An “Eastern” theme, albeit transplanted to urban America, is the sub-text of Jim Jarmusch’s 1999 film Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai. Forest Whitaker is Ghost Dog, a loner and gun for hire who lives by the code of the Japanese Samurai, guided by the words of an ancient text, The Hagakure: The Book of the Samurai, that Jarmusch shares with the audience. He lives above the world on a roof-top with his birds, carrier pigeons which serve as his means of communication to the outside world. Ghost Dog is a master hit man, unlike anything we’ve seen before. His best friends (except for his pigeons) are kids and a particularly jovial ice cream man, Raymond (Isaach de Bankol), who speaks only French. Ghost Dog speaks only English, but the two carry on conversations and comment to one another, usually with perfect understanding. Jarmusch’s sense of irony and humor win us over as we read the subtitles of Raymond’s off-handed remarks, frequently echoing Ghost Dog’s words or thoughts.
In the spirit of the Samurai, Ghost Dog pledges his loyalty to Louie, a small-time mobster who saved his life many years before. But Louie is a member of a dysfunctional Mafia family in the throes of self destruction. Ghost Dog’s simple world of mastery, loyalty and ancient wisdom sometimes parallels, yet more often clashes head-on with the crumbling code of the Mafia.
Into the mix Jarmusch blends “Betty Boop,” “Felix the Cat,” and “The Simpsons” cartoons that help inform the film’s action. He incorporates Japanese teachings, hip-hop, mythology and pop culture which lace the film with potent substance. A highly charged soundtrack by RZA and the Wu-Tang Clan adds to Jarmusch’s eclectic mix.
The clashing of worlds apart is a Jarmusch mainstay, along with non-verbal communication, absurdist juxtapositions of character and place, and ample amounts of irony and layered meaning. It’s a style that hearkens all the way back to Stranger than Paradise, his first movie, which brought him center stage on the independent film scene.
The theme of a “stranger in a strange land” is reflected in virtually all of Jarmusch’s work and is prominent in Ghost Dog. In Stranger Than Paradise (1985) Eszter Balint is a woman from Eastern Europe on a road trip in America; in Down By Law (1986) Roberto Begnini is an Italian in the Deep South; in Mystery Train (1990) it is Japanese tourists, an Italian woman and an Englishman that Jarmusch plants in Memphis, Tennessee; in Dead Man Johnny Depp is an Easterner wandering the old West; and in Night On Earth we find strangers in strange lands riding in taxicabs the world over. I spoke with Jarmusch at the Toronto International Film Festival, which featured a screening of Ghost Dog.
Stephen Ashton (MM): Ghost Dog is a remarkable film. Thank you. I saw it a few days ago and I am still feeling it.
Jim Jarmusch (JJ): I don’t know what to think of the film at this point.
MM: Why do you say that?
JJ: Because I’ve seen it so much through working on it for technical reasons. The beauty of seeing a film is going in and out, discovering what it’s going to be, entering its world. That’s not possible for me. How would I react if I didn’t know what was going to happen as the film progresses?
MM: I was particularly impressed by the way you integrated the Japanese lore, The Way of the Samurai. Have you been interested in Japanese culture for a long time?
JJ: Yeah, I’m interested in a lot of things… French culture, African culture, but I like Eastern stuff and Japan particularly, probably because I’ve been there like eight times now, since starting to make films. I’m very interested in Eastern philosophy and Aboriginal spirituality. My knowledge of Samurai culture really starts with my love of the Kurosawa films. Those of course are his interpretations, but I’ve also read stuff and picked things up from martial arts people and films.
MM: Do you practice any form of martial art yourself, Aikido or anything?
