Around four or so years ago, I was standing in my kitchen holding a copy of Hagakure, having a chat with my Mum. Having recently just bought the book from the wonderful, but now deceased book store Borders, I was stood by the fridge eagerly reading from a foreign, exciting and magical text. I’ve always been interested in Japan since I was a bambino, my fascination germinating from my interest in video games and then flourishing in my teens where I became a true Otaku. My interest was initially superficial, obsessed with Japanese comics (Manga), Anime and Japan’s answer to Disney, Studio Ghibli. However I soon became more interested in Japanese Culture and its history and I soaked up any insight into what was until very recently an isolated country.
So anyway, that’s why I was reading Hagakure, or The Book of the Samurai, a 17th Century text written by Yamamoto Tsunemoto. It’s presumed that Tsunemoto wrote (or rather, dictated) the text following the death of his Master. He was refused the privilege of Junshi, (a ritual suicide performed by a Samurai following his master’s death) partly due to the rule of the Tokugawa Shogunate that forbade such rituals and also because Tsunemoto’s master didn’t want him to take his own life. Tsunemoto was writing in a period of relative peace and the text comes across as almost nostalgic for the days of war and battle. Tsunemoto relieves his eagerness to perform seppuku by writing about death..a lot. This book is about death.
So anyway, back to the story, I was in my kitchen, reading out the passage that’s probably most well-known, “The Way of the Samurai is found in death. When it comes to either/or, there is only the quick choice of death. It is not particularly difficult. Be determined and advance.” It then goes on to say, “To die without gaining one’s aim is a dog’s death and fanaticism. But there is no shame in this. This is the substance of the Way of the Samurai. If by setting one’s heart right every morning and evening, one is able to live as though his body were already dead, he gains freedom in the Way.” My Mum didn’t seem best pleased by this and quickly declared such thinking as morbid, “one should focus on life”, she responded.
I’d like to argue that such meditation and contemplation on one’s inevitable demise, doom, and destruction grants one an intense awareness of one’s current existence. Not to say that this is always a comfortable thing. Constant thought on death has, at times, caused anxiety and sadness when faced with the intensity of my existence and its inevitable end. But this intense awareness allows a perspective in which we can hold a deep appreciation for existence and for living things. The character of Ghost Dog, played by Forest Whitaker, is my prime candidate for such an upbeat view. The irony in Jim Jarmusch’s film is that Ghost Dog is an assassin, a killer who has the highest and deepest respect for life. In Ghost Dog, we see an individual who has fashioned himself into something that destroys and ends life, yet to call him a murderer or even a killer feels intuitively wrong. Ghost Dog presents something we can aspire to. His valuing of life is exhibited throughout the film like at the beginning where he makes a thoughtful and respectful gesture to a cemetery and in the scene with the bear hunters (my favourite scene in the entire film). (1)
Ghost Dog’s respect for the living is juxtaposed with his enemy, the mafia. New Jersey’s local mob brings to mind the comical and domestic representation of the mafia as seen in The Sopranos. In one sense, the mob kills, just like Ghost Dog does, but with an attitude that has no respect for life – the term ‘waste management’ comes to mind. Indeed, the film seems to be making a broader point regarding the Caucasian’s role in history, that of a destroyer of life. One of the mobsters is called a ‘stupid white man’ by a Native American following the brutal shooting of a carrier pigeon. The kind of respect for life shown by the Native American and Ghost Dog has a broader significance in that it seems to be drawing attention to a history of colonization and violence carried out predominantly by imperial white men. (It’s worth noting that a respect for life, as Ghost Dog shows, does not necessitate passivity or refusal to kill living creatures. There is simply a level of respect and compassion for the life that’s come to an end).
