Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai

I picked this up because Kode9 had said it was a favourite in one of his Red Bull Academy Lectures, before playing something from the soundtrack. I had forgotten until I watched it that the famous intro to Burial’s ‘Gutted’ was taken from the film as well. The exhortation to stick to the old-school ways was universally interpreted as a declaration of loyalty to the hardcore continuum, which through a Ghost Dog lens becomes not just an aesthetic preference but a way of life.

Some of the aspects of Ghost Dog that I suspect appeal to these traditionalist dubstep dudes is stuff that I find a bit enervating. The central character is intense but introverted. He absorbs some esoteric meaning from books and music, but articulates it in the simplest terms. It’s almost as if this secret knowledge is beyond the bounds of speech, cannot be encompassed within our current concrete explanations for things. You just know, you know? Or perhaps the relationship between these aphorisms and the events we observe barely exists at all. It’s the portent, the stance and style, that’s important. And it’s not always easy to take seriously. Terrence Whittaker is so focused on being deep (that middle-distance expression, those droopy eyelids) that for large parts of the film he looks like he is about to fall asleep.

Or maybe the reason we don’t understand the Way of the Samurai is because it IS ancient. The film suggests that some of its values are recoverable: the girl Ghost Dog befriends correctly identifies the most significant story in Rashomon. However, she is still an initiate, and reacts with horror at the fate Ghost Dog must submit to. The film portrays his sacrifice as noble, even though the value system being celebrated is absurdly medieval (unquestioning obedience to the lord who holds your life in bondage). Why this becomes a standard for purity in a corrupt world that has ~moved on~ is deeply confusing.

I prefer to read character as a victim rather than a hero. Ghost Dog is an apt name, a faithful hound defending his owner to the death. As the family he protects turns against him, he looks to free himself from his conditioning, but the test of his principles at the end is too great. He remains a tool – an object used for other people’s ends (possibly set by the mysterious daughter of the gangster clan). There is something frustrating about the failure to escape, to move on. The way of the samurai is something Ghost Dog remains stuck in. Should we really lionize him for it, as Goodman and Bevan do?

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