Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai

Jim Jarmusch

BY James KeastPublished Nov 17, 2016

Two new films that couldn't seem farther apart provide a wealth of material for cross-fading cultural remixers who love to connect dots across a landscape of time and geography. In this case, the unifier is the samurai, the ancient Japanese symbol of the honourable mercenary ? it appears in the Zen path of Ghost Dog (Forest Whitaker), a mob assassin who lives by 18th century warrior text Hagakure: The Book of the Samurai, and in the titular inspiration for Danish film Mifune, named after Japanese actor Toshiro Mifune, whose performances in such classics as Kurosawa's Seven Samurai helped cement modern samurai images. Ghost Dog, the latest from Jim Jarmusch (Dead Man, Down By Law), deals with the clash between ancient philosophies and the modern world, not only where the titular contract killer is concerned, but in the world of his employer, a Mafia foot soldier to whom he has pledged his life. Just as Ghost Dog is an anachronism, so too are the aging mobsters who are struggling to maintain their grip on organised crime. Jarmusch loves to throw conflicting elements into his mix, and the score from the RZA (whose Wu-Tang Clan draws its own inspiration from kung fu movies and samurai imagery) is just one of those.
Although Mifune, set in rural Denmark, would seem worlds apart from the street-wise Ghost Dog, there remain unusual connections that Jarmusch would appreciate. The film is the third feature to follow the conventions of Danish director Lars Von Trier's Dogme 95 program, itself a sort of anachronistic code of filmmaking honour that imposes strict rules on the proceedings (shooting only in natural light, hand-held cameras, no score, no bringing outside props to a set). When his estranged father dies, Kresten (Anders W. Berthelsen), must return to the dilapidated farm of his childhood to settle affairs and deal with his mentally handicapped brother, whom he entertains by pretending to be Toshiro Mifune. Having lied to his new wife and business associates about his family and impoverished upbringing, Kresten finds his life coming apart at the seams; he stays at the farm, partly from shame, partly from reborn affection for his brother. Although the arrival of a desperate hooker with a heart of gold, who applies for a housekeeping job, comes close to breaking one of Dogme's conventions (no genre films), the look, tone and structure of Mifune remains so far from Hollywood that even its light romanticism doesn't feel conventional. It's innovative story-telling not because of what it has to say, but how it says it. Rather like Rashomon, a book that one odd character in Jarmusch's film gives to Ghost Dog; the film version by Akira Kurosawa starred Toshiro Mifune.

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