Samurai (Films), Kung-Fu (Flicks) and Hip-Hop (Soundtracks)

How to Cite

Eubanks, K. P. (2007). Becoming-Samurai: Samurai (Films), Kung-Fu (Flicks) and Hip-Hop (Soundtracks). M/C Journal, 10(2).
Vol. 10 No. 2 (2007): 'adapt'
Published 2007-05-01

Samurai and Chinese martial arts themes inspire and permeate the uniquely philosophical lyrics and beats of Wu-Tang Clan, a New York-based hip-hop collective made popular in the mid-nineties with their debut album Enter the Wu-Tang: Return of the 36 Chambers. Original founder RZA (“Rizza”) scored his first full-length motion-picture soundtrack and made his feature film debut with Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai (Jim Jarmusch, 2000). Through a critical exploration of the film’s musical filter, it will be argued that RZA’s aesthetic vision effectively deterritorialises the figure of the samurai, according to which the samurai “change[s] in nature and connect[s] with other multiplicities” (Deleuze and Guattari, 9). The soundtrack consequently emancipates and redistributes the idea of the samurai from within the dynamic context of a fundamentally different aesthetic intensity, which the Wu-Tang has always hoped to communicate, that is to say, an aesthetics of adaptation or of what is called in hip-hop music more generally: an aesthetics of flow. At the center of Jarmusch’s film is a fundamental opposition between the sober asceticism and deeply coded lifestyle of Ghost Dog and the supple, revolutionary, itinerant hip-hop beats that flow behind it and beneath it, and which serve at once as philosophical foil and as alternate foundation to the film’s themes and message.

Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai tells the story of Ghost Dog (Forest Whitaker), a deadly and flawlessly precise contract killer for a small-time contemporary New York organised crime family. He lives his life in a late 20th-century urban America according to the strict tenets of the 18th century text Hagakure, which relates the principles of the Japanese Bushido (literally, the “way of the warrior,” but more often defined and translated as the “code of the samurai”). Others have noted the way in which Ghost Dog not only fails as an adaptation of the samurai genre but thematises this very failure insofar as the film depicts a samurai’s unsuccessful struggle to adapt in a corrupt and fractured postmodern, post-industrial reality (Lanzagorta, par. 4, 9; Otomo, 35-8). If there is any hope at all for these adaptations (Ghost Dog is himself an example), it lies, according to some, in the singular, outmoded integrity of his nostalgia, which despite the abstract jouissance or satisfaction it makes available, is nevertheless blank and empty (Otomo, 36-7). Interestingly, in his groundbreaking book Spectacular Vernaculars, and with specific reference to hip-hop, Russell Potter suggests that where a Eurocentric postmodernism posits a lack of meaning and collapse of value and authority, a black postmodernism that is neither singular nor nostalgic is prepared to emerge (6-9). And as I will argue there are more concrete adaptive strategies at work in the film, strategies that point well beyond the film to popular culture more generally. These are anti-nostalgic strategies of possibility and escape that have everything to do with the way in which hip-hop as soundtrack enables Ghost Dog in his becoming-samurai, a process by which a deterritorialised subject and musical flow fuse to produce a hybrid adaptation and identity. But hip-hip not only makes possible such a becoming, it also constitutes a potentially liberating adaptation of the past and of otherness that infuses the film with a very different but still concrete jouissance.

At the root of Ghost Dog is a conflict between what Deleuze and Guattari call state and nomad authority, between the code that prohibits adaptation and its willful betrayer. The state apparatus, according to Deleuze and Guattari, is the quintessential form of interiority. The state nourishes itself through the appropriation, the bringing into its interior, of all that over which it exerts its control, and especially over those nomadic elements that constantly threaten to escape (Deleuze and Guattari, 380-7). In Ghost Dog, the code or state-form functions throughout the film as an omnipresent source of centralisation, authorisation and organisation. It is attested to in the intensely stratified urban environment in which Ghost Dog lives, a complicated and forbidding network of streets, tracks, rails, alleys, cemeteries, tenement blocks, freeways, and shipping yards, all of which serve to hem Ghost Dog in. And as race is highlighted in the film, it, too, must be included among the many ways in which characters are always already contained. What encounters with racism in the film suggest is the operative presence of a plurality of racial and cultural codes; the strict segregation of races and cultures in the film and the animosity which binds them in opposition reflect a racial stratification that mirrors the stratified topography of the cityscape.

