Written by Yuriy Nagibin and Akira Kurosawa, and directed by Kurosawa, “Dersu Uzala” is an adaption of the Russian explorer Vladimir Arsenyev’s memoir from his military explorations of the Ussuri basin of the Taiga in the early twentieth century in which he meets and befriends Dersu Uzala, a native hunter of the Taiga. This film won the 1976 Oscar for Best Foreign Language film and a litany of other awards across international film festivals and awards ceremonies, and it’s easy to see why. While the film may not immediately strike you as an one from the master Akira Kurosawa, either from the Russian language used or the fact that the film was shot on 70mm (the first and only time Kurosawa would do so), it becomes apparent that an auteur is behind the camera when viewing the melodic composure of the cinematography or the impeccable blocking of actors through the wilderness. The story is stylized as an epic, but intimately told through the two main characters of Captain Arsenyev (Yuriy Solomin) and Dersu Uzala (Maksim Munzuk). The film begins with the Captain and his crew traipsing through the Taiga until they find a suitable place to camp for the night wherein Dersu Uzala stumbles upon the campsite with the Russian exploratory group accepting him and offering Dersu the position of being their guide.
The elder hunter accepts this role and stays with the group for months, doling out tidbits of wisdom gleamed from a life spent in the wilderness. He often puts a point to the soldiers not to waste materials and resources, to respect nature and those wandering through it, and to make the Taiga better off than when you entered it. As the winter months press on, the Captain thins the group and sends most of his men off to different stations and bases. At one point he and Dersu alone head out to a frozen lake to graph any notable points of interest for their topographical survey. Eventually, after wandering far enough into the barren and frigid wastes, the wind picks up into a heavy gust, and despite all of Dersu’s expertise- he loses their tracks as they’re swept away in the blustery conditions. Which leads to easily the most frantic scene of the whole film, in which Dersu realizes that they must race to craft a makeshift shelter in the frozen ice- lest they die a cold death in the night. Hurriedly the two men quickly cut down the tall grass remaining from the autumn, they gather and gather and gather… until the Captain passes out from exhaustion. Luckily, Dersu finishes the straw mound construction and saves their lives in the process.
This film is split into two major parts, the first part being in 1902, with the majority of the second starting in 1907, five years after the Captain’s first foray deep into the Taiga. They had left Dersu in 1902 cheerful to be past the worst of the winter season and happy to have the help of a guide as experienced and knowledgeable as Dersu. Five years later in 1907 the Captain and his new recruits stumbled into Dersu once again to the delight of Arsenyev and those who had heard the tale of the small but wise “Goldi” hunter. The second part of the film is a sort of mirror image to the first part. In it we see a wizened man of nature succumb to the erosion of time, superstition, and degradation of the body come to bear on Dersu. Initially in part two, the group is stalked by a tiger in the wilderness- an important animal to Dersu’s people- and the spirit of the Taiga itself. Dersu effectively leads the group away from the tiger (which we never see in this sequence) but it is an effective foreshadowing of the threat that follows them on this journey. Later on in the autumn, Dersu and company encounter another tiger (we see this one up close) and Dersu accidentally shoots it. This act changes Dersu for the remainder of the journey, he becomes more anxious, argumentative, and mindful of every single action that could be conceived as a “negative outcome” for the Taiga. Later, when out hunting with the Captain in the dawn of winter’s wrath, Dersu discovers that his eyesight has begun to fail him and he immediately has a breakdown- how will he survive if he cannot even hunt for himself? Between his failing vision and firm belief of a curse set upon him by the spirit of the Taiga for killing a tiger, Dersu accepts the Captain’s previous offer to help Dersu by having him live with his family in the city. It isn’t long before Dersu realizes that his way of life is unacceptable in modern society. He cannot cut down trees, set up his tent, or shoot his rifle in the city- he cannot live this way. He asks to be let back to the hills. Understanding of this major decision, the Captain accepts Dersu’s request and gives him a new rifle for the journey. Not terribly long after this, Captain Arsenyev is called to identify a body bearing his card, it is Dersu- he had been murdered for the new rifle he possessed.
This was a departure for the great director, and one of the few films he released after 1965. In fact Kurosawa had attempted suicide after the commercial failure of his previous film “Dodes’ka-den”, which was paired with a complete lack of funding from most Japanese studios. This film, in collaboration with the Russian film studio Mosfilm, was his return to filmmaking after his darkest period. The director had passed his glory days, and at age sixty-five when the film was released, it makes sense that he would focus on a character that similarly had to deal with the encroaching crawl of old age and how to live in a world that had seemingly moved on from everything he knew. There are cues that this film came from Kurosawa though. The focus on the individual, the carefully constructed frames, a near reverence for mother nature and the natural order- and the subtle hint of morality; nudging the audience to give a damn about the things that matter in this world.
“Dersu Uzala” was a fascinating film and I recommend it, especially to anyone that appreciates Akira Kurosawa’s work. It runs a little long, but as they say, the juice is worth the squeeze. Fun fact on the way out, originally Mosfilm wanted Kurosawa to work with Toshiro Mifune for the role of Dersu, but Mifune’s agent declined, the actor couldn’t be attached to a film with such a long production. Give this one a watch!
Final Score: 1 Rifle, the latest model…