Сюжет фильма основан на одноимённом романе учёного и писателя, известного путешественника и исследователя Дальнего Востока Владимира Арсеньева — о его путешествиях по Уссурийскому краю и дружбе с таёжным охотником Дерсу Узала, чьи необыкновенные личные качества восхищали В. Арсеньева. Их путешествие по Уссурийской тайге, полное опасных приключений, составляет сюжетную основу фильма, однако смысл повествования выходит далеко за рамки сюжета.
Set in the Asian forests of Imperial Russia around the turn of the century, Dersu Uzala tells of the relationship between a military mapping expedition and an old Tungus trapper who acts as its guide. The soldiers sit in the winter forest at night, uncomfortable and scared. There is a rustle in the bushes and, mastering the temptation to flee, they grab the intruder. He is Dersu, a short, stocky, aging tribesman. He sits by the fire with them and when a log crackles he speaks sharply to it. "Fire is a man," he tells them. "Water is a man, too." The captain, a sensitive intermediary between the brutal confidence of the soldier-surveyors and the mystical trapper, hires him as guide. In a series of episodes, we see Dersu, through the captain's eyes, reveal his total communication with the world he lives in. Seeing footprints, he knows that men have been by two days before and that they are Chinese. Seeing trees with the bark off, he predicts that they will find shelter; and they do. When the party is about to leave the shelter, he insists on repairing the roof first: for anyone else who may come along. In one of the more memorable scenes, Dersu and the captain go out to chart a frozen lake. Kurosawa films the cold as it has rarely, if ever, been filmed. It is a visible, red-eyed enemy; visibly terrifying. The two are lost and Dersu, seeing death, is in total fear. The captain has his civilized schooling to constrain him; he also has a compass. But when the compass ends up failing, then what?
PLEASE NOTE THAT SWITCHABLE (SOFT) SUBTITLES WILL NOT SHOW UP WHEN VIEWING THE SAMPLE BELOW. IF YOU SEE SUBTITLES, THEN THEY ARE HARD-ENCODED (meaning, they cannot be turned off when viewing the film):