Turning Japanese


Jim Jarmusch’s movie Ghost Dog ought to have felt like a preposterous mixture: goofy mafiosi and fish-out-of-water gags, existential loneliness and fatalistic attachment. In fact, though, it hits a mood and is mostly able to hold it. A lot of this has to do with Forest Whitaker’s performance—Whitaker’s character (a contract killer in urban America who tries to follow the ancient code of the Japanese samurai, not that this description gives any sense of the movie) has an inner sadness and stillness even when he’s active, as if the man’s movements have been predetermined and his job is simply to inhabit them.

RZA’s soundtrack music plays a big role in this effect; without the music, Whitaker’s a guy driving down the street; with it, he’s a guy driving, and fate and mystery accompany him. The music’s beats come from hip-hop, but there’s something Japanese in the texture and harmony of the beautiful main theme—something wooden in the percussion and something, well (again), Japanese, in its two-note chord. Probably a technical term explains this—”parallel interval,” maybe?—but I don’t know it. I think of traditional Japanese music (which I also know zilch about, except what I remember from the soundtracks to old samurai films) as being like Japanese drawing (which I also know zilch about, but I did stare at the Japanese print on the wall of my therapist’s office for about seven years): firm, simple lines with some blank space in the middle. This has frequently been RZA’s hip-hop style anyway, even when he’s not being self-consciously Asian. And an influence is coming full circle. The music of ’50s samurai films influenced the music of Italian spaghetti westerns, which influenced reggae, which already had a feeling for high trebles, big dark bass, empty space in the middle. And hip-hop since the early ’90s has been saturated with this reggae sense of space.

I prefer the music in the movie itself to that on the soundtrack album. What had been instrumental or only rapped to in snippets in the film has been expanded to full rap songs on the CD, and the rapping has way too much ’90s New York keep-it-cool blahness. Maybe RZA should switch to some genre like techno—somewhere he wouldn’t feel required to add vocalists. (Wu-Tang’s motto should be Less Talk, More Non-Talk.) That said, there are gorgeous moments almost everywhere on the album, and “Fast Shadow” works great both on film and on CD, the sound of the voices managing to blend into the texture of the accompaniment. And the Ghost Dog theme (“Samurai Showdown”) still sounds as beautiful as ever. (I put it on repeat this morning and have just gone over and over with it, about 14 times.)