Most important, perhaps, is the way in which Bushido itself functions, at least in part, as code, as well as the way in which the form of the historical samurai in legend and reality circumscribes not only Ghost Dog’s existence but the very possibility of the samurai and the samurai film as such. On the one hand, Bushido attests to the absolute of religion, or as Deleuze and Guattari describe it: “a center that repels the obscure … essentially a horizon that encompasses” and which forms a “bond”, “pact”, or “alliance” between subject/culture and the all-encompassing embrace of its deity: in this case, the state-form which sanctions samurai existence (382-3).

On the other hand, but in the same vein, the advent of Bushido, and in particular the Hagakure text to which Ghost Dog turns for meaning and guidance, coincides historically with the emergence of the modern Japanese state, or put another way, with the eclipse of the very culture it sponsors. In fact, samurai history as a whole can be viewed to some extent as a process of historical containment by which the state-form gradually encompassed those nomadic warring elements at the heart of early samurai existence. This is the socio-historical context of Bushido, insofar as it represents the codification of the samurai subject and the stratification of samurai culture under the pressures of modernisation and the spread of global capitalism. It is a social and historical context marked by the power of a bourgeoning military, political and economic organisation, and by policies of restraint, centralisation and sedentariness. Moreover, the local and contemporary manifestations of this social and historical context are revealed in many of the elements that permeate not only the traditional samurai films of Kurosawa, Mizoguchi or Kobayashi, but modern adaptations of the genre as well, which tend to convey a nostalgic mourning for this loss, or more precisely, for this failure to adapt.

Thus the filmic atmosphere of Ghost Dog is dominated by the negative qualities of inaction, nonviolence and sobriety, and whether these are taken to express the sterility and impotence of postmodern existence or the emptiness of a nostalgia for an unbroken and heroic past, these qualities point squarely towards the transience of culture and towards the impossibility of adaptation and survival. Ghost Dog is a reluctant assassin, and the inherently violent nature of his task is always deflected. In the same way, most of Ghost Dog’s speech in the film is delivered through his soundless readings of the Hagakure, silent and austere moments that mirror as well the creeping, sterile atmosphere in which most of the film’s action takes place. It is an atmosphere of interiority that points not only towards the stratified environment which restricts possibility and expressivity but also squarely towards the meaning of Bushido as code.

But this atmosphere meets resistance. For the samurai is above all a man of war, and, as Deleuze and Guattari suggest, “the man of war [that is to say, the nomad] is always committing an offence against” the State (383). In Ghost Dog, for all the ways in which Ghost Dog’s experience is stratified by the Bushido as code and by the post-industrial urban reality in which he lives and moves, the film shows equally the extent to which these strata or codes are undermined by nomadic forces that trace “lines of flight” and escape (Deleuze and Guattari, 423).

Clearly it is the film’s soundtrack, and thus, too, the aesthetic intensities of the flow in hip-hop music, which both constitute and facilitate this escape:

We have an APB on an MC killer
Looks like the work of a master …
Merciless like a terrorist
Hard to capture the flow
Changes like a chameleon
(“Da Mystery of Chessboxin,” Enter)

Herein lies the significance of (and difference between) the meaning of Bushido as code and as way, a problem of adaptation and translation which clearly reflects the central conflict of the film. A way is always a way out, the very essence of escape, and it always facilitates the breaking away from a code. Deleuze and Guattari describe the nomad as problematic, hydraulic, inseparable from flow and heterogeneity; nomad elements, as those elements which the State is incapable of drawing into its interior, are said to remain exterior and excessive to it (361-2). It is thus significant that the interiority of Ghost Dog’s readings from the Hagakure and the ferocious exteriority of the soundtrack, which along with the Japanese text helps narrate the tale, reflect the same relationship that frames the state and nomad models. The Hagakure is not only read in silence by the protagonist throughout the film, but the Hagakure also figures prominently inside the diegetic world of the film as a visual element, whereas the soundtrack, whether it is functioning diegetically or non-diegetically, is by its very nature outside the narrative space of the film, effectively escaping it.

