Dersu Uzala 1975 (Kurosawa) Imprint – Via Vision Blu Ray.
In the Japanese film magazine Kinema Junpo Kurosawa was asked why he was attracted to making Dersula Uzala. Rather than talk about the film’s central character Dersu or outline the story Kurosawa chose to forefront the dominant force of nature “the astonishingly beautiful, gigantic and awesome great nature of the Ursula region of Russia.” Unusually for a Kurosawa film it was the ‘character’ of the natural environment he wanted to depict and not necessarily the character of human nature.
The film reveals no strong dramatic conflict between hunter Dersu, Captain Arseyev and the rest of his small group of topographers. At first Arseyev’s men are sceptical about Dersu’s ability to be their guide. He appears to be an absurd, elfish figure prone to talking to a bird, beast or tree as if it were a real person. However, Dersu’s consummate knowledge of the wilderness, combined with his expertise with a rifle, silences their criticism. Without ever sentimentalising Dersu Kurosawa convinces us of a deep bond of friendship between the hunter and the captain.
If the storyline lacks complexity and originality (civilisation vesus the wilderness) then technically Dersu Uzala is static. The often frenetic editing of Kurosawa’s samurai epics is absent. Nor the intense long take of his more intimate contemporary films. Yet Kurosawa’s magnificent compositions, achieved in a 70 mm frame, are hugely impressive.
As a young director Kurosawa had read the 1923 Siberian memoir of Vladimir Arseniev (played in the film by Yuri Solonon) and wanted to adapt it yet couldn’t acquire funding. In 1971, after the box-office failure of Dodeska Den, Kurosawa became un-bankable. This resulted in Kurosawa’s failed attempt at suicide. Then Kurosawa received an offer of finance from Russia to film this famous book. For the first and only time he made a film outside of Japan.
It took Kurosawa four years to complete Dersu Uzala and often under harsh physical conditions. The film is in three parts. In 1902 Arseniev meets Dersa and he becomes their guide. Then we have the re-union of the two men in 1907 and a second expedition. Finally, we have a short coda which is mainly set in the interiors of Arseniev’s house as Dersa, now losing his sight, has come to live with the family.
It’s a simple structure for a fairly straightforward narrative. In the 1960’s Hollywood produced family entertainment films (impossible to find that category today). Many of these films where adventure stories, such as Swiss Family Robinson, and proved affably wholesome. I don’t wish to lump Dersu Uzala in this genre however the film’s sheer likeability had me thinking of a pitted against nature type of escapism that all ages could appreciate – except for the darker aspects of Kurosawa’s film that concerns Dersu’s death.
Though the coda is moving what etches more deeply into your mind are the superbly filmed nature scenes and especially a stupendous blizzard sequence. Dersu and the captain lose their trail away from the lake. It’s getting dark and they have no time left to get to their camp so they must urgently build accommodation for the night. They frantically cut the marsh grass to provide a shelter. The colour and shot compositions have a remarkable glowing power: the highlight of this intense sequence is Dersu and Arseniev standing at the centre of the frame with the sun on one side and the moon on the other. The silhouetted men looking fragile and vulnerable as gigantic forces of nature look down on them. Earlier on Dersu and Arseniev spoke of the sun. “If he die one day, we all die.” announces the hunter. On seeing the sun and moon together, hovering over their bodies, I thought of William Blake’s words, “If the sun and moon should ever doubt, they’d immediately go out.”
It’s an unforgettable image with a feel for landscape that evokes not just a sensual atmosphere but a stark, indifferent sensibility, making me recall Tarkovsky and the documentaries of the unjustly neglected Robert Flaherty. What Kurosawa does for the sound and colours of the wilderness Flaherty did for the moods of the sea in his Man of Aran.
On a second viewing I think Dersa Uzala is a minor Kurosawa film with three major virtues: outstanding photography, a direction finely tuned to nature and a wonderfully believable performance from the Tuva actor Maksim Munzuck playing Dersa. Indeed, Munzuck’s warmth and authenticity dominates the film. Even when he’s not even in shot you sense his presence as a guardian spirit for all hunters and explorers.
For the breathtaking beauty of individual shots and an endearing humanity of character, that’s mostly confined to Munzuck, I can recommend Dersu Uzala.
And this lovely Imprint blu ray realises well the exceptional look of the Siberian wilderness.
Alan Price © 2022.