Rashomon Effect in the Movie Ghost Dog

by NateB11

The Rashomon Effect is a tool used in academia, literature and film. Find out what it is and how it was used effectively in the movie Ghost Dog.

The Rashomon Effect is both a tool and an event in which perceptions by people of an incident differ drastically, so that it shows the power of individual perception in influencing such things as eye-witness accounts. The Rashomon Effect is the subject of journalism, film and literature, because it is relevant to how each individual human being tends to view things differently, often according to individual bias.

The film Ghost Dog uses the Rashomon Effect rather effectively to show the different motivations of the characters in the story. Let's explore how this principle of differing viewpoints of an incident was used in the movie Ghost Dog.

Featured image: By k teezy [CC-BY-SA-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

The Rashomon Effect

What is it?

The term Rashomon Effect is derived from the movie Rashomon, directed by famed and influential Japanese film-maker Akira Kurosawa. In the movie, a single incident is interpreted and recounted in entirely different ways by 4 eye-witnesses. The movie, showing these varying perspectives, serves to expose the fact that people's perceptions are more often than not, self-serving.

The incident itself is the murder of a Samurai and the rape of his wife by a Samurai bandit. The wife, a woodcutter, the dead Samurai (speaking through a medium) and the bandit all have very different testimonies as to what actually happened during the incident.

The term Rashomon Effect is used in subject matter dealing with journalism to show that eye-witness accounts of events often differ drastically and should be scrutinized. This is also relevant to law enforcement and crime, as eye-witness accounts are often not credible or reliable.

The Rashomon Effect is also used in literature and film to illuminate a particular point about human beings and human desires.

It should be noted that Rashomon is also the name of a short story which is very different from the film of the same name, though the setting of both stories is the same. Also, the short story is featured in and is relevant to the movie Ghost Dog, which I will cover later in this article.


1950 Film by Akira Kurosawa

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Scene from the 1950 film directed by Akira Kurosawa
Rashomon (1950)
Rashomon (1950)

Ghost Dog

Story and How the Rashomon Effect is Used

Ghost Dog is a 1999 film by innovative and genius director Jim Jarmusch, and starring Forrest Whitaker, about a modern-day black Samurai who lives like a hermit on a roof-top in an inner-city ghetto. He owes a debt of gratitude to an officer in the Mafia, Louie, so Ghost Dog makes himself Louie's retainer; a retainer to a Samurai is the person who owes his allegiance to his lord. Ghost Dog performs mob hits for Louie, showing his loyalty and honoring his debt. A hit goes wrong when Ghost Dog is seen by the mob boss' daughter who happens to be sleeping with the gangster that Ghost Dog assassinates.

The Mafia then orders Ghost Dog to be killed because they then consider him a liability. In true Samurai fashion, Ghost Dog wipes out the remaining members of the Mafia family, except the boss' daughter and his "lord" Louie.

The first and primary use of the Rashomon Effect in Ghost Dog occurs with the two perspectives on the incident that made Ghost Dog indebted to Louie. In his youth, Ghost Dog is attacked and brutalized by a street thug; Louie (almost haplessly) interrupts the incident and ends up shooting the thug. Louie sees this incident as an act of self-defense, because the thug had turned on him when he interrupted the assault. Ghost Dog, however, interprets the event as Louie saving him. The incident itself puts Ghost Dog on the path of a Samurai and it wins Louie an expert assassin.

In this way we can see the possibility that Ghost Dog would not be what he ends up being without his almost innocent interpretation of events. He thereafter chooses the path of the Samurai and deems himself to be Louie's retainer and becomes a clandestine hit-man for the mob.

From there we can see, in fact, many differing perspectives in the movie. These perspectives have a quality to them that is revealing of various psychological and social implications.

Let's explore the divergent perspectives presented in the movie.


Varying Perspectives of Characters in Ghost Dog

Ghost Dog's Friends, The Mafia and Others

Three of the characters in Ghost Dog appear to be innocent by-standers, although only one is completely innocent in many respects.

In this regard, we have the mob boss' daughter and Ghost Dog's 2 friends, a young girl named Pearline and Ghost Dog's best friend, Raymond, a french-speaking Haitian ice cream vendor who sells his treats at the park where Ghost Dog also meets with Pearline.

The mob boss' daughter first meets Ghost Dog when he assassinates the gangster with whom she is having an affair. Ghost Dog does not kill her, though she is a witness to the murder. She hands him a copy of Rashomon, the short story version. This seems to indicate some kind of "passing down" to Ghost Dog a task. At least that's what it appears to be, because though he lets her live, he eventually wipes out most of her mafia family and she, consequently, takes over the family business. She, unwittingly or not, causes the strange turn of events that puts Ghost Dog on the path of war against her crime family.

Pearline is a young girl with whom Ghost Dog trades books, including the copy of Rashomon given to Ghost Dog by the mob boss' daughter. At the end of the movie, we see Ghost Dog hand over his Samurai manual, the Hagakure, to Pearline as he takes back the copy of Rashomon as he meets his death by Louie's bullets; Ghost Dog allows Louie to kill him and hands him Rashomon. Louie then goes to a limo where his new boss, the mob boss' daughter is waiting for him.

As Ghost Dog lies dead in the park, Pearline picks up his gun and takes aim, indicating that she takes over Ghost Dog's tradition just as the mob boss' daughter takes over her father's tradition. This provides an excellent juxtaposition, showing 2 seemingly innocent young girls taking the reins of the violent endeavors of their predecessors.

Of note in this regard, is a scene in which a mafia henchman kills a female state trooper and asserts that it is a statement of equality to do so, while his partner is horrified that he shot a woman; again, showing two varying perspectives on a single incident, and a bit of an indictment of misguided single issue politics. That one scene could take up an article in itself to analyze as far as its meaning goes. I won't get into it here.