JJ: No, I do my own form of whatever it is, but it’s pasted together from various things that I’ve learned. A lot of it is inspired by Native American people and practices that are connected with Zen Buddhism, at least from my kind of dilettante understandings of Zen Buddhism. Those things are very beautiful, but I don’t practice. However, there is a scene in the film with a guy doing Kung Fu. That’s Yan Ming, a Shaolin monk who defected from China and has his own school in New York now. RZA and some of the Wu-Tang Clan hip-hop guys study with him. Having met him I asked if I could study with him at some level. He said, “We can find whatever level you want, whether it is purely spiritual or physical…nothing is purely physical, it is all connected. We can design a practice on whatever level you like.”
So after I get done opening this film around the world I will meet with him. I don’t like organized religions or even group activities, except shooting a film. He’s an amazing guy, one of those enlightened ones who you just stand next to for a few seconds and you feel better. He’s a Kung Fu master, but he is a priest, a monk. He’s highly evolved.
MM: The best ones are.
JJ: He could kill both of us with one move, but he’s the gentlest person I’ve ever met. I love that contradiction. This little guy who could kill us both if that’s what he had to do.
MM: At what point did you meet him?
JJ: When that little Kung Fu idea was put into the story. We connected through the Wu-Tang Clan, who did the music for the film. RZA studies with him. The Wu-Tang even paid for his prayer room.
MM: When seeing Kurosawa films I remember being impressed by Toshiro Mifune, not just as an actor, but more like a “Zen man” emanating something off the screen, something more than just the role he was playing. Did you think about Mifune when making Ghost Dog?
JJ: Absolutely. Mifune was amazing. Also Alain Delon. But we never talked about those inspirations on the set. It was mostly for me in the writing. Although I did give Forest a lot of Kurosawa and other films to watch when he asked me “What inspired you.”
MM: What did you give him?
JJ: I gave him Seven Samurai, Branded to Kill, by Suzuki, Le Samurai and Le Deuxième Souffle by Melville, Shogun Assassin by Misume, and of course I gave him the book, The Hagakure, The Book of the Samurai. Actually, Forest has studied martial arts since he was little on various levels, much more than me. I don’t know how much he’s doing now aside from meditation.
MM: I love the conversations with the Ice Cream Man. The communication beyond language or in a parallel language which seems to be a recurring theme in your work.
JJ: It’s a funny thing, you know, because I love language so much…literature and poetry. That’s why I like hip-hop. Some of the hip-hop. I am very critical about all forms of music. About 85 percent of it is of no interest to me, whether it’s medieval music or be-bop, although I like a much greater percentage of be-bop, or rock ‘n’ roll or hip-hop. The best hip-hop just blows me away. Some of these kids have the ability to do such strong rhymes and lyrics; they rival the best poets of all time.
But it’s such a contradiction. When I went to Japan for the first time they had all of these Ozu and Mizoguchi films on video that I couldn’t get at home. I watched them and of course they didn’t have any subtitles, but when I was watching Chishu Ryu and actors like that from Ozu’s films express things in the subtlest ways, I was stunned. Of course, not being able to understand what they were saying, I missed certain plot points, but I didn’t miss the soul of the film. So language in film is a secondary way of understanding.
That experience gave me the courage to direct in languages that I don’t speak, like Japanese and Finnish. French and Italian I can understand to some degree. Yet it was no problem directing actors in other languages ’cause first of all I wrote the dialogue, so I could follow where they were, and so the language was just a certain kind of code to augment their expression. For me, as their director, to be their audience for them as they were working was the same as if they were speaking English.
I mean, I had to go over their dialogue with a translator for Japanese or Finnish to be sure it was appropriate when they used slang. Those were details that I wanted to pay attention to, but the rest was purely human behavior and communication through the way a character looks at something or someone or reacts.
Good acting is about reacting, not acting something out. Not trying to express a specific thing but to react to a situation as the character. I don’t like “acting” acting. I am not a big fan of the theatre, partly for that reason, although there of course is some theatre I love. But not when I am aware of the actor “acting.” Or as a friend of mine says, “‘Ackin.’ That guy be ‘ackin’ all over the screen.”
