Kurosawa Probes into What Might Have Come to Be For All of Us but Never Got a Chance to Realize Itself

As a person belonging to a hypothetical – an alternative civilization where man collaborates with nature instead of trying to dominate it (which didn’t have a chance to develop), Dersu cannot be observed in environment natural for him. In the forest which is doomed and nature that is being polluted and poisoned, Dersu is like a fish out of water, wind without expanse or cloud out of the sky. We will never know what he could be if he has lived his own life, if he couldn’t be a shadow amidst our world. This impossibility to cinematically observe Dersu “in full power” leads Kurosawa to the necessity to flatten the plot of the film. This explains a photographic and post-card visuality of some scenes and a general farewell mood of the film.

When Dersu unexpectedly comes to the bonfire from the darkness he is modest but without self-eliminating appeal, he is polite but self-respectful. The importance of a person like Dersu in helping us, children of modernity, to develop a more collaborative relationship with nature can be metaphorically compared with the importance of the discovery of fire for human species. That’s why the composition of this shot is so peculiar – we see Dersu as if he is the one with the fire, as if he is a spirit appearing from flames.

On the level of the plot “Dersu Uzala” is a film about a personal friendship and collaboration based on mutual love for nature, between a Siberian indigene and a Russian scientist who is hired by the army. But it goes much deeper when a personal story became enveloped by Kurosawa’s stylistic experiments developed in tune with his analysis of the history of a growing domination over nature on the part of modern (technological) civilization in its two branches (Western – “democratic”) and Russian – “totalitarian”).

Dersu cannot live in an urban box – a house almost every American dreams to live in. For him to stay, as the composition of this shot suggests, it means to live between Arseniev and his wife: between father- and mother-figures. For every person enjoying living in box-property the presence of parental figures is incarnated in the very comfort of living they associate with happiness. The very dream of material comfort amidst the world in a process of being destroyed by human greedy stupidity has, the film suggests, this infantile element. Look at the sentimental expression on the face of Arseniev’s wife – she “likes” Dersu and doesn’t want him to leave, she wants them to continue “to help him”. She reacts on everything as a private person. She doesn’t understand that the question here not so much about the destiny of Dersu personally but about different ways of life, about an alternative sensibility. “Dersu Uzala” is not just about an epic tragedy depicted by an epic film but it is a film which offers a social and historical perspective on the figurine smallness of private emotions. Our exemplary couple’s suffering over Dersu‘s leaving is the reaction of good and kind people participating, without understanding, in the destruction of the existential alternatives by the armed will of “warriors” and “conquerors”.

Dersu is a victim of a new breed of human beings whom industrial civilization has taught only extra-predatoriness (masked by everyday “normality” of financial “survival”) and how to extra-calculate their advantages – over other people, nature and life itself.

As if Dersu sees the future of material civilization that establishes itself not through collaboration with life but through domination over it.


The question how to live amidst nature: how to survive and live with it – without destroying it by the (blind and awkward) domination is not only the matter of modesty and wisdom. If it could be only this, Dersu as a human being could teach us something valuable in the time of BP’s shameful demarches in the Gulf of Mexico, low and high radiation from nuclear plants and corporate attacks on American democracy. Besides the depiction of the main character, Kurosawa traces the contours of civilization which could exist as a reality if not our human pathological fixation on over-controlling and exploiting – nature, life, other people and destiny of the world.

Dersu is emotionally a healthy human being, a man who wasn’t psychologically traumatized in childhood as too many of us were by our parents, who instead of providing children with benevolent identifications with models of adulthood, were occupied with disciplinary drillings, with keeping posture of superiority over kids and sometimes condescended to buddy-familiarity with them to feel themselves refreshed by the naiveté of childhood. Dersu, for sure, got positive parental objects inside his psyche because his parents didn’t belong to a highly competitive society we live in (where achieving success is considered to be the ultimate value in comparison with the importance of the existential genuineness and disinterestedness of inter-human rapport). It is exactly because Dersu had a benevolent parental introjects he was able to psychologically survive the death of his own family – wife and children, without a nervous breakdown and psychotic or violent reactions. His ability to mourn (and therefore, keep his psychological integrity) and not lose sensitivity is rare in our “civilized” times of general infantilization, addiction to prescription drugs and compulsive consumerism. In an alternative civilization, on the other hand, technology would serve human needs, not human megalomania and greed for power. The ability of our civilization to create physical and mental illnesses is much ahead of its ability to cure them and to heal the human soul.