These divergent views of tradition are repeated in the movie, of particular note are the views within the mafia family itself; older members have very backward and racist views related to Ghost Dog, while others are more progressive and even show an enthusiasm for Hip Hop music (which is used in brilliant ways throughout the movie). Even more telling is a scene in which 2 mafia hit-men are searching for Ghost Dog and run into a Native-American who they are unable to clearly distinguish between Ghost Dog who has only been described to them as black and that he keeps pigeons on a roof-top. They don't know what to do, so they kill one of the Native's pigeons. This is an obvious statement about the absurdity of racism and race relations and also reveals the Native's own feelings on the matter as he calls the 2 men "stupid ** white man". This, of course, has many sociopolitical implications which, again, would require much discussion which I won't get into here.

Finally, there is a scene in which Ghost Dog approaches 2 racist bear hunters because he sees that they've killed a black bear. The metaphor of the bear is important in the story as Raymond refers to Ghost Dog as a bear, because bears only attack if provoked or feel they are in danger. The hunters tell Ghost Dog that they like to kill black bears because "there aren't many of these black ** left." When Ghost Dog questions them a bit on their activity and rationale, they say that "there aren't many colored folks around here either" and attempt to shoot Ghost Dog; Ghost Dog, of course, skillfully defends himself; just before killing off the hunters, he tells them that in ancient cultures bears were considered equal with men; the hunter says, "this aint no ancient culture here, mister", to which Ghost Dog replies, "sometimes it is" and kills the hunter. This shows 2 different perspectives: Ghost Dog's ancient system of honor and the hunters' rather flippant disregard and callous orientation.

In the end, Raymond is the most innocent of all the characters and seems to represent that part of society that cares and is outside of the traditions that are marred by violence and divisiveness (What tradition is not?). He is heart-broken when he witnesses the assassination of Ghost Dog in the park.

It should be said, too, that a demarcation between the Mafia perspective and Ghost Dog's Samurai tradition are clear in the movie too. The Mafia is operating in the interest of business and family, and avoiding getting in trouble with the law, and Ghost Dog operates primarily by honor and loyalty but also certainly for survival. Self-interest on some level is a motivation for most of the characters in the movie.

Interspersed in the movie are various scenes in which elements of the ghetto are introduced, including a brief meeting between Ghost Dog and another honorable resident of the hood (played by Hip Hop artist RZA, who also provided the score for the movie). The environment is repeatedly compared and contrasted with Ghost Dog's condition; Ghost Dog being a product of the ghetto but also so drastically different from everyone else there.

Of note, too, is the recurrence of the presence of a dog that comes along periodically to stare at Ghost Dog. Possibly this is Ghost Dog's conscience.

Forrest Whitaker

Star of Ghost Dog
Forrest Whitaker!
Forrest Whitaker!


Relevance of the Short Story of Rashomon to the Movie Ghost Dog

The short story of Rashomon, which differs drastically from the 1950 film, is a story about an area at the huge city gate at Kyoto, called Rashomon, in which unclaimed dead bodies were being stored. A man in the story has lost his position as a servant and is conflicted about whether to starve or become a thief to survive. He witnesses a woman stealing hair from corpses, so that she can sell the hair to survive. The man argues with her and she asserts that she is stealing to survive, that the dead bodies don't need the hair and the woman she is stealing hair from was a swindler when she was alive. The man then retorts that she won't mind then if he steals her clothes because he needs them to survive and he robs her of her robe.

In Ghost Dog, the Rashomon book figures prominently in the story. It is originally handed over to Ghost Dog by the mob boss' daughter after she witnesses Ghost Dog kill the gangster marked for death by the mob. Ghost Dog doesn't kill the daughter but eventually kills everyone else in her crime family, leaving her as the sole heir to the business and Louie, Ghost Dog's "lord", as her underling. In the end, she has Ghost Dog killed, which is telling considering Ghost Dog effectively put her in that position to do so.

The Rashomon goes from the daughter to Ghost Dog, then to Pearline, back to Ghost Dog and on to Louie. This appears to be a passing on of duty. In addition, Ghost Dog passes his Samurai manual, the Hagakure, on to Pearline, signifying his passing on of his Samurai tradition to her.

Noticeably, neither of these traditions are actually noble; they are violent and essentially divisive. The juxtaposition of passing them on to young girls is a way of symbolizing that violence in all of its forms is the same, no matter who carries on its destructiveness. The face and form is unimportant.

And what is passed along is corrupt in itself, though justifications abound. What is discovered in the story is that there isn't much difference between the people in the story, except their justifications are different. In this way, we see the Rashomon Effect and also the relevance of the short story of Rashomon in which two people justify their corrupt actions. In fact, one wrong action is justified by the wrong action of another. All of it is self-serving.


Ghost Dog: Mind and Society

Ghost Dog is a very complex movie that explores very deep issues of the mind and of society. It explores the many divisions that exist in society and their absurdities and contradictions. Human motivation and consciousness is examined artistically and delved into without much bias. Everyone in the movie seems about the same, with few exceptions. This movie is not a black or white, dichotomous good-guy-bad-guy flick. It accurately conveys that there are no good guys and bad guys and it's difficult not to be sympathetic, on some level, with everyone in the film. If anything, the movie reveals how the whole of society is pretty confused without much hope of any of us escaping this confusion any time soon.

Jarmusch did a brilliant job combining dichotomous elements in this movie to reveal many deep-seated psychological and social issues in a way that is rarely achieved in any media. This in itself gives the film tremendous value, particularly for those who like to delve much deeper past the surface of those psychological and societal issues.

Updated: 05/13/2014, NateB11
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