Dersu Uzala: The Human Cost of Empire

This article is an adapted version of a critical analysis I wrote for a university course, Rethinking Northeast Asia, which I took last year. As part of the course, we spent a lovely Friday afternoon watching Dersu Uzala, a film by the Japanese director Akira Kurosawa.

In the film, a Russian captain, Arsenyev, is undergoing a scientific exploration of the far east of the Tsarist empire before the Russo-Japanese War. In doing so, he meets a native of the region named Dersu, who helps him navigate the wilderness.

A wonderful story about masculinity, empire, colonialism, and love, Dersu was an absolute pleasure to watch. It’s a niche one, but I highly recommend you take the time to watch this absolute classic.

More than just a brilliant cinema experience though, Dersu was a masterful exploration of imperialism, and the cost of the imbalanced power relationships that come along with it.

The film is about a human relationship, but all relationships, whether between states and their people, or between nations, can be thought of in the same way. This relationship, in the film it is between Dersu and Arsenyev, is one which one person, through no decision of their own, has a clear power advantage. In the film that character is Arsenyev. Importantly, this is no reflection on him.

Dersu helping the Captain traverse Siberia in part one of the film

This role has been bestowed on him by empire, but this is just one way this happens. Power can be bestowed on us by our maleness, our richness, our education, our  status, our popularity, or our race, and it can be bestowed on entire nations, on cities, on communities, to have power over other entire nations, cities, or communities.

No matter how it is achieved though, or the intentions of those people involved, power fundamentally changes a relationship. We see this in society all the time, in relationships men and women, between employers and employees, between colonists and native people, between the police and the people. Power relationships are everywhere, and Northeast Asia’s imperial experiences overall, but Dersu Uzala more specifically, for the sake of this review, have an utterly fascinating story to tell the rest of the world about these relationships.

Through empire, capitalism, gender, authoritarianism, and resistance, the Northeast Asian region is permeated with what are to me some of the most powerful examples in the history of power relationships, their abuse, and their consequences. This is true of every empire to have set foot in the region, and trampled communities, whether it was the Chinese, Russian, Japanese, or American.

In particular, it remains present in the never-ending fight against authoritarian and corrupt governments in North and South Korea, and in the fight for gender equality in the highly sex-segregated societies of Northeast Asia. Dersu is an exploration of specifically the imperial version of power relationships though, and it’s a fantastic piece of art, so let’s explore it more deeply.

Comparing the warmth of a friendship with the tragedy of death, Dersu showcases the human cost of empire. The film argues that imperialism has impacts so large that they are unable to be controlled by the very actors undertaking them. By exploring the impact of the imperial project on just one relationship, between Dersu and on Captain Arsenyev, the director, Kurosawa, is able to capture the tragedy that imperialism, by its nature, creates for both of these groups of people, and their powerlessness to stop it.

In order to do so, the film builds a foundation on which it can express its tragedy: the relationship between Dersu and ‘Capitan!’ Arsenyev. First, Dersu Uzala takes the viewer through the building of their friendship in perilous far away nature, and as the characters combine their expertise against the elements, imperial exploration begins to seem far less sinister than the viewer may have expected.

The warmth of their relationship builds over time and reaches a peak in their reunion at the start of part 2 of the film. From Arsenyev passively choosing not to join in on his soldiers jokes at the expense of Dersu in part 1, to the genuine warmth of their reunion in part 2, all the way to their near-death experience together on the plains and a brief life together in Imperial Russia, Kurosawa builds a distinctly masculine loving comradery between the two characters.

Dersu and Captain Arsenyev come close to death on the plains of Manchuria, and must rely on each other to survive

This provides a wonderful spin on a distinctively negative maleness that permeates empires and imperialism generally. Rather than focusing on the use of force, order, control, or the provision of resources, as the maleness of empire so often does, Kurosawa opts to shed light on a positive masculinity: a kind of advanced boyhood, a loving and playful relationship between men characterised by physical affection, resourcefulness, co-operation, exploration, and genuine, rather than hurtful, banter.

I loved this, and as a man who was once, and still kind of is, a boy, I felt the warmth of the connection I have had with my own friends, and it was exactly this warmth that Kurosawa could use for his most powerful statement.

The defining moment of the film is its conclusion. Captain Arsenyev stands above the body of Dersu, his old friend, who he could not save from the brutality of empire, and the viewer is invited into his overwhelming sense of powerlessness. The sense of wholesome co-operation that carries the first part of the film has been coming undone since Dersu becomes blind in the second part, but with his death it is truly shattered.

The loss of a friend often carries a feeling of powerlessness, but it is the juxtaposition of this powerlessness with imperialism – specifically characterised by a relationship in which one member exercises all the power – that is uniquely powerful.

Imagery is used beautifully by the director at the micro-level in this part of the film too. Dersu is buried by the railway, a symbol of Russia’s everlasting influence in the region, and Arsenyev is forced to have a tedious conversation with an official of the Tsar to identify Dersu’s body. More than a formality to make things more real, it was Kurosawa sprinkling in yet another example of the way that empires get their tendrils into every aspect of life, and even death.

Then, Arsenyev stands alone above the buried Dersu. Placing the man of empire above the ground, alive but powerless to stop the tragedies he has helped enact, and a victim of his empire’s misdeeds below him in a grave, Kurosawa not only demonstrates the imbalanced nature of their relationship yet again, but makes Arsenyev a victim too. He has masterfully presented a tragedy whose catalyst is not a person or an event, but a system: imperialism – an idea that still costs the world millions of lives and extensive suffering. In doing so, Kurosawa brought across beautifully his point: that everyone was the victim, that not even the agents of empire themselves have the power to tame it.

This is what I loved about the film. Never once does Kurosawa imply that Captain Arsenyev has sinned. Instead, he argues that no matter the warm intentions of its actors, imperialism creates a power relationship that can’t be reconciled with the interests of its victims. I loved that Kurosawa used concepts I already found interesting to explore others that I like even more, so maybe it was just a great fit for my interests. Just as likely though, is that it was a great film, a well-executed exploration of fascinating subject matter, that anyone and everyone could enjoy.

As always, I’ll finish with my favourite scene. Towards the end of the film, a blinding Dersu, unable to hunt and therefore survive in the wilderness, is taken to Arsenyev’s home in the Russian empire, specifically the city of Khabarovsk, as an act of charity. The city is orderly, benign, and the realm of happy families, but Dersu can’t fit in.

Dersu in Arsenyev’s home

He gets in trouble with local authorities for attempting to cut down a tree for firewood and is unhappy that he can’t sleep in the park. The clash of cultures makes everyone uncomfortable, but one shot in particular comes to mind – Arsenyev and his family are sitting in their wonderful loungeroom. The captain is wearing a dressing gown and reading literature in his chair, his wife sews in the background, and his young son is practicing the piano in the foreground.

Over a seemingly peaceful scene hangs an air of unease, as Dersu, slowly blinding and being kept alive only by the kindness of the captain, sits alone on the floor in front of the fireplace. In his dirty outdoor clothes in the back corner of the shot, each of the characters look occasionally toward him, unable to relax.

I felt the awkwardness beaming from the screen, and I couldn’t help but think that sitting dirty and damaged in the corner of so many national memories are the victims of their empires and colonies. Nation after nation, sitting among the splendour of an imperial history, uneasily ignores the people it has hurt, at best hoping they will adapt, and at worst, simply waiting for them to die.

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