“The Russian Kurosawa” at the University of Chicago

A series of screenings and a roundtable discussion of four films by Akira Kurosawa based on Russian literary sources is scheduled to take place at the University of Chicago on May 10-12, 2013 at the brand-new Logan Center for the Arts. In anticipation of the event, the following excerpts are meant to alert readers and Kurosawa fans to the event and its purpose.


The films to be shown are: The Idiot (1951), Ikiru (1952), The Lower Depths (1957), and Dersu Uzala (1975).

For the full program and screening times visit: https://ceeres.uchicago.edu/kurosawa.


The series of screenings sets out to open a new perspective on Kurosawa’s ambiguous position between the East and the West and to challenge a long-standing tendency of Kurosawa criticism to construe the relationship between Western and Japanese sensibility as a chasm. The event’s focus on Kurosawa’s reception of Russian literature highlights the status of Kurosawa as a film director of industrial, post-war Japan who shares ethical concerns with many artists and intellectuals of the technologically advanced nations that participated in the Second World War. The context of post-World War II cultural criticism is the point where Kurosawa’s Japan meets the West as an equal participant in the guilt of Western industrialization and militarization.

The Idiot (1951)

Kurosawa’s turn to Dostoevsky in his 1951 adaptation of The Idiot is symptomatic of his shared goal with such contemporary Western intellectuals as Thomas Mann, Pasolini, and Mikhail Bakhtin who searched for the deeper cultural causes of the catastrophe that involved all industrial nations. Thomas Mann relied on Dostoevsky’s aesthetics in his novel Doktor Faustus, which dealt with the German culture’s involvement with fascism, Pasolini’s modeled his social activism and provocation upon Dostoevsky’s model of scandal; Bakhtin developed his theory of dialogism through an analysis of Dostoevsky’s works. These thinkers found in Dostoevsky a discursive model for alternative constructions of ethically differentiated collective consciousness, that is, conscience and communicative social space, which could be opposed to the now discredited father of modernism, Friedrich Nietzsche, and which could resist being usurped by totalitarianism. Turning to Dostoevsky’s novel The Idiot and adapting it to Japanese post-War circumstances, Kurosawa joins, from the Japanese side, a series of ethical revisions of modernism attempted in Europe. Europe propelled to the condition of traumatic post-war coma turned to Dostoevsky because the structure of his discourse had a strong potential for a rebirth, a new begin, derived from the structure of Christian resurrection, or a carnival that informs his novels. Kurosawa joins the West by his reconfiguring of the similar mental and cultural void of the post-War Japan.

In Kurosawa’s rendition, Dostoevsky’s novel The Idiot becomes an allegory of the post-war Japan’s ambiguous status of victim and perpetrator. Kurosawa’s The Idiot is set in post-War Japan. The characters have Japanese names. In the opening scene of the film, the protagonist of the novel Kameda (Dostoevksy’s Prince Myshkin) awakens with a scream from his war-time nightmare. The setting is the steamboat bringing a mass of people from Okinawa, the American military base and the camp for the prisoners of war. People spread on the floor remind one of the images of the war. This horrific scream awakens all passengers, which acquires a symbolic meaning for Kurosawa’s own goal of awakening his viewers to the screams of the past.

In this scene, right upon his awakening, Kameda meets Akama (Dostoevksy’s Rogozhin) who will become his romantic rival, an antagonist, and a double; and tells him how he became an idiot. His idiocy in the film – unlike the novel – is directly connected to the trauma of the war. Akama listens with horror and without real understanding. He is down to earth, healthy man. It looks like the horrors of the war were spared him. Kameda, Kurosawa’s idiot, is represented as an empty and passive character like Prince Myshkin, empty in the sense of absolute spirituality and empathy of Zen. This empathy, however, was reached not through the years of monastic training but through the trauma of the war. Thus Kurosawa replaces the wisdom of the Buddhist Zen through the wisdom of an existential experience of the near death. In this he undertakes one significant change: The near death was the experience of Dostoevsky himself, not of his hero. This change makes the reality break into the realm of philosophy.

The confrontation between the new, secular spirituality and the traditional Buddhist one is emphasized further in the crucial scene of the exchange of charms. At the height of the deadly rivalry between Kameda and Akama over a woman both of them love, Taeko Nasu (Dostoevsky’s Nastasja Filippovna), Kameda and Akama exchange charms. The scene of this exchange replaces Dostoevsky’s scene where Prince Myshkin and Rogozhin exchange crosses. At the first glance, Kurosawa seems to suggest here that Buddhism and Christianity are smoothly translatable. However, Kurosawa translates here rather Dostoevsky’s differentiation between the traditional forms of Christianity and the new Russian spirituality, which Dostoevsky called for as a form of an ethical, social discourse.

