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The narrative of Dersu Uzala is divided into two major sections, set in $1902$ and $1907,$ that deal with separate expeditions which Arseniev conducts into the Ussuri region. In addition, a third time frame forms a prologue to the film. Each of the temporal frames has a different focus and by shifting them Kurosawa is able to describe the encroachment of settlements upon the wilderness and the consequent erosion of Dersu’s way of life. As the film opens, that erosion has already begun. The first image is a long shot of a huge forest, the trees piled upon one another by the effects of the telephoto lens so that the landscape becomes an abstraction and appears like a huge curtain of green. A title informs us that the year is $1910.$ This is as late into the century as Kurosawa will go. After this prologue, the events of the film will transpire even farther back in time and will presented as Arseniev’s recollections. The character of Dersu Uzala is the heart of the film, his life the example that Kurosawa wishes to affirm. Yet the formal organisation of the film works to contain to close, to circumscribe that life by erecting a series of obstacles around it. The film itself is circular, opening and closing by Dersu’s grave, thus sealing off the character from the modern world to which Kurosawa once so desperately wanted to speak. The multiple time frames also work to maintain a separation between Dersu and the contemporary world. We must go back farther even than $1910$ to discover who he was. But this narrative structure has yet another implication. It safeguards Dersu’s example, inoculates it from contamination with history, and protects it from contact with the industrialised, urban world. Time is organised by the narrative into a series of barriers, which enclose Dersu in a kind of vacuum chamber, protecting him from the social and historical dialectics that destroyed the other Kurosawa heroes. Within the film, Dersu does die, but the narrative structure attempts to immortalise him and his example, as Dersu passes from history into myth.

We see all this at work in the enormously evocative prologue. The camera down to reveal felled trees littering the landscape and an abundance of construction. Roads and houses outline the settlement that is being built. Kurosawa cuts to a medium shot of Arseniev standing in the midst of the clearing, looking uncomfortable and disoriented. A man passing in a wagon asks him what he is done, and the explorer says he is looking for a grave. The driver replies than no one has died here, the settlement is too recent. These words enunciate the temporal rupture that the film studies. It is the beginning of things (industrial society) and the end of things (the forest), the commencement of one world so young that no one has had time yet to die and the eclipse of another, in which Dersu has died. It is his grave for which the explorer searches. His passing symbolises the new order, the development that now surrounds Arseniev. The explorer says he buried his friend three years ago, next to huge cedar and fir trees, but now they are all gone. The man on the wagon replies they were probably chopped down when the settlement was build, and he drives off. Arseniev walks to a barren, treeless spot next to a pile of bricks. As he moves, the camera tracks and pans to follow, revealing a line of freshly built houses and a woman hanging her laundry to dry. A distant train whistle is heard, and the sounds of construction in the clearing vie with the cries of birds and the rustle of wind in the trees. Arseniev pauses, looks around for the grave that once was, and murmurs desolately, “Dersu”. The image now cuts farther into the past, to $1902,$ and the first section of the film commences, which describes Arseniev’s meeting with Dersu and their friendship.

Kurosawa defines the world of the film initially upon a void, a missing presence. The grave is gone, brushed aside by a world rushing into modernism, and nowthe hunter exists only in Arseniev’s emories. The hallucinatory dreams and visions of Dodeskaden are succeeded by nostalgic, melancholy ruminations. Yet by exploring these ruminations, the film celebrates the timelessness of Dersu’s wisdom. The first section of the film has two purposes: to describe the magnificence and inhuman vastness of nature and to delineate the code of ethics by which Dersu lives and which permits him to survive in these conditions. When Dersu first appears, the other soldiers treat him with condescension and laughter, but Arseniev watches him closely and does not share their derisive response. Unlike them, he is capable of immediately grasping Dersu’s extraordinary qualities. In camp, Kurosawa frames Arseniev by himself, sitting on the other side of the fire from his soldiers. While they sleep or joke among themselves, he writes in his diary and Kurosawa cuts in several point-of-view shots from his perspective of trees that appear animated and sinister as the fire light dances across their gnarled, leafless outlines. This reflective dimension, this sensitivity to the spirituality of nature, distinguishes him from the others and forms the basis of his receptivity to Dersu and their friendship. It makes his a fit pupil for the hunter.

According to the author the section of the film following the prologue

  1. serves to highlight the difficulties that Dersu faces that eventually kills him.
  2. shows the difference in thinking between Arseniev and Dersu.
  3. shows the code by which Dersu lives that allows him to survive his surroundings.
  4. serves to criticize the lack of understanding of nature in the pre-modern era.
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