Kurosawa Centenary: Dersu Uzala
[March 23 1910, legendary filmmaker Akira Kurosawa was born. To celebrate the centennial of his life, his prolific contributions to the world of cinema, and immense impact on the hearts and minds of those quietly mourning his absence, staffers at Row Three are (rather enthusiastically) taking this opportunity to share their own experiences of the Kurosawa catalogue]
Akira Kurosawa’s only film not shot in Japan essays the civilization of the Siberian Frontier at the turn of the century through the eyes of a Russian explorer and a Mongolian nomad. An unlikely friendship, as these two have little in common beyond a chance encounter in the wilderness, and yet, a combined struggle against natures fury forms a generous bond between men of different worlds. Shot on location (and it most certainly shows) over two years on the Siberian tundra and in the forests, it displays the awesomeness (and cruel indifference) of mother nature reminiscent of Werner Herzog’s Aguirre: Wrath of God (which would be released three years later), while retaining the austere static camera employed in Kurosawa’s earlier work. Despite the epic scope of the photography, the film is nevertheless warm and intimate character study.
Dersu Uzala was the first film made by Kurosawa after his suicide attempt, and is perhaps interesting that the titular, aging, Goldi hunter has a melt-down at the loss of his ability to see (and therefore ply his trade in the wilderness). Yet there is no lack of talent on display in its evocative capture of nature and a gentle spirit of camaraderie and even humanitarian desire to help those that follow, even if those are the harbingers who bring the very progress that changes everything, irrevocably.
Like an American Western, the film opens with the encroachment of civilization onto a previously untamed frontier. Vladimir Arsenyev, solider and cartographer, returns to the site of his friends unmarked grave only to find the landscape has changed to make way for a new town. Things flash back to seven years prior, on Arsenyev’s expedition into the Ussuri Basin with a small band of troops and an initial almost comical encounter with the eccentric tribesman. Arsenyev is immediately impressed with both Dersu’s knowledge of the region and his intuition on details and circumstance on which the less experienced Russian explorers would be completely haplessly ignorant. A willingness to leave food and items cached for other hunters in the wilderness further gets the respect and curiosity Arsenyev. But the film does not really open up beyond the rugged landscape (and sad note of the untimely demise of Dersu’s family to smallpox) until the explorer and the hunter become separated from the soldiers and trapped in the open plains with an icy gale and night springing upon them. A tour de force set-piece has the pair building a grass hut for their very survival while the sun goes down.
Further adventures follow in the forests and rivers in all four seasons: A battle to cross a raging river, Chinese bandits and both literal and spiritual tigers. until age begins to catch up with Dersu and his eyesight begins to falter. Arsenyev attempts to bring his back to a life of retirement in the town of Vladivostok; to the point of moving the frontiersman into his home with his own wife and young son. But Dersu does not integrate into town life, with its rules and societal norms completely outside the scope of his own experience. His brand of dignified and solitary survival (and almost naive altruism) does not meld well with the functioning economy of a large town. Getting a new model rifle, a final parting gift from Arsenyev (and possibly Dersu’s own undoing – again it is possible read this into Kurosawa’s move towards colour or perhaps filmmaking in other countries and languages? Perhaps not, but it is tempting to make this sort of Psyche-101 call) and heading into the bush one last time, Dersu is given a rather anonymous and possibly ignoble end (his own obsolescence in a modern ‘civilized’ world), save the respect and love of his companion of the past decade.
Dersu Uzala was Kurosawa’s only film not in Japanese (he has writing credit on the script, with the aid of Yuri Nagibin in adapting Vladimir Arsenyev’s book) and has none of his regular performers, but it still slots nicely into his often recurring theme of dignity and honour, and like his later period films, it has a bleak edge, despite wonderful colourful cinematography. Unlike Dodes’ka-den which bombed at home and abroad, Dersu Uzala was a significant success earning the 1975 Oscar for best foreign language film. While the KINO Video DVD release is a bit rough around the edges, it remains a mesmerizing and completely engrossing experience, and one of Kurosawa’s films that I keep coming back to.
[Criterion has not grabbed this one, but there is a pretty handsome looking Region 3 SE from a Korean company called Spectrum that is out of print, but might be worth tracking down nonetheless.]