#14 in my ranking of Akira Kurosawa’s filmography.
Ikiru felt like the work of an old man looking back on a life wasted. Dersu Uzala feels like the work of an old man who knows his time is coming to a close soon. His efforts to find independent financing had ended with the financial failure of Dodes’ka-den. No one in the Japanese film industry wanted to fund him. He had broken professionally with his main star of the previous twenty years. He attempted suicide, cutting his wrists and neck. And then the Soviet Union, through the tyranny’s cinematic organization Mosfilm, approached one of the world’s greatest filmmakers with a proposition: they would give him complete creative freedom for a film set in Russia and based on a Russian source. Kurosawa, long a fan of Russian writing, chose the little known autobiographical account of a Tsarist Imperial army officer surveyor mapping a remote region of Siberia who encounters a Goldi native of the region and their friendship. It was a work that Kurosawa had kept his eye on developing for decades, holding off because he felt it could only be told by actually filming in the region in which the story originally took place. What followed was one of Kurosawa’s longest and most difficult shoots that told the story of an old, useful man watching his abilities slowly deteriorate until he becomes useless.
Captain Vladimir Arsenyev (Yury Solomin) leads his dozen men into the Shkotovo region of Siberia where they come across the titular character Dersu Uzala (Maxim Munzuk). Finding him intelligent and well-versed in the ways of the area, Arsenyev asks Uzala to accompany the group as a guide. The Russian soldiers are initially dismissive of the seemingly simple, old man. He speaks in halting Russian and refers to everything (the sun, the moon, the animals) as “people”. However, he has a deep understanding of the land around them, and he is incredibly skilled with a rifle. When the soldiers, having camped for the night, swing a bottle on a string in a shooting competition, Uzala insists that it’s a waste, that he would shoot the string instead and save the bottle. When he accomplishes it, the dismissive soldiers are silenced into admiration.
There are two life-threatening sequences in the film, one in each half, and the one in the first is kind of amazing. Arsenyev and Uzala separate from the rest of the group in order to reach the large lake in the area. A sudden wind comes up, covering their tracks, and they are unsure of which way to get back safely, delaying their walk long enough that any hope of getting back to camp on time is dashed. The cold of the lake at night is sure to kill them, but Uzala has an idea. He just tells Arsenyev to cut the tall, wild grass around them, and Arsenyev follows the instruction without question. Arsenyev grows weak as they cut and gather as much as they can, creating a large pile five feet high, and eventually passes out. When he wakes up, Uzala has completed the work, creating a shelter of the grass that gave them enough protection from the cold that they were able to survive. I get the sense that Uzala had never done anything quite like that before, but he understood so much of life in the hills that he could just very quickly improvise in a life-threatening situation.
The survey comes to an end, and the two part ways as good friends, especially since Uzala saved Arsenyev’s life. Four years pass and Arsenyev is sent to the region once again for more surveying, secretly holding hopes of meeting his friend once again. They do meet up by chance, and the two renew their friendship warmly. The second life-threatening sequence occurs here when Arsenyev decides to try and ford a river, their makeshift raft getting carried away with Uzala onboard until he grabs onto a fallen tree stuck in the middle of the river right before some rapids. Arsenyev has to organize his men to fell another tree that Uzala can grab onto and swing back to shore. It’s a partial reversal of the earlier sequence where Arsenyev has to save Uzala’s life (only partial because Uzala tells Arsenyev what to do from the middle of the river).
There are two events that change Uzala, though. The first is when he shoots a tiger, an evil omen on himself that makes him feel like the forest he has lived in his whole life is turning against him. The second is his failing eyesight, brought to the fore when Arsenyev notes a boar in the distance that Uzala cannot see. This element, the failing eyesight of the man that signals the end of his usefulness in his natural habitat, is an interesting parallel to Kurosawa himself. It’s unclear to me when he noticed his eyesight was failing, though it’s something of common knowledge that by the time he was making Ran, a decade later, he was effectively blind and was using his assistant directors heavily to set up shots. The parallel between the two is interesting.
Arsenyev brings Uzala to his home in Khabarovsk to live with him, his wife, and his son. The life in the town is destructive for Uzala. All of the things he knows how to do are worthless in a place where you buy food in stores and get coal for your fires delivered. He even yells at the man who delivers water for money. He can’t hunt. He can’t chop down a tree for firewood. All he can do is sit in front of the fire in the house in unfamiliar clothes. It’s sad. It’s not a more direct civilization vs. the life in nature of some lesser works. It’s not about civilization encroaching on Uzala’s pristine existence. It’s about the natural end of that native life. Uzala’s time comes to an end because his body decays to the point where he cannot fend for himself in the hills.
The film ends up feeling both apart from Kurosawa’s body of work and firmly at home in it at the same time. The setting of language of Russia set it apart, but it also is a slower, quieter work mostly set outside. It’s a purely character piece, which he had certainly done before but was always something of an exception. On the other side, Uzala is another one of Kurosawa’s stray dogs, men removed from society and learning to survive on their own, coming into some kind of conflict with the world of civilization. It’s an interesting mix of the familiar with the unfamiliar, all while telling a sad tale of a man reaching his end.
It may not be on the same level, reaching the same emotional highs, as Ikiru, but Dersu Uzala is an affecting film that wonderfully uses the backdrop of the Siberian wilds to tell its story well.