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#33. Ghost Dog - Review

Ghost Dog The Way of the Samurai Poster


The titular Ghost Dog lives by a code. He wakes everyday, ritually prays and practices swordplay, tends to his pigeons, and is in constant pursuit of refinement. His code is that of the samurai, and his induction into the world of Bushido arrived while reading the transcribed utterances of Yamamoto Tsunetomo in the book Hagakure. More than a handbook, Hagakure is manual for the samurai, filled with short anecdotes and reflections intended to serve as lessons for the aspiring warrior. When Ghost Dog is betrayed by his master and the men he works for, the urban samurai strives to honor both his lord and his code until the very end. Of all the messages to be found in Hagakure, self-improvement, striving to be a flawless warrior, and loyalty to one’s master, are at the forefront of Ghost Dog. This paper will cite passages from Tsunetomo’s book to better discuss these three elements of the code that the samurai of the film employs with perfection.Ghost Dog poster

Early into the first chapter of Hagakure, Tsunetomo speaks of a council member who guarantees a man even though he had once been a participant in a drunken brawl. The council member’s reasoning was simple; “I can guarantee him by the fact that he is a man who has erred once. A man who has never once erred is dangerous.” (34) This excerpt defines the genesis of Ghost Dog. He too was a participant (perhaps unwillingly) of a brawl, and was selflessly saved by his future master Louie. There are many stories and instructions found in Hagakure that Ghost Dog found a way to interpret, the most evident being self-improvement. Tsunetomo warns that riches and honor are the two things that will blemish a retainer, and it can be seen on screen that Ghost Dog lives less than humbly. His home is a small shack that lies atop a misshapen apartment building, painted daily with a fresh coat of bird droppings. The Buddhist priest Tsunetomo consistently cautions against projecting one’s affairs out into the open. Through expositional dialogue from a little girl, it is learned that Ghost Dog abides strictly to this suggestion. The young girl explains how her mother believes Ghost Dog has no friends, speaks to no one, and lives quietly and alone with his birds, which it seems Tsunetomo would find acceptable. When in public, Ghost Dog still follows the Way found in Hagakure, “People who have an intelligent appearance will not be outstanding even if they do something good.” (169) Ghost Dog does not come off as intelligent, or even very clever. He understands the purpose behind Tsunetomo’s words. By presenting one’s self as gentle and slow, the samurai’s actions will always be underestimated by his enemy. This illusion will give the warrior the benefit of surprise, as seen in the film when Ghost Dog happens to drive upon two bear-hunters. The film’s samurai strives for self-evolution daily, ceaselessly studying the code to find ways to become a better man, which will lead to becoming a better warrior.

It could be argued that over any other lesson on martial valor found in Hagakure, Ghost Dog best adheres to that of decisiveness. There are a handful of quotations found in the book that stress the importance of immediate action, that a samurai should never hesitate or consider his options for too long. “It is said that one is not truly a samurai if he does not make his decisions quickly and break right through to completion.” (92) Ghost Dog embodies this portion of the Bushido unconditionally. He plows into any situation presented to him, no matter the violence and pain that may wait. When Ghost Dog is resolved to killing Louie’s boss Sonny Valerio, he first attempts a stealth kill with a sniper rifle. However, after a small bird obstructs his shot, the samurai must decide between waiting for second shot and finding another course of action. Remembering the teachings of Tsunetomo, Ghost Dog intrepidly storms Valerio’s castle, expertly killing the boss and his Italian retainers. The hooded samurai adapted the lessons found in Hagakure to fit his environment and utilized Tsunetomo’s teachings while taking part in warfare.

Forest Whitaker in Ghost Dog

A samurai is only a samurai if he is completely dedicated to his master. When Louie saved Ghost Dog from his would-be killers, Ghost Dog swore total loyalty to Louie. Because he was now a retainer, the film’s warrior executed every mission given to him without fail. Louie himself defends Ghost Dog to his bosses, explaining to the old Mafiosi, “For the past four years, he’s done, maybe, twelve perfect contracts. Perfect, like a ghost.” Any samurai would be proud to hear their lord speak so highly of them. Ghost Dog remains faithful to his master throughout the picture. Ghost Dog takes Tsunetomo’s advice and takes time to learn everyone and everything his master is involved with, something that both surprises and impresses Louie. Nakano Jin’emon is quoted saying, “A person who serves when treated kindly by the master is not a retainer, but one who serves when the master is being heartless and unreasonable is a retainer.” (139) Ghost Dog understands this principle well. He defies better judgment by remaining dutiful to his lord even when he is informed of the master’s betrayal.  It would then seem reasonable that the samurai would willingly offer his own life to his master, if that were what is needed. Ghost Dog knows however that Sonny Valerio will have Louie killed just as soon as he is taken care of, so what at first appeared to be cowardice by not immediately committing seppuku was actually the opposite. Ghost Dog works throughout the film only surviving to protect his master, by eliminating all that would harm him. This is the true way of the samurai.

Master Ittei said, “If one were to say what it is to do good, in a single word it would be to endure suffering. Not enduring is bad without exception.”(65) And so is told the story of Ghost Dog. Although not born of the time and place of the original Japanese samurai, Ghost Dog was as dedicated to the code as any medieval warrior that came before. He took advantage of the teachings of Yamamoto Tsunetomo, and lived his life according to the wisdom found in Hagakure. Through self-improvement he evolved into a humble and unassuming man. From there he labored to become a perfect warrior, always remaining steadfast and quick-witted. It was his loyalty to his master that he lived for most, never hesitating to perform any task given to him and always willing to endure harm for his master’s sake. It is from this loyalty in life that eventually brought death, when Ghost Dog gladly and without reluctance offered his life to his master, by way of a modern day kaishaku. 

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