Akira Kurosawa – A Master of Film Part 3: Dersu Uzala and the Russian Wilderness

Foreword by Robin Stevens

Akira Kurosawa (黒沢 1910 – 1998) was a master of film craft, and one of the greatest directors of all time. He grew up in Tokyo, watching silent films from around the world and going to see traditional and modern Japanese theatre. He became a painter, and in his 20s got into script writing, editing and then assisting with film direction; skills that are evident in his films. He was influenced by the democratic and humanist ideals emerging in the post-war period. He made over 30 films, some of which remain among the greatest known Japanese films in world cinema. Kurosawa was nicknamed ‘The Emperor’ in the Japanese film industry. It is part-compliment, part-criticism. He tended to ‘command’ all of the most essential elements in his films: from conditions upon actors to editing, scripts and cinematography. It is clear that his views on how a film should look and feel was key to its success. He surrounded himself with consummate actors, script writers, cinematographers, score writers and other technicians, many of whom worked with him on multiple films and generally spoke highly of him. But ‘lesser’ actors often felt harassed or that the conditions they worked in were harsh. But none of them seriously dispute his genius.

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Kurosawa is perhaps the most accessible and most successful Japanese film makers in the world. His themes are often humanist in nature, shaped by a developing post-war consciousness, and utilising both traditional Japanese storytelling techniques and film devices and cinematographic symbolism common in Western films. In the post-war period, the expertise with which he incorporated these elements struck a chord with many. And though he made several samurai films – what might loosely be called action films – he constantly introduced the struggle of ideas in shaping individuals. As an audience, we move from a mass to the individual (a touch like an inverse of German expressionism in silent film). His earlier films were subject to both Japanese and US censorship, and differently-cut versions were often released in America or Europe than what was shown in Japan. Despite these impositions, Kurosawa is considered one of the greatest directors of the 20th Century. Several of his films have been adapted into Western productions.

This is an ongoing multiple-part series of posts examining a number of his films and themes. Part 1 (by Robin Stevens) took a look at one of Kurosawa’s earliest and most iconic films, Rashomon. Part 2 (also by Robin Stevens) discussed the portrayal of humanism in the action masterpiece Seven Samurai. Here in Part 3, JJ McDermott focuses on Kurosawa’s ‘Autumnal era’ epic Dersu Uzala, where humanism and the appraisal of traditional knowledge are to the fore.

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Background

Dersu Uzala was released in 1975 as a collaboration between the Soviet studio Mosfilm and the Japanese studio Daiei Film. It was Kurosawa’s 25th film and the first he had successfully completed outside of Japan. It was a film he had always wanted to make since becoming acquainted with the real life story of Dersu Uzala as a young aspiring film-maker in the 1930s. Dersu was a hunter descended from the Nanai people in far eastern Russia (previously known as the Goldi) and he lived during the late 19th and early 20th century. He became immortalised in a book penned by the Russian explorer Vladimir Arsenyev, which describes his journeys in the remote Ussuri basin (or the Sikhote-Alin region) between 1902 and 1907 with Dersu as his guide. Kurosawa, a humanist director, felt a close connection with Arsenyev’s story and the character of Dersu in particular. To make the film, and to do so outside of Japan, was in fact a major turning point for Kurosawa in what was a very difficult point in his personal and professional life.

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After the success of Red Beard in 1965, Kurosawa recognised a major change in the Japanese film. Audiences were becoming more focused on action thrillers and television. Having achieved super-stardom with the likes of Rashomon, Ikiru, Throne of Blood, Seven Samurai, and Yojimbo, he now sought to approach film making from a different angle. He flirted with the idea of making a Hollywood film and even began filming an action thriller called Runaway Train in 1966 but quit from the production due to difficulties with language barriers. In the late 1960s, he also became involved in the Pearl Harbour epic Tora! Tora! Tora! in which he had been slated by 20th Century Fox to direct the Japanese ‘half’ of the movie. Having worked on a script for months, Kurosawa walked out on this project too, severing ties with many important allies in the Japanese film industry. His abilities as a director were severely called into question and he was abandoned by many of his close collaborators. In 1970 he attempted to garner favour again by adapting a Japanese novel about the downtrodden into a film called Dodes’ka-den. This was to be his first film in colour, but unfortunately was not received too favourably and lost money for the production company. (For the record, it is actually quite a good film.)

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A year later, struggling to find work and suffering from depression, the 61-year-old attempted suicide by slitting his throat and wrists. As something we can all be thankful for, he survived this, quickly regained his health and after a break for a year or two, he and his producer friends were approached by the Soviets to make a film. At Kurosawa’s suggestion, this would be an adaptation of Vladimir Arsenyev’s memoir, Dersu Uzala. Interestingly, Kurosawa had attempted to make a Japanese version of the story in the 1940s but because its themes were in conflict with the ideals of Japanese military valour, it was deemed unfit for public consumption. The version he eventually did complete was filmed almost entirely on location in Russia between 1974 and 1975 (some scenes were filmed in Mosfilm’s studio in Moscow). The studio apparently wanted Toshiro Mifune to be cast as Dersu but as this was not feasible financially, Kurosawa’s production team tracked down a seasoned stage actor from the Tuva region (near the Chinese border) called Maxim Munzuk, who would take on and fully embody the role instead (cast and crew pictured with Kurosawa above).

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The film was the first shot by Kurosawa on 70mm. It did not have the same big budgets he had on previous productions. However, it was quite successful in the Soviet Union and made a name around the world on the burgeoning film festival market, winning the Golden Prize at the Moscow International Film Festival as well as the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film in 1976. Its relative success and high appraisal rejuvenated Kurosawa’s profile and he returned to Japan to work on two of his most enduring (and most expensive) samurai epics over the late 1970s and early 1980s: Kagemusha and Ran.

