July 23, 2010: Kirosawa’s “Dersu Uzala”

July 23, 2010

Hey. How’s this for a foreign film premise: a Japanese director films a Russian cast, whose hero is a member of obscure asian tribe from Manchuria whose nomadic and shamanistic ways are more akin to Native American Indians than most Asian cultures. That’s “Dersu Uzala,” Akira Kurosawa’s film that received the Academy Award for Best Foreign Film of 1976. Dersu Uzala is the name of the tracker of the Asiatic Nanai (called “Goldi” by the Russians in the film, which is a historically correct term used by early 20thC. Russians, but really a name for a smaller clan of the Nanai.)

Dersu guides a group of Russian surveyors across the wilderness and dangers of uncharted eastern Russia. Dersu is just the kind of guide one would need for a trip of this nature. He has a preternatural sense of his surroundings that saves the Russians time and time again: he is able to read the tracks that he finds in the wild and know not only how many men he is following, but their age and ethnicity; he is able to know when the rain will stop by listening to the birds; he is able to build a shelter from a tripod, a couple of rocks and grass that saves lives from a blizzard.

Dersu makes no distinctions between the men he guides or the “men” he see in the wild: martens, crows, badgers, mice…even fire, water, and wind he sees as “men” that not only he, but all people, have an obligation to honor and respect . Dersu has such raw and undiluted code of ethics, that he literally cannot understand a rich trapper’s desire to cheat him out of furs. He is indignant of another groups needless trapping of animal they do not use. Best of all, Dersu is a loyal and trustworthy friend to the captain of the Russians and to his family.

Slow paced, and perhaps a bit long, but beautiful in scope, as only Kurosawa can film, “Dursu Uzala” is an epic film of man vs nature and a wonderful representation of the “wild man” (as Thoreau termed) in modern cinema. It is also a good guide (like Dersu himself) to demonstrate what we, as modern men, have lost in our lack of  respect of nature and one another.



  1. Akira Kurosawa’s “Dersu Uzala” is dedicated to the director’s depiction of the contours of a hypothetical civilization alternative to the one in which we all live in today. This civilization which Kurosawa imagined, could develop but didn’t because of human pathological greed for power and profit and our mania to manipulate nature, life, other people and the world in general. Dersu with his alternative sensibility based on mutuality with nature represents for Kurosawa the lost child of this alternative civilization which tragically for us all didn’t become a reality. On the level of the plot the film describes a friendship (based on mutual love for nature) between Dersu and a Russian scientist Arseniev who tries to learn from him wisdom of grace and grace of wisdom, the absence of vanity, and also humility vis-à-vis otherness of the world and spontaneous honesty. While destiny of Dersu is tragic – he falls victim of civilized predators (the crooks of excessive calculation of their advantages), the destiny of Arseniev is even more horrifying. Of course, he made a professional career, but as a typical scientist inside a civilization of calculation and domination he cannot control how the results of his scientific research are used by the decision-makers. So, his love for nature becomes pure idealism – by admiring the natural world he unintentionally helps to subdue it. “Dersu Uzala” is a precious present to all those who love and respect nature and otherness of the world and life. The film can be used as a cinematic textbook for International Green Movement. Please, visit: http://www.actingoutpolitics.com to read the article about “Dersu Uzala” – A Monument to An Alternative Civilization” (with analysis of shots), articles about other Kurosawa’s films, and essays about films by Godard, Resnais, Bergman, Bresson, Antonioni, Bunuel, Alain Tanner, Pasolini, Cavani, Fassbinder, Bertolucci, Moshe Mizrahi and Ronald Neame.

  2. It’s based on a true story, so I’m not sure it’s about a fabricated and non-realizable civilization. It also has many similarities to Native American beliefs and folkways: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dersu_Uzala_(book)

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