Originally released in 1999, writer/director Jim Jarmusch’s Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai is the latest film to receive the Criterion treatment. The film is a rare oddity in that is very much of its period, yet is absolutely timeless. It’s not just that the poetry Jarmusch pulls from Hagakure: The Book of the Samurai, an 18th century book detailing the samurai code, leads the moral center of the titular Ghost Dog or the lengths Jarmusch goes to reduce specific location markings, thereby evoking a somewhere/nowhere/everywhere dichotomy, it’s that the film constantly creates a simultaneous sense of something ending and beginning. One doesn’t need to end at a specific time nor does it need to begin at a specific time, it just does in an innocuous moment. This philosophical thought permeates Ghost Dog, giving the otherwise quiet crime drama incredible heft that inspires conversation even twenty-one years after its release.
Under the orders of mob boss Sonny Valerio (Cliff Gorman), Louie (John Tormey) activates his best hit man, Ghost Dog (Forest Whitaker), to eliminate one of their own for engaging in a relationship with the head boss’s daughter, Louise (Tricia Vessey). However, when something goes wrong, Sonny puts a target on Ghost Dog and the responsibility on Louie. With no choice but to engage, Ghost Dog puts a plan in motion that will protect his master at all costs.
Ghost Dog is one of those films whose layers possess layers. It’s not a flourish that Ghost Dog lives as he does: alone in a room atop a building, his only companions either the pigeons he cares for or his best friend, a Haitian who speaks not a word of English. These seem like idiosyncrasies, a by-product of an artist known for pushing rules with each of his films, yet you’d be incredibly wrong. Take the lack of temporal/spatial anchor that runs throughout the film. Despite being filmed entirely in New Jersey, there’s not a single marker of where the story takes place, Jarmusch going so far as replacing license plates titles for “Industrial State” or “Highway State” instead of the usual state name placement. The members of the Italian mob could live anywhere, as could Ghost Dog himself. This could easily be New York, New Jersey, Atlanta, or Los Angeles, just as anywhere else. The location doesn’t matter as much as the interactions between the characters. In this case, the relationship between rule-bound Ghost Dog who acts as the steward to Louie could take place in any country at any time in any place. The fact that it takes place in an English-speaking country is irrelevant. What does matter is the depiction of the relationship as it relates to Ghost Dog’s tenets. Service and loyalty above all else, even preservation of self. This is where the film gets particularly interesting. Ghost Dog’s tenets are considered out-dated, even ancient, yet it’s his code that garners him more respect by those around him than the mobsters who seek his demise. By contrast, the mobsters are floundering, unable to pay their rent or mortgages, clinging desperately to a system they’ve been unable to adapt to modern standards. They are quarrelling among themselves and, in so doing, bring about their literal downfall. If that’s not poetry executed via a specific vision, I am troubled to think of something better.
Speaking of poetry, Henry Silva’s Ray Vargo responds with, “It’s poetry. The poetry of war,” after hearing a line from Hagakure. The man is mostly silent, yet, with this line and a divine physical performance, Vargo crafts a character who understands that there is beauty to be found in the violent, that the duality of thought and action are intertwined and deserve equal respect. Let’s examine this idea in another way: the relationship between Ghost Dog and Isaach De Bankolé’s Raymond. Neither of them speak the same language yet they each refer to the other as “best friend” and constantly react to the other with dialogue acknowledging their understanding of what the other says or intends. It’s comic without being comical, it’s touching without being saccharine, and it sharpness Jarmusch’s notion that even if we don’t understand the words of another, intent can always be translated if you pay attention. It’s surely not coincidence that Jim Jarmusch’s titular character Ghost Dog bases his life on the wisdom within Hagakure: The Book of the Samurai, a book which is the epitome of the telephone game across centuries, cultures, and languages. The book itself was compiled between 1709 – 1716 by Tashiro Tsuramoto through his discussions with monk Yamamoto Tsunetomo and was later translated by William Scott Wilson in 1979. If one were to consider that the Hagakure is more than a book related to the ways of bushido, the warrior code of the samurai, but a physical representation of communication from the past remaining relevant in the present, how what was once considered lost may find resurgence, and that language of origin matters little in connecting with others. Thought of in this way, Ghost Dog reveals itself as an exploration of the interconnectedness of tradition, the cyclical nature of violence, and how the corruption of nature leads to the destruction of all, and it’s all set to the sounds of RZA’s cyclical, almost meditative score.