MM: I know exactly what you mean. When it falls into that, it loses me totally.
JJ: You get pulled out. It feels like you’re cheated. It’s like, “Oh man, I’ve invested my beliefs in this thing and now suddenly they’re throwing sledge hammers at me!” It’s the same thing as when people use music to tell you what you’re supposed to feel at a certain moment, which I find very insulting.
MM: Also, it’s all too common for new filmmakers to rely upon parallel music.
JJ: I think it’s producers or money people, too, who push them into that. They are not filmmakers, but they want be sure to get the point across.
MM: This communication in spite of language differences goes all the way back to Stranger Than Paradise, right?
JJ: Yeah, it does. I don’t know where that comes from, really. It probably comes from leaving Ohio and coming to New York and being thrown into a place where these people are speaking Spanish over here, Haitian over there, French, Italian, hey look, there’s some Hassidic people over there, here’s some Dominicans and Puerto Ricans—all with different accents and dialects—and they’re not getting along! I saw graffiti in New York that said, “US OUT OF NY!” And I love that, ’cause that’s what America is. Let’s face it, original Americans are aboriginal people who we tried to commit genocide against, having eliminated their culture almost completely… luckily, not totally. My soul goes out to those people, my respect and my love. I love Native people. Their perspective on the world is right on. Knowing some of them and hanging with their ideas has really had an impact on me and helped my soul. I learned a lot from that culture and those people.
When you think about it, the Eastern pull on young urban black people is amazing, very, very strong. I think if you are young and black it’s dangerous to make the identification with Africa because that becomes political. The power structure doesn’t want you to do that. So they gravitate toward the East to have some tribal connection to each other. I met this cat in New Orleans making Down By Law and he was like a garbage collector or plumber. We were walking around these black neighborhoods and this guy got like mad respect from everybody. People asked “Don’t you know who that guy is?” I said, “Yeah, that’s Willie. He’s helpin’ me out.” “No, no,” they said. “That’s the chief of the Wild Chapatulas, the Mardi Gras tribe.” It’s related to this gravitation toward the East, which also comes from the accessibility of martial arts films in urban areas. In New Orleans I realized that they don’t translate it into Africanism because that’s sort of not allowed, they translate it into Native Americanism and they have these tribes which are really important to people.
MM: Being part of a tribe is important to people.
JJ: Yeah, Ghost Dog is about “codes,” too, and the importance of codes to people… having a larger thing to connect with, whether it’s a spiritual practice or a criminal outsider code, a gang. I must say that it’s tragic and sad when the Crips and the Bloods start killing each other, and at the same time I got some respect for their codes, because they’re far more rigorous than the laws of society that they don’t abide by. I have friends that are in the Hell’s Angels in NY… I love motorcycles… and they’ve got some ingrown racist tendencies, which is not my thing. But they have a code that has my respect. They’re outsiders and call themselves “One Percenters.” It’s like the gangsters in Ghost Dog who are racists and buffoons, things that I stand with my whole soul against. But I wasn’t trying to make fun of them. I was hoping that they would be funny in their humanity. Their code has totally unraveled and so they’re a mess. Their power has been usurped by corporate crime. In spite of themselves, I kind of like them. I like to see different groups and ways of thinking.
It’s like Ghost Dog says when he quotes from The Hagakure: “It is a bad thing when One thing becomes Two.
One should not look for anything else in the Way of the Samurai. It is the same for anything else that is called a Way. If one understands things in this manner, he should be able to hear about all Ways and be more and more in accord with his own Way.”
It means that although there is one Way for you, you must respect other Ways. You must look at all Ways with a view toward understanding them and that will help lead you to your own Way. You don’t just say “Well, I don’t like their Way.” But I’m looking at real Ways, not at things like corporate greed, which has no morality.
MM: Right. Your treatment of human communication gets that across… the necessity to understand one another globally, to transcend differences, regardless of cultural background.