For Deleuze and Guattari, musical expression is inseparable from a process of becoming, and, in fact, it is fair to say that the jouissance of the film is supplied wholly by the soundtrack insofar as it deterritorialises the conventional language of the genre, takes it outside of itself, and then reinvests it through updated musical flows that facilitate Ghost Dog’s becoming-samurai. In this way, too, the soundtrack expresses the violence and action that the plot carefully avoids and thus intimately relates the extreme interiority of the protagonist to an outside, a nomadic exterior that forecloses any possibility of nostalgia but which suggests rather a tactics of metamorphosis and immediacy, a sublime deterritorialisation that involves music becoming-world and world becoming-music. Throughout the film, the appearance of the nomad is accompanied, even announced, by the onset of a hip-hop musical flow, always cinematically represented by Ghost Dog’s traversing the city streets or by lengthy tracking shots of a passenger pigeon in flight, both of which, to take just two examples, testify to purely nomadic concepts: not only to the sheer smoothness of open sky-space and flight with its techno-spiritual connotations, but also to invisible, inherited pathways that cross the stratified heart of the city undetected and untraceable.

Embodied as it is in the Ghost Dog soundtrack, and grounded in what I have chosen to call an aesthetics of flow, hip-hop is no arbitrary force in the film; it is rather both the adaptive medium through which Ghost Dog and the samurai genre are redeemed and the very expression of this adaptation. Deleuze and Guattari write:

The necessity of not having control over language, of being a foreigner in one’s own tongue, in order to draw speech to oneself and ‘bring something incomprehensible into the world.’ Such is the form of exteriority … that forms a war machine. (378)

Nowhere else do Deleuze and Guattari more clearly outline the affinities that bind their notion of the nomad and the form of exteriority that is essential to it with the politics of language, cultural difference and authenticity which so color theories of race and critical analyses of hip-hop music and culture. And thus the key to hip-hop’s adaptive power lies in its spontaneity and in its bringing into the world of something incomprehensible and unanticipated.

If the code in Ghost Dog is depicted as nonviolent, striated, interior, singular, austere and measured, then the flow in hip-hop and in the music of the Wu-Tang that informs Ghost Dog’s soundtrack is violent, fluid, exterior, variable, plural, playful and incalculable. The flow in hip-hop, as well as in Deleuze and Guattari’s work, is grounded in a kinetic linguistic spontaneity, variation and multiplicity. Its lyrical flow is a cascade of accelerating rhymes, the very speed and implausibility of which often creates a sort of catharsis in performers and spectators:

I bomb atomically, Socrates’ philosophies
and hypotheses can’t define how I be droppin’ these
mockeries, lyrically perform armed robberies
Flee with the lottery, possibly they spotted me
Battle-scarred shogun, explosion. …
(“Triumph”, Forever)

Over and against the paradigm of the samurai, which as I have shown is connected with relations of content and interiority, the flow is attested to even more explicitly in the Wu-Tang’s embrace of the martial arts, kung-fu and Chinese cinematic traditions. And any understanding of the figure of the samurai in the contemporary hip-hop imagination must contend with the relationship of this figure to both the kung-fu fighting traditions and to kung-fu cinema, despite the fact that they constitute very different cultural and historical forms.