In terms of special features, to call the supplemental material robust would be an understatement. Not including archived interviews, deleted scenes and outtakes, and a theatrical trailer, there is plenty new here to excite fans of the film no matter the specific area of interest. In a brand new nearly 90-minute audio Q&A, Jarmusch answers questions submitted by people from around the world. He does caution folks that his answers may not satisfy as he has to go back 20+ years in his memory, but his does his level best, providing incredible details about his meeting with RZA, why a score was never released (he hints at one coming), a funny story about the inspiration for the boat scene that takes place in the film, and a great deal more. For those who enjoyed the scenes between Whitaker and Bankolé, there is a brand-new fantastic 29-minute virtual Q&A hosted film scholar Michael B. Gillespie. They discuss not only their memories of shooting and how they feel the story remains relevant and interesting today, but also teases a bit how De Bankolé’s appearance in Jarmusch’s 2009 The Limits of Control is a spiritual continuation of his character’s story in Ghost Dog. Curious about the philosophy espoused from the Hagakura? There’s a brief interview with Shifu Shi Yan Ming, founder of the USA Shaolin Temple. As a philosophy minor in undergrad, I was a touch disappointed to discover that the interview is a scant 5+ minutes given the importance of the samurai code that serves as the life blood of the story. As with all things, the casting of the film is equally paramount to the narrative itself, so enjoy a brand new 15-minute interview with Ellen Lewis, the casting director for Ghost Dog. What is particularly delightful about the supplemental materials is not included on disc, but within the packaging itself (and, no, I don’t mean the liner notes). Like with prior releases, the liner notes are comprised of information to enrich the cinematic experience. In this case, that means adapted versions of essays from critics Jonathan Rosenbaum and Greg Tate, as well as a 2000 interview with Jarmusch. But the real treasure? Included with the release is a small abridged copy of the Hagakure that includes the quotes from the film. Each quote Jarmusch uses is not only significant to the themes of the film, but also to the moments which transpire during and after it. To better understand Ghost Dog, one needs to truly understand the quotes he briefly presents. In concert with the previous releases, the supplemental features of Ghost Dog make the purchase absolutely worth it for fans of the film.
Regarding the audio/visual elements of the 4k digital restoration, there’s more that excites than frustrates. Though there is noticeable visual static/artifacting in the background (think: sky, road, walls), the in-focus aspects (characters and relative accoutrements) are crisp and appropriately colorful. The best scene to explain this features Ghost Dog, dressed in his usual all-black uniform, as he stands against a green wall when Sonny drives by in his car. The scene takes place in slo-mo, enabling the audience to get a good look at the interaction and it is beautiful. The green on the wall is vibrant, as are the mint green highlights on Sonny’s car, hinting at a certain amount of wealth or fortune which contrasts nicely with the deep black of Ghost Dog’s attire, emblematic of the singularity that is Ghost Dog in both mind and body. There is a small bit of issue with the audio, as there is often a discrepancy between the volume of the score compared to the dialogue. This may be addressed with adjusting the settings on your sound system, should you have one, or merely keeping your finger near the volume when the score takes prominence in the scene and then adjust when it drops. It’s a minor frustration that even impacts more current releases, so it’s not something to strike against the restoration.
Audiences are bound to have favorites from which to pick and choose from the constantly experimenting writer/director’s oeuvre in a career spanning 40 years. Though my personal experience with Jarmusch’s work is limited to Ghost Dog, it’s a film which continues to resonate with me since I first watched it during undergrad. Whether it be as simple as breathing or as complicated as a forward assault. without dedication to each act, you are destined to fail; the notion that traditions are valuable as long as we treat them with care and respect, not devaluing them via replicating without contemplation; the notion that without a code by which to live, we are less than even nature, which itself possesses a code of behavior — these are incredibly powerful to consider whether you’re a 20 year old or an almost 40 year old, whether you part of the Italian mob or a lone Black hit man, if you don’t consider your place in the world, there’s nothing but chaos.
Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai Criterion Collection details
- *New* 4K digital restoration, supervised and approved by director Jim Jarmusch, with 5.1 surround DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack on the Blu-ray
- Alternate isolated stereo music track
- *New* Q&A with Jarmusch, in which he responds to questions sent in by fans (1:24:08)
- *New* conversation between actors Forest Whitaker and Isaach De Bankolé, moderated by film scholar Michael B. Gillespie (29:58)
- *New* interview with casting director Ellen Lewis (15:33)
- *New* interview with Shifu Shi Yan Ming, founder of the USA Shaolin Temple (5:37)
- Flying Birds: The Music of “Ghost Dog,” a new video essay on RZA’s score by filmmaker Daniel Raim (14:47)
- The Odyssey: A Journey into the Life of a Samurai, a 2000 program on the making of the film (21:31)
- Deleted scenes and outtakes
- Archival interviews (15:09)
- English subtitles for the deaf and hard of hearing
- PLUS: Essays by critics Jonathan Rosenbaum and Greg Tate, a 2000 interview with Jarmusch, and quotations from Hagakure: The Book of the Samurai, by the early-eighteenth-century monk Yamamoto Tsunetomo
- New cover by Eric Skillman
Available on Blu-ray and DVD via the Criterion Collection November 17th, 2020.
Final Score: 4.5 out of 5.
Updating review with pre-order information to purchase RZA’s score.