Dersu Uzala: Kurosawa’s Media Ecology

I alluded to Kurosawa’s Russian language film, Dersu Uzala, in my last post and thought it would be interesting to write a follow up on the director’s technological statement by highlighting the important contrast present in what may be his most spectacular work.

Boiling the film down to its most basic essence, Dersu Uzala is a film about the Russian land surveying program in Siberia in the early-20th century. The story is based on the memoirs of explorer Vladimir Arsenyev of Vladivostok, who led expeditions into the Ussuri region and served the Russian military as an administrator. Arsenyev meets and employs Nani woodsman Dersu Uzala to aid in the exploration of the territories and the two become fast friends. The underlying narrative of the film is the bond of fraternal love between two men of highly divergent backgrounds. The contrast in their backgrounds is the counterpoint to the love they share for one another, and ultimately is the obstacle that keeps them apart.

I’ve always felt that this story could easily have been written by Ray Bradbury as a fictional account of interplanetary relationships based on the nature of the story and the vastly different worlds important to the narrative. It’s also a powerful statement about the way humans once lived, in tune with natural ecology, and the way we’ve come to live in the so-called civilized societies. I offer the following two clips to illustrate Kurosawa’s game. The first clip is a scene from the Siberian wilderness, where Uzala and Arsenyev find themselves lost and in danger of succumbing to the frozen night. Uzala knows what to do and quickly fashions a solution using only his wits, experience, and knowledge of the natural resources around him. Without him, Aresenyev would surely have perished in the cold, and the men grow closer for the experience. (The clip is in Russian with no subtitles, but for the most part it doesn’t matter. My account of the plot should be plenty to enjoy the few minutes here.)

The second clip is set in Vladivostok, where Arsenyev has returned with Dersu Uzala as a guest. Essentially, Uzala is unable to understand the environment he’s faced with in Vladivostok and becomes puzzled and unhappy. He find trouble with the law and depression. His love for Arsenyev does not change, but it becomes clear that their worlds are too divergent for them to remain together. After the clip, a few thoughts about the dialogue and the ideas developed…

The clip above opens with the tick-tocking of a clock and bells, which effectively introduces the audience to the mechanical world of the urban environment. It creates a distinct separation between the Siberian wilderness and its reliance on the position of the sun as an indicator of the relative hour. Further along, Uzala scolds the water deliveryman for selling what’s free in the river to Mrs. Arsenyev, and is told that he is forbidden to shoot his rifle in the town by law, something he can’t figure. Of course, the law is a codification of behavioral restraints brought about by literacy, by writing. The idea of such a formalized set of controls is perplexing and foreign to Uzala.

One of my favorite parts of the scene is Arsenyev’s conversation with Uzala in the bedroom they’ve given to their guest. Arsenyev asks, “How are you Dersu?” The rest of the dialogue continues:

DU: Me sitting here like a dead log in woods. Me no understand how fellows live inside box.

A: (missing the point) Well, I must agree. It’s not a cheerful room. I think we might change the paper, make it more comfortable. In the meantime, you can move into my study.

DU: No thanks, Captain. Me go outside, make good tent. Sleep there, not bother no one.

A: In a town, that’s not allowed.

DU: Why not? Not good?

A: How can I explain to you? That’s the law. (I don’t think that helped.)

DU: Funny law… Shooting gun not allowed, sleep in tent not allowed. Me not breathe. Need plenty fresh air.

Arsenyev begins to see that the men are clearly at an impasse, and perhaps for the first time begins to see that the situation is not going to work. Soon thereafter, Uzala is arrested for chopping down a tree in the park, obviously offended by the idea that water was sold to Mrs. Arsenyev and that she was going to trade more money for wood. Arsenyev intervenes on his behalf, but Uzala knows he must return to the woods. He receives a rifle from his friend the Captain before departing, a gift that will later figure in the story again.

Kurosawa has again used his art to create a counter-environment to the audience’s own world. The biological ecosystem that sustains the friends in the first clip has largely lost significance to we civilized folk. The technological use of tall grass and reeds as shelter against the frozen night is as foreign to us as covered wagons, illuminated manuscripts, and stone axes. Our houses, beds, clocks, books, and laws are as natural and invisible to us as the air we breathe. To Dersu Uzala’s eyes, these things are incomprehensible and alien. Through our empathy with Arsenyev we see what we have lost in the biological ecosystem. Through Uzala we see the oddity of our own constructions and the way they have changed the very way we live.

About mikeplugh

Media Ecology General Semantics Baseball Japan Fordham University
This entry was posted in ecology, technology and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Dersu Uzala: Kurosawa’s Media Ecology

  1. But when Dersu’s eyes begin to go, it is nature that is about to devour him. Dersu becomes afraid of that.

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