The semantic structure of the film has eight components. The first four woven around Dersu as a teacher of alternative values: his behavior, his personality, his deeds, and his way of thinking. The second four are parts of Kurosawa’s analysis of the context of Dersu as a phenomenon: the role of Arseniev as a mediator between two civilizations (factual and alternative), the childish ignorance of mass people personified by soldiers, the tragedy that Arseniev’s refined scientific efforts of understanding nature as a partner are doomed to promote human obsessions that became the engine of technical progress, and, finally, the destruction of nature and Dersu as a sign of the destruction of the very possibility of creating existential spirituality.

In spite of his intelligence and sensitivity towards alternative values and norms Arseniev is doomed to help to destroy that which he is capable of appreciating – the life and the soul of nature vis-à-vis human beings and human civilization. He thinks that he has been sent to make a geographical research and provide knowledge about nature to help man to live with it in a benevolent partnership. Isn’t this the situation of every scientist who cannot control how the results of his/her research will be used by the decision-makers? The barbaric digestion of nature by the very process of industrialization (that Kurosawa shows in parallel with the growing ignorance and infantilism of human beings) debunks Arseniev’s noble efforts as utopia. In our civilization scientists serve the blind and impatient human desire to manipulate the world. Later in the film Arseniev is, as if, put under house arrest by the material wellbeing and a settled family life. His rapport with the spirit of otherness is reduced to the desire to see Dersu’s grave to pay him the last tribute. Human potential for wisdom personified by Dersu is drying up through the elimination of the very environment for grace.

Dersu is sincere and truthful but tolerant and polite. His manner of eating communicates the psychological unimportance of eating in comparison with his human and spiritual concerns (Dersu doesn’t project into eating any psychological needs: libidinous, narcissistic, consumerist or emotional fixations). He is free from the desire to feel dominant over the surrounding world. He behaves expertly and never bossy. He is never prone to demonstrate his competence, to self-assert. He is as human as Sanjuro from Kurosawa’s “Yojimbo” (1961) and “Sanjuro” (1962) but without his intentionally mythologically exaggerated (and humorously balanced) capability to handle powers of earthy authorities. Dersu is Sanjuro transferred into a new epoch when earthy authorities are able to upgrade their power over populations and nature to an unprecedented degree by using technical-scientific knowledge and strategic sophistication to subdue life. He is a transitory figure from Sanjuro to Nishi, Mifune’s character in “The Bad Sleep Well” (1960). While Sanjuro is eventually always triumphant, and Dersu is “forced into retirement” by the withering of the natural environment, Nishi’s protest is doomed before the crushing power of corporate wealth and might.

Among Dersu’s deeds are saving Arseniev’s life, being an enlightening influence on soldiers and showing people reverie for nature and humility and modesty of human posture in relation to it. But it is also public exposure of his own weakness, his mistakes before the tasks life puts in front of us. He tries to show people the vanity of their determination to be unconditional masters over nature. Dersu’s manner of talking is, on the surface, pantheistic – attribution to the nature human-like “rationality”. But this “naive anthropomorphism” quickly shows itself as a metaphoric way to recognize the truth about the complicated nature of reality. It is just a way of delivering a message.

Dersu is Arseniev’s alternative self, he is the one whose way of living and feeling Arseniev could be too happy to emulate against the pressure of “historical development” motivated by the search for super-control over circumstances, situations and destiny. Arseniev loves Dersu as his second – no, as his first self. Dersu is a better Arseniev than Arseniev himself.

Dersu is Arseniev’s Ego-ideal, his spiritual mother. Dersu’s death is the death of Arseniev’s spiritual ancestry. From the clean box of his family life Arseniev comes to look for Dersu’s grave as a perished alternative to the triumphing civilization of power. Being hired by power Arseniev was keeping the illusion of the possibility to unite with nature as collaborators, not rivals. This illusion died in the film. But what about his charming wife and his son, the “little captain”, as Dersu called him? It is not easy to share your life and love with the death of your ideal.

Posted a review on Aug, 2 2014 –   “Dersu Uzala” (1975) by Akira Kurosawa  by Acting-Out Politics