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Akira Kurosawa: “What Is a Thing?”; Posing the Religious in Dersu Uzala (1975)

  • M. Gail Hamner
Chapter
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Part of the New Approaches to Religion and Power book series (NARP)

Abstract

The three case study films that compose this half of the book were chosen along the axes of production, distribution, and consumption. Each chapter analyzes a film that foregrounds a borderline case, not necessarily an atypical case (although Dersu Uzala fits that bill, too), but a moment of production, distribution, or consumption that exemplifies some of the national and international joints of film industry. As this chapter details below, Dersu Uzala was the only film produced by Kurosawa outside of Japan. The fact that he produced this film at all and the fact that it was produced in Soviet Russia with mostly Soviet monies have important social and cultural correlates that need to be addressed, including the rise of television, the resulting restructuring of Japanese film industry, and the strivings of a Western-designated “auteur” within Japan. In terms of religion, this film and chapter rest on two questions. The first centers discursively on the relationship between the “religious” and the “social,” a relationship that is familiar to religion scholars but not to film scholars. The second question forms what I perceive to be the enduring worth of Dersu Uzala, namely the question of “what is a thing?” Put more directly: Under the reifying forces of capitalism, by what powers or politics are the boundaries between thinghood and personhood drawn, and how can they be contested? Kurosawa’s film focuses the pedagogy of self on the boundaries drawn by capitalism and imperialism and the loss of life

Keywords

Religious Ritual Film Festival Buddhist Practice Open Scene Title Character 
These keywords were added by machine and not by the authors. This process is experimental and the keywords may be updated as the learning algorithm improves.

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Notes

  1. 1.
    Gilles Deleuze, Cinema 2: The Time-Image, trans. Hugh Tomlinson and Robert Galeta (1985; repr. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1989), 201–202.Google Scholar
  2. 2.
    Sharon Hamilton Nolte, “Individualism in Taisho Japan,” The Journal of Asian Studies 43, no. 4 (August 1984): 677. See also Donald Richie, A Hundred Years of Japanese Film: A Concise History, with a Selective Guide to Videos and DVDs (New York: Kodansha America, 2001), 90–96.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  3. 9.
    Bert Cardullo, ed., Akira Kurosawa: Interviews (Jackson: University of Mississippi Press, 2008), xx.Google Scholar
  4. 13.
    John H. Kopper, “Akira Kurosawa’s Dersu Uzala and the Imperial Vision,” in, The Force of Vision, III: Power of Narration, ed. Earl Miner and Toru Hagu (Tokyo: International Comparative Literature Association, xvi, 1995), 195. In interviews, Kurosawa refers to the diaries by the title, Into the Wilds of Ussuri. I found an English translation simply titled, Dersu Uzala, trans. V. Schneerson (Moscow: Foreign Languages Publishing House, n.d.).Google Scholar
  5. 16.
    Kyoko Hirano, “Making Films for all the People: An Interview with Akira Kurosawa,” Cineaste 14, no.4 (1986): 24; reprinted in Perspectives on Akira Kurosawa, ed. James Goodwin (New York: G. K. Hall & Co., an imprint of Macmillan Publishing Co., 1994), 57.Google Scholar
  6. 26.
    Jacques Derrida, “The Animal That Therefore I Am (More to Follow), Critical Inquiry 28, no. 2 (Winter 2002).Google Scholar
  7. 27.
    Slavoj Žižek, The Fragile Absolute, or Why is the Christian legacy Worth Fighting For? (New York: Verso, 2001), 1: In our postmodern era, “How is a Marxist, by definition a ‘fighting materialist’ (Lenin), to counter this massive onslaught of obscurantism [that is, “the return of the religious dimension in all its different guises”]?”Google Scholar
  8. 29.
    For a fuller account of recognition and responsibility in light of exposed vulnerability, see Judith Butler, Precarious Life: The Power of Mourning and Violence (New York: Verso, 2004).Google Scholar
  9. 33.
    Kevin Bales, Disposable People: New Slavery in the Global Economy (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1999). Kurosawa’s surrealist mise en scène lends itself to allegorical interpretation. It is easy to see this community as standing in for the entire world’s poor.Google Scholar
  10. 35.
    Women are often at least suspect, if not outright threatening in Kurosawa’s films. Joan Meilen writes of this extensively in “Kurosawa’s Women,” in James Goodwin, Perspectives on Kurosawa (New York: G. K. Hall & Co., 1994), 102–105; see also Joan Mellen’s text, The Waves at Genji’s Door: Japan Through Its Cinema (New York: Pantheon, 1976). This negative characterization of women is certainly not always the case, however. Think of Yukie (Setsuko Hara) in No Regrets for Our Youth, who Kurosawa insisted on being a woman, or Masako (Chieko Nakakita) in One Wonderful Sunday, who is vastly more compelling than Yuzo (Isao Numasaki), or the grandmother and granddaughter in Rhapsody in August, who are both the vessels of/for memory.Google Scholar
  11. 39.
    See André Bazin, “The Evolution of the Language of Cinema,” in What is Cinema?, trans. Hugh Gray (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1967), 33–35; for the classic statement of preference for long takes and depth of field. French original, André Bazin, Qu’est-ce que le cinéma? Edition definitive (Poitiers: les Presses d’Offset-Aubin, 1975), 75–76: “la profoundeur de champ.”Google Scholar
  12. 42.
    Gilles Deleuze, Cinema 1: The Movement Image, trans. Hugh Tomlinson and Barbara Habberjam (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1986), 189.Google Scholar

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© M. Gail Hamner 2011

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