Described as “a testament to the value of friendship and the indomitability of the human spirit”, the 1975 Soviet-Japanese co-production Dersu Uzala (Amazon, Netflix) was the first non-Japanese-language film of celebrated Japanese filmmaker Akira Kurosawa (1910-1998), who is known to have masterfully engaged with everything from local swordfighting to Shakespearean plays. Most famous for his highly acclaimed movies Rashomon (1950), Ikiru (1952), Seven Samurai (1954), Kagemusha (1980) and Ran (1985), Kurosawa was voted “Asian of the Century” in a poll conducted by the news magazine Asiaweek (1975-2001) in 1999. And his Seven Samurai was ranked at no. 1 in a list of “The 100 Best Films of World Cinema” compiled by British film magazine Empire in 2010.
The early 1970s was the most difficult period in Kurosawa’s career. He had been dropped from the Japanese-American Pearl Harbour epic Tora! Tora! Tora! (1970) and was unable to get his projects financed in Japan. In early 1973, a little more than a year after an attempted suicide (he had slit his wrists and throat in December 1971), an invitation from the Soviet studio Mosfilm restored Kurosawa’s fortunes. He chose to adapt a book that he’d wanted to film since the 1930s – a 1923 memoir by Russian army engineer and explorer Captain Vladimir Klavdievich Arseniev (1872-1930) based on his multiple expeditions in the Sikhote-Alin region of eastern Russia, during which he had been guided by a nomadic Nanai (also known as “Goldi”) [an ethnic group living near the Russian-Chinese border] hunter and trapper by the name of Dersu Uzala. Made in Russian and almost entirely shot outdoors in Siberia, Dersu Uzala won an Academy award and the Prix FIPRESCI; it is included in the Vatican’s list of 45 great films under the “Values” category – compiled in 1995 upon the 100th anniversary of cinema.
The tale begins in the year 1910, with Arseniev looking for the grave of a friend he’d buried three years earlier in a forest that is being felled for development. The narrative then goes back to 1902 – to the time of Arseniev’s first major expedition in the Ussuri area. Dersu, whom he and his fellow soldiers encounter in the wilderness, at first appears naive and eccentric but is soon able to demonstrate his intelligence. He saves Arseniev’s life twice, once in a blizzard and then during the second expedition in 1907, over the rapids. The captain invites his savior to his city Khabarovsk, but the latter is ill at ease within the comforts of civilisation, progress and modern life. He prefers to return to untouched nature with its many dangers. The most moving image of the film perhaps is the end scene wherein a sorrowful Arseniev stands with his head bowed before his friend’s remains – and with much love and respect simply lets out a low “Dersu…”
In his 1991 study of Kurosawa, the American film critic, historian and theorist Stephen Prince thus commented on the trapper and hunter’s character:
Dersu’s magnanimity is nourished by his perception of the essential spirituality of nature. He talks to the fire and to wind and water as if they were people. A soldier laughs and asks him why, and Dersu replies because they are alive. Angry fire, water, and wind are frightening, he says. They are powerful men. A strong breeze suddenly appears, whipping leaves across the frame, as if in answer to his words. Earlier, in a magnificent image, Dersu and Arseniev stood on a vast plain, framed between the moon on their left and a fiery setting sun on their right, humans and celestial bodies alike flattened by the long lens into a single plane of space. It is an image of great mystery and serenity. As they contemplate the heavens, Dersu explains that the sun is the most important man because if he dies everything else dies, too. He initiates Arseniev into the secrets of the universe. The other Kurosawa heroes were in touch with important social and moral imperatives, but Dersu is connected to cosmic truths, and it is Arseniev’s blessing to have known him briefly.
~ As mentioned in The Warrior’s Camera: The Cinema of Akira Kurosawa (1991/1999, Princeton University Press)
Dersu Uzala is a lovely film on the meeting of cultures and two very different lifestyles. Its natural – and stunning – cinematography will be appreciated by those who are bored with the special effects of present-day action movies. Here, there are no green screens and matte paintings. Just pure forests and mountains and snow. Here, there is real adventure.
Here is the English trailer for the film.
And now – Dersu Uzala winning an Oscar for the Best Foreign Language Film in 1976.
Akira Kurosawa: Master of Cinema (2010) by Peter Cowie
Historical Dictionary of Russian and Soviet Cinema (2016) by Peter Rollberg
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Featured poster and subsequent clips from Dersu Uzala are property of Daiei Film/Mosfilm/New World Pictures. Used for illustrative, educational and entertainment purposes only. No copyright infringement intended.