Akama, who is driven by the wild passions and lacks in empathy and sensitivity, tells Kameda that his Buddhist mother brought him up in the Buddhist tradition. His charm is an authentic Buddhist charm. Kameda’s charm is a stone, which he grabbed randomly during his traumatic fit on the execution field. It acquired its value through experience not a transmitted tradition. Kurosawa is not concerned with the nature of Buddhism and Christianity, and their translatability but with the status of tradition in the modern world. He is interested in an encounter between traditional culture (discredited as a form of resistance to the crime of war) and the new form of spirituality and ethics. He interrogates a possibility of the cross-fertilization between the past and the present, the possibility of their reconciliation.

Dersu Uzala (1975)

Dersu Uzala is a cinematic adaptation of the 1926/1928 memoir by the Russian explorer of Siberia, Vladimir Arseniev, entitled В дебрях Уссурийского края / In the Wilds of Ussuriland and translated into English in 1941 by Malcolm Burr as Dersu the Trapper. The film starts where the book ends: in 1910 Arseniev returns to the village of Korforovskaya, where several years before at the edge of the woods he had buried Dersu Uzala, his expedition guide. To his consternation, Arseniev realizes that the development of the village and its growth far beyond its previous borders have swallowed up the grove of cedars which used to mark the gravesite. With the trees cut down and the grave leveled, there is no sign or mark left to record his friend Dersu apart from Arseniev’s memory.

In fact by the end of the story Arseniev describes how after burying Dersu he had sat by the road grieving and commemorating. In writing down this recollection, he adds: “As in the cinema, all the pictures of our past life together were unrolled before the eyes of my memory”. By this point in the book, the “pictures” of Arseniev’s and Dersu’s adventures unrolling in Arseniev’s memory are already familiar to the reader. The book ends with this melancholy farewell not only to Dersu but also to Dersu’s natural habitat, the taiga, which is vanishing under the advance of towns, railroads and highways.

Kurosawa discovered the book during the Second World War and began to think of filming it with Japanese characters and the island of Hokkaidô as a setting, but he abandoned this project as infeasible. In 1973, when the Soviet production studio Mosfilm invited Kurosawa to make a film of his choice in Russia, the more than twenty-year-old idea of adapting Arseniev’s book resurfaced. Mosfilm’s invitation gave Kurosawa an opportunity to shoot on location in Siberia, in the very region where Arseniev had conducted his expeditions at the dawn of the twentieth century. Most of the characters could stay Russian, framing and bringing out the focus on the Asian protagonist Dersu, a hunter from the Ussuri branch of the Nanai tribe (known to the Russians of that period as the Goldi). Kurosawa’s rearrangement of the plot framed the film’s narrative in a way that highlights its sense of grief. Although upon the film’s release Kurosawa claimed many times that the film’s message is ecological and that modern man has a lot to learn from Dersu in this respect, the director’s concern with the protagonist and his grave seems to have much darker, unexpressed roots.

What are Dersu and his death to Kurosawa and Japanese audiences? We know that the original idea of the film was at odds with Japanese militarism. In a 1981 interview, Tony Rayns asked the film director about the influence of militarism – the national situation in which he entered the film industry – on his cinematic career: “Do you think your career would have developed differently if the national situation had been different?” In response to this question Kurosawa described the climate of censorship that doomed many of his wartime ideas, including his first conception of the adaptation of Arseniev’s Dersu Uzala.

The first concept of the film goes back to the moment and motive of Kurosawa’s peak interest in Dostoevsky: “the novelist’s era, with social oppression and the destruction of truth under the tsars, [was] a direct analogy to the epoch of Japan’s imperial expansion in Asia and the Pacific, during which [Kurosawa] matured as an individual and an artist.” In fact, the platoon of Russian soldiers headed by the officer Arseniev whose task is to map the Russian territory adjacent to Manchuria, first in preparation for the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-1905 and then in its aftermath, can be seen as an analogy for the Japanese advance into the neighboring regions of Manchuria in the 1930s. The trackless land that Arseniev has to chart and where state borders are still to be marked appears as a pre-modern pan-Asian no man’s land where populations of Chinese, Koreans, Manchurians and many Mongolian tribes are equally at home, moving, hunting, and trading freely, occasionally clashing in local conflicts. Russians, like the Japanese in their day, unambiguously come to these Asian territories as colonizers. They bring to this land “civilization,” which means territorial claims with borders, controls, and trade taxes. Such mappings and extractions then give the occasion for wars in which colonial interests will clash, with a heavy price paid again and again by the local populations.

