Rewatching it today, Ghost Dog feels like minor Jarmusch, and yet it's probably his most immediately accessible film, and one of his most enjoyable. It is, of course, a willful aesthetic stretch for a filmmaker pigeonholed into an extremely narrow genre (the 'broke hipsters talking to each other' genre). I love the film, even though it seems to gloss over many of the lessons of Jarmusch's previous film, the definitively major Dead Man. But that's significant, as I think it may reveal Jarmusch as being less interested in making all-encompassing statements (in this case about death and violence) and more in accessing the wider range of resonances and responses.
Jarmusch is a master of big picture thinking - the only contemporary filmmaker I can think of who is comparably attuned to structure is Takeshi Kitano, but his constructions are nowhere near as elegant. Think back to Strangers in Paradise, Down by Law, Dead Man, Coffee and Cigarettes or Broken Flowers and chart out the film's narrative progression in your head - each one contains a concise, beautiful story outline based on rather simple reversals, doublings, staged progressions (Jarmusch studied poetry at NYU, which doubtless had something to do with it). The inarticulate, aimless characters that populate his films are, in a sense, smoke screens that distract from the plot to make its ambling progression feel natural and organic. It occurs to me that perhaps without such lack of direction in the characters themselves the story might feel overdetermined, or at least heavily determined in the Stanley Kubrick sense. As it is, very little in his films feels inevitable until just before it happens, or just after (which, I'd argue, is even the case for Blake's death in Dead Man - an outcome predicted so early in the film that when and if he is killed becomes the central problem of the plot, and while the film maintains an atmosphere of impending doom the ultimate ending is still held up as a question).
I left Ghost Dog off that list above because I think that its failings can be found in the structure, which has less poetic/mythic resonance than most of his other films (which is strange, because it's his first attempt to create a traditional mythic hero). The opening quote announces the hero as dead, and, indeed, the film that follows is a long march towards death at the hands of a man to whom Ghost Dog owes his life - but the similarities to Dead Man shouldn't be overemphasized, as Jarmusch doesn't pursue that aspect of the film besides staging the hit at a house being represented by "Aligheri Realtors" (as well as an interesting flashback depicting a sort of death and resurrection). Ghost Dog is unchanging and devoted to his code, but the secondary characters who do change and progress through the film (in response to him) are very secondary, and there's no real insight into their evolution. There's no Nobody.
The real conflict in the film is between two warrior codes that are both dying out. Against Ghost Dog are small-time Italian gangsters - badly aging, broke, and in terrible shape. It's a nonsensical interpretation of the mobster code that kicks off the plot, and an almost nonsensical (if significantly more noble, in the film's terms) interpretation of the Samurai code that ends it. But there's no balance and no real clash of beliefs in the meat of the film. I love this movie, but watching it reminds me why I love Dead Man and Down By Law more, and what makes them truly great and this one merely intelligent, enjoyable and compulsively watchable.