WAY OF THE SAMURAI

By William Markiewicz

'Ghost Dog' is a film about the poetry of the samurai's way, set in the gangster world. The film doesn't really offer a clue to the strange paradox in the story: how to be a perfect samurai within the world of crime. Perhaps a code of honour has always been the focus point for those who are in the business of playing a life and death game, whether they belong to the upper classes or to the underworld. So it's possible that a boy growing up in an American ghetto might fall in love with the way of the samurai yet live a life of crime, carrying out hits for his master. The film has a tone of solemn gravity, though adorned with satiric details. For instance almost all the mafiosi killers are overweight senior citizens, chronically short of cash. The self-appointed samurai has chosen his master (very much to his master's surprise) and given him exaggerated devotion for which he pays with his life, adding to the mystical mood of the story. I chose this subject to write about because what I learned about the samurai's way in this film impressed me. The film is divided into sequences, each starting with written rules by which a samurai should act in a particular situation. Those texts come from the samurai's "poetry of war", one of those monumental 'holy books' which, when put together, form one universal book of life. Baudelaire wrote: "I know only three crafts made for a real man: poet, priest, and soldier." All the holy books indeed illustrate those qualities, with belief at the core. Still the rituals they prescribe are in general amazingly concrete, beneficial to the devoted. All practicing believers -- yogis, hassidic Jews, monks, sufis, soldier-priests, like samurais and knights in general, are fit, healthier, and live longer than ordinary folks.

The samurai, in my view, really stands apart in the spiritual flock. While others focus mostly on themselves and their enlightenment, the samurai has two spiritual duties: his master and the martial arts. The samurai's martial training is equivalent to prayer for the monk. Beyond those duties "the samurai is dead." Still, paradoxically, the samurai is not a servant. For him the duty itself is more important than the beneficiary of this duty. He is a living contradiction, "saved" from servitude by remaining proud and solitary while his own courage is his faith.

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