This historical background is a powerful subtext, hinted at only indirectly through the Russian characters’ military outfits and Arseniev’s measuring and charting apparatus. The film’s emphasis on the two dates of the expeditions – 1902 and 1907 – projected in bold numerals in 70 mm format is difficult to overlook. These dates frame the time of the Russo-Japanese conflict, present as an ominous ellipsis, a silent gap which anticipates the two future world wars to come: wars fought over the same issues of mapping and remapping of conquered territories by the industrialized powers.

For Kurosawa, the return to Dersu Uzala in 1975, when his career was stalled in Japan, recalled the time of Japanese militarism with its suffocating censorship. It was a return to a book that had once offered him material and occasion for a silent resistance and a critical sentiment. Kurosawa was often criticized for having “evasive political views” because usually he refused to explain his films, referring the critics and audiences to the films themselves. This advice should be also followed in the case of Dersu Uzala, despite Kurosawa’s uncustomary volubility in regard to this film.

Kurosawa’s film constitutes a nostalgic glance back at the pan-Asian space without borders at the time before the major tragedies of the century had happened, but it is made with historic knowledge of the things to come. This knowledge, to which the characters themselves are still blind, accounts for the film’s idiosyncratically turn-of-the-century Chekhovian dramatism, which the Russian playwright called undercurrent. An undercurrent designates an unexpressed or understated conflict, or rather a tension in the situation, or in the characters’ relationship, which is hidden under the seemingly calm and uneventful appearance of things. Like the river crossed by the explorers at one moment in the film, a stream of calm appearance can harbor a dangerous current leading to a hazardous waterfall.

Maybe the most uncanny and important dramatic undercurrent of the film with its focus on Dersu’s grave is the historical fact that Dersu comes from the Siberian branch of the Goldi tribe. The closely-related Nanai, known in Chinese as Hezhe, in nearby Manchuria were almost totally exterminated by the Japanese during their occupation of this territory in 1930s under the auspices of imperial race theory. The treatment of nomadic peoples in the Japanese-dominated areas of Manchuria was ambiguous: on the one hand the Tungusic aboriginal populations were claimed to be kin to the ancestors of the Japanese, and thus the ethnographic justification for a common political destiny of the peoples of Northeast Asia under Japanese dominion; but the Nanai and other nomadic hunter groups were regarded by the colonial administration as little better than gypsies and treated as an inferior race, herded into concentration camps, forced to endure military service during the traditional hunting season, and nearly exterminated in the fifteen years of the Manchukuo state’s existence.

The victims of this genocide—for which no acknowledgment or repentance have ever been expressed—acquire a face in their ethnic kinsman Dersu Uzala across the Russian border, a member of an ethnicity which was similarly dying out under Russian and Chinese forays into Siberian territory. With this historical fact in mind, Dersu’s wisdom and culture are not just those of primordial mankind, but those of a particular people exterminated as subhuman for their alleged lack of wisdom and culture. This message is encoded in the film as silently as are its other references to the Russo-Japanese war and other wars to come.

The grave of Dersu Uzala is erased by the encroachments of civilization, but this civilization is not just that of the Russian Tsarist and then Soviet Empire. A Japanese audience can equally see itself as complicit in the erasure of Dersu’s grave in Manchuria—an erasure for which Kurosawa tries to compensate cinematically by ending the film with Arseniev erecting Dersu’s walking stick as a makeshift memorial over his grave. The last shot is a close-up of the forked upper side of the walking stick that has accompanied Dersu throughout the film. The forked stick of the real Dersu, as we can judge from historical photographs, was held with the fork down to the earth. Kurosawa turns it meaningfully downside up, to make the fork visible. This is not just a random choice. The forked stick represents the Nanai shamanic symbol of the World Tree and becomes a visual leitmotif of the film. The whole cosmology of the Nanai is condensed in this sign. Taken out of the film’s context and frozen into a sign on its own, this symbol transcends its intimate function as a memorial for Arseniev’s deceased friend and becomes a symbol for a whole ethnicity that has suddenly disappeared from the surface of the Earth. Not in vain, Kurosawa insisted that he wouldn’t make a film without interest for the Japanese audience. And it is hardly surprising that his film encountered only a lukewarm reception in Japan with Kurosawa being unwilling to announce its message from the rooftops. He left it to his viewers to search for his film’s meaning. But to uncover this meaning was not a comfortable enterprise.