So why would constant focus on death create such a respect for life? One of Heidegger’s claims is that we are beings-toward-death. Although we cannot experience our own deaths or the deaths of others, we are nevertheless going to die and we are constantly faced by the possibility of our own death. The intense and constant awareness that all of our relations with the world disappear upon dying is an uncomfortable thought, but it is one of the defining characteristics of Dasein. The opposite of Dasein (which can be translated as ‘being there’) is not being there anymore. Reflection on one’s own ‘not-Being’ brings one’s own ‘being-able-to-Be’ into view and ‘there is a sense in which the possibility of my not existing encompasses the whole of my existence (Hinman 1978, 201), and my awareness of that possibility illuminates me, qua Dasein, in my totality.’ (2)
Ghost Dog’s existence is consciously structured by such an awareness and it’s the affirmation of his not-Being that allows him to actively forge an intense mindfulness of life. Ghost Dog is a typical Übermensch in that he creates his own code. Even though he frequently looks to the Hagakure for guidance, the text stands outside of the conventional American oeuvre of self-help literature. The Hagakure is, in part, an existential text that offers guidance on how to deal with suffering and the burdens that accompany existence. Ghost Dog’s code or Way is his own. The Hagakure itself talks much about the Way and Ghost Dog lives in accordance with the Daoist conception of the Way-farer who is ‘always unseen’ and abstruse, leaving no trace of their passing. Ghost Dog is untouched by his modern day surroundings and in this sense is like ‘a wooden lump’ or ‘muddy pool’, obscure and mysterious to those around him. (3)
The most comforting thing about Ghost Dog is his attitude to death. It’s not a passive acceptance but an active affirmation, and it is perhaps due to this affirmation that he makes such a good assassin. One commentator puts it that ‘”By considering himself already dead” [Ghost Dog]… maintains his composure.’ (4) This can be seen in a number of scenes where Ghost Dog shows no fear or hesitation when under fire or in danger.
The Hagakure, too, presents us with a view that positively affirms death and the failure to achieve one’s goals; a view far removed from Western liberal society. Today, we are encouraged to generate goals, to acquire things and, perhaps more philosophically, to create a neat and complete narrative in which we see the generic unfolding of some kind of ‘good life’. When we mourn, we mourn what could have been achieved and realised by that person. The loss of life in itself is not the problem, it is the loss of our relations and future potential. The Hagakure criticises such a desire for achievement: ‘The way of revenge lies in simply forcing one’s way into a place and being cut down. There is no shame in this. By thinking that you must complete the job you will run out of time.’ Applying this melodramatic maxim to ordinary western life helps draw attention to our zealous praise of success, victory and achievement. It may be obvious but people can die before achieving their goals. Even less drastically people sometimes don’t get what they desire because they’re not particularly competent, or because they are just plain unlucky. A climate that sells success stories of meteoric rises to fame and then bullshits us into believing that anyone can achieve this, leads to disappointment when our desires aren’t realised. Conversely, the Hagakure says, when facing an army of thousands, it’s enough just to be determined to cut them down, even though loss is inevitable. It never says you’ll win. Nietzsche says that ‘Buddhism makes no promises but keeps them, Christianity” or in this case Western ideas like the American dream ‘makes a thousand promises but keeps none.’ (5) In this sense Ghost Dog and the Hagakure offers a view that I personally find comforting.
The film, coupled with the text encourages us to disperse with any kind of ultimate, metaphysical meaning in our existence. The general Eastern view offered in the film embraces Daoist and Buddhist thinking whereby existence is fashioned through a discipline and commanding of the drives and passions. The intense awareness of one’s own life and the lives of others, including non-human animals, is improved by contemplation of death and one’s own eventual non-being.
I’d like to end with a quote from the Hagakure that I hope stays with you, ‘A real man does not think of victory or defeat. He plunges recklessly toward an irrational death.’
1) This second scene could however be seen as a flagrant disregard for life. One commentator sees Ghost Dog’s actions as barbaric and ruthless yet I cannot help but feel Ghost Dog’s intense feeling and thought for life.
2) Wheeler, Michael, “Martin Heidegger”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Winter 2011 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.)
3) Daodejing, 15
5) The Anti-Christ, Friedrich Nietzsche (trans. H.L.Mencken, p.42)