JJ: Yeah, the world is getting so much smaller so fast. It is very important. It’s a contradiction for me, too. I like the uniqueness that tribes represent and at the same time I love synthesis. And I also like to know where cultural traditions come from. At the same time I don’t like borders and I don’t like countries. I don’t even like the concept of time, which seems like something to restrain us in some way. We don’t know anything about time, really. This whole millennium thing is based upon an arbitrary date. They say that it may not even coincide with Christ’s real birth date. I think it’s just a method to sell stuff. We get tied to all these things. It’s really just a way to control people.
MM: Did you have any second thoughts on the issue of killing, per se?
JJ: Ghost Dog is the portrait of a warrior, a spiritual warrior. I have no problem with that. The history of human expression everywhere deals with violence. Homer, Shakespeare, the Bible all have violence. It is just the expression of how people treat each other and the way a part of the world works. In this case Ghost Dog is not condoning violence, but also I am not worried about making a story that has violence in it. You don’t see these right wing Bible thumpers condemning the Bible, but they may, who knows?
MM: Did you ever think about it in terms of shootings in schools and temples like we have had just recently?
JJ: No, because I think that it is backwards to see forms of expression as a cause of violence. It’s like Oscar Wilde says, paraphrasing him: “The imagination should be out of bounds to any form of censorship.” Because if you can release things in your imagination you may not have to act on them. For example, sexuality in Scandinavia is probably a hell of lot more healthy than in America, where it is repressed. I think that there are fewer people there who are raping and abusing others than here. I think if you look at “gangster rap,” which gets constantly harassed, you’ll see it’s from young brothers comin’ out of the streets who have no other way to get out. They get attacked all the time, but you don’t see Arnold Schwarzenegger movies attacked in the same way, which are a far more visual form of violence. But I would stick up for those movies, too, because they’re strong stories. Look at The Iliad. It is all about very violent war.
I don’t understand that way of thinking, which is a very sneaky way of trying to control us and keep a certain social order by attacking expression. They say, “The expression is the cause.” No, that’s backwards. The expression is a reflection of a history of human-kind. There is something wrong with that suppression. I think that the imagination and expression of the imagination should be protected as a totally free zone. Obviously there are rules. You don’t want to have children exposed to certain things, but all cultures protect their children so they are prepared for life. Even things that are sick and twisted should be permitted to be expressed in some way because they are an escape valve. It’s when those things are repressed that people act out on them. But I don’t know, I’m not a sociologist. It’s not my job. I don’t wave banners around.
MM: What would you like people to come away with from Ghost Dog?
JJ: I would like for them to have entered a world and a story and would hope that they would come away with something that lingers in their mind, not a junk food experience. But I love all kinds of movies. I just love movies because cinema is such a diverse form. I’m not saying it shouldn’t be entertaining. It is not a cerebral type of film. I hope Ghost Dog is entertaining, but I also hope that certain things play around in your head.
Like the idea that there is a code, being true to yourself, thinking for yourself rather than having the world dictate to you how you should think and be. And that’s what Ghost Dog does. He follows a code that is from a different culture and different century, and yet it is valuable because of the way he interprets it and uses it, centers himself and keeps true to himself. The world does not dictate its code to him, he keeps his code and enters the world with it intact.
For example, if he were to compromise himself in the end of the story… if he killed Louie, or ran away, he would have failed himself. That’s why the first quote in the film is about how a samurai always is prepared for death. Death is not a problem for Ghost Dog. What would be a problem is if he had stayed alive and compromised his code. I would like it if that registered with people… but I don’t want to preach… just tell a good story that gives you something to think about.
As I left the conversation with this unique independent mind, I couldn’t help but think of Jarmusch’s films in terms of another passage from Hagakure: The Book of the Samurai: “Among the maxims on Lord Naoshige’s wall there was written: ‘Matters of great concern should be treated lightly.’ Samurai Master Ittei commented: “Matters of small concern should be treated seriously.””