syntax and semantics, but also play them in an out of place context. The mobsters are not the opulent, powerful, terrifying leaders were used to from the godfather… They are goons, thugs, degenerates who are late on their electric bills. Ghost Dog has the mindset and dialogue of an Asian samurai from 1732 but instead he is practicing his tradecraft with contemporary weapons in a modern setting. The match up leads to sub funny genre playing and an even funnier (if not depressing end). Ghost dog, who views his allegiance to his master as undying, gives his life to a man who barely understands Ghost Dog’s prerogative. They are from completely different worlds, genres, lives yet they come together to form a coherent story.  It’s pretty interesting. Perhaps what really bothered me is these people just wouldn’t exist in the real world and they were so over the top in terms of their caricature portrayals that I was taken out of the story. Obviously, however, that was Jarmusch’s intent and I have to respect the man for being original. I personally think a man like Tarantino takes Jarmusch’s approach so much further and executes his genre defying/mutating stories with so much more brass, subtly, better structure/dialogue, and better acting that I am almost never sucked out of his stories even when the scenes border on and surpass absurd.