I would, of course, argue that it is precisely this playful adaptation or literal deterritorialisation of otherwise geographically and culturally distinct realities that comprises the adaptive potential of hip-hop. Kung-fu, like hip-hop, is predicated on the exteriority of style. It is also a form of action based on precision and immediacy, on the fluid movements of the body itself deterritorialised as weapon, and thus it reiterates that blend of violence, speed and fluidity that grounds the hip-hop aesthetic: “I’ll defeat your rhyme in just four lines / Yeh, I’ll wax you and tax you and plus save time” (RZA and Norris, 211). Kung-fu lends itself to improvisation and to adaptability, essential qualities of combat and of lyrical flows in hip-hop music. For example, just as in kung-fu combat a fighter’s success is fundamentally determined by his ability to intuit and adapt to the style and skill and detailed movements of his adversary, the victory of a hip-hop MC engaged in, say, a freestyle battle will be determined by his capacity for improvising and adapting his own lyrical flow to counter and overcome his opponent’s.

David Bordwell not only draws critical lines of difference between the Hong Kong and Hollywood action film but also hints at the striking differences between the “delirious kinetic exhilaration” of Hong Kong cinema and the “sober, attenuated, and grotesque expressivity” of the traditional Japanese samurai film (91-2). Moreover, Bordwell emphasises what the Wu-Tang Clan has always known and demonstrated: the sympathetic bond between kung-fu action or hand-to-hand martial arts combat and the flow in hip-hop music. Bordwell calls his kung-fu aesthetic “expressive amplification”, which communicates with the viewer through both a visual and physical intelligibility and which is described by Bordwell in terms of beats, exaggerations, and the “exchange and rhyming of gestures” (87). What is pointed to here are precisely those aspects of Hong Kong cinema that share essential similarities with hip-hop music as such and which permeate the Wu-Tang aesthetic and thus, too, challenge or redistribute the codified stillness and negativity that define the filmic atmosphere of Ghost Dog.

Bordwell argues that Hong Kong cinema constitutes an aesthetics in action that “pushes beyond Western norms of restraint and plausibility,” and in light of my thesis, I would argue that it pushes beyond these same conventions in traditional Japanese cinema as well (86). Bruce Lee, too, in describing the difference between Chinese kung-fu and Japanese fighting forms in A Warrior’s Journey (Bruce Little, 2000) points to the latter’s regulatory principles of hesitation and segmentarity and to the former’s formlessness and shapelessness, describing kung-fu when properly practiced as “like water, it can flow or it can crash,” qualities which echo not only Bordwell’s description of the pause-burst-pause pattern of kung-fu cinema’s combat sequences but also the Wu-Tang Clan’s own self-conception as described by GZA (“Jizza”), a close relative of RZA and co-founder of the Wu-Tang Clan, when he is asked to explain the inspiration for the title of his album Liquid Swords:

Actually, ‘Liquid Swords’ comes from a kung-fu flick. … But the title was just … perfect. I was like, ‘Legend of a Liquid Sword.’ Damn, this is my rhymes. This is how I’m spittin’ it. We say the tongue is symbolic of the sword anyway, you know, and when in motion it produces wind. That’s how you hear ‘wu’. … That’s the wind swinging from the sword. The ‘Tang’, that’s when it hits an object. Tang! That’s how it is with words. (RZA and Norris, 67)

Thus do two competing styles animate the aesthetic dynamics of the film Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai: an aesthetic of codified arrest and restraint versus an aesthetic of nomadic resistance and escape. The former finds expression in the film in the form of the cultural and historical meanings of the samurai tradition, defined by negation and attenuated sobriety, and in the “blank parody” (Otomo, 35) of a postmodern nostalgia for an empty historical past exemplified in the appropriation of the Samurai theme and in the post-industrial prohibitions and stratifications of contemporary life and experience; the latter is attested to in the affirmative kinetic exhilaration of kung-fu style, immediacy and expressivity, and in the corresponding adaptive potential of a hip-hop musical flow, a distributive, productive, and anti-nostalgic becoming, the nomadic essence of which redeems the rhetoric of postmodern loss described by the film.

Author Biography

Kevin P. Eubanks