Film synopsis (avoid for spoilers)

Dersu Uzala is an epic presented in two parts and runs for 2 hours and 24 minutes. It is an absolute absorbing and fundamentally rewarding watch, despite the sometimes bleak subject matter and the viciously harsh, cold setting. The story could be pithily described as a straight-up wilderness adventure, but given the reverence of Dersu Uzala’s character and his striking humanity, so gloriously portrayed with realism by Munzuk, it is much, much more than that and with Kurosawa’s masterful hand at directing, its description can easily be elevated to ‘majestic’. It is an outstanding work of art about traditional, Indigenous living on the frontiers of modern civilisation.

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After a brief prologue in 1910, the film moves to 1902 focusing on a cohort of military men, led by Captain Arsenyev (Yury Solomin), who are wandering the forests of far-eastern Russia on what appears to be an expedition to topographically map the area. A rustle in the bushes prompts the soldiers to raise their rifles in anticipation of a bear attack, but are reassured by a man’s voice shouting ‘Shoot not! Me a man!’ This is their first encounter with the nomadic hunter Dersu Uzala (Munzuk). After making acquaintances with the Captain, Dersu agrees to guide the men and their horses through the forest. While the Captain quietly observes and appreciates Dersu’s presence, the soldiers initially see him as an eccentric old man and they poke fun at his unorthodox ways. But as they travel deeper into the woods, they begin to realise the intrinsic value of his knowledge and craft, and thus start to treat him with compassion and respect.

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As the weather disintegrates into winter, the team struggles to maintain survival and the Captain contemplates bailing out of the expedition. He and Dersu then get isolated from the rest of the crew and end up on a frozen lake with an oncoming blizzard. Dersu quickly utilises the Captain’s tripod to make a frame for an emergency shelter, which he explains needs to be covered in tall grasses, otherwise they may perish in the freezing storm – ‘if we don’t work real good, we’ll be dead’. They furiously work in the wind to cut down the grasses and stack them around the tripod, but the Captain eventually collapses with exhaustion, leaving Dersu to finish the shelter and save the Captain from certain death. In the end, they both survive and make it back to the crew and after being taken in by an Indigenous family who provide them all with food and warm shelter, the Captain decides to head back home to the city. Once they reach a rail track, Dersu and the team depart on their separate ways. Dersu salutes after the Captain – ‘Cap-ee-tan’ – to which Arsenyev returns the sentiment – ‘Der-suuuu’.

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The second part jumps five years into the future with Captain Arsenyev back in the forests on another expedition. With a wilful determination to find and meet Dersu again, he wanders around for months hoping to find his old friend. As chance would have it, a man fitting Dersu’s description is reported in the area and the Captain ecstatically goes in search for him. Joyously they are reunited and Dersu is once again recruited as the expedition’s guide. Also again, Dersu finds himself saving the Captain’s life. This time as they paddle down a rapid river on a makeshift wooden craft together. As the river gets more and more dangerous, Dersu pushes the Captain off and instructs him to swim toward shore. He is unable to swim himself and so stays on-board. He quickly deduces what he must do to save himself, and catches on to a large stump in the water holding it as the raft drifts on downstream. He then directs the Captain and the other men, who are scurrying on the banks, to cut down a tall tree that will fall in his direction and allow him to crawl to safety. It is an extraordinary sequence that not only sees Dersu’s selfless rescue of the Captain but also his masterminding of his own rescue.

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An encounter with a Siberian tiger that is stalking the team then terminally effects Dersu. He and the Captain spot the animal in some scrub and they raise their rifles. Because Dersu believes there are spirits in every living thing, he tells the tiger (or the Amba as he calls it) to leave them alone. But the tiger gets closer and Dersu shoots it. He then begins to feel great distraught over his actions, believing that he is now cursed by the forest spirit because he has killed something that belongs there. As the days go on, Dersu’s eyesight fails him and he despairs, becoming very difficult around the rest of the team. The Captain insists that he leave the forest and return with him to the city where his wife and son live. Dersu reluctantly goes with him and initially settles in and develops a friendly relationship with the son, teaching him tricks and telling him stories of his hunting. However, he grows wary of being boxed up all the time and of having to pay money to live. Crucially, he cannot fathom why he would be punished for cutting down a tree in the park for firewood, and so then decides to go back into the woods. The Captain sadly pays his farewells to Dersu again and gives him a special new rifle to aid in his hunting. The ending…well, the ending is not so uplifting. The Captain is called to identify Dersu’s body some months later, seemingly having been killed for the prized rifle he had been carrying.

Photographing the wilderness

Kurosawa may have been on a smaller budget than his earlier films but he certainly made the most with what he had. One of those elements he had to work with was the impenetrable but beautiful Russian wilderness. And what a jewel to behold that was. The Tundra forests of the Eurasian continent is not exactly a place you get to see a lot of in films but it presents itself in all its magnificence in Dersu Uzala. Not unlike the unforgettable beginning of his later epic Ran, Kurosawa offers the viewer a series of still aerial shots of forests (almost like paintings) in the opening credits – an actual cinematic portrait of the wide open wilderness. It truly reaches out and envelops you. It does exactly that to the Captain and his expedition as they assail through the trees, the rivers and the mountains of this formidable terrain. There are many scenes in Dersu Uzala that exemplify Kurosawa’s love of framing a picture, but because it is shot on lower quality film reel, I suppose on the surface it does not appear to have the same impact. But au contraire. Considering the story being told, the photography speaks a thousand words underneath the surface. Kurosawa is clearly utilising the landscape as another, fully embodied character. And how apt that is in a story about an Indigenous man who deeply believes in the life, soul and spirit of all living and non-living things. Indeed, this is a testament to Kurosawa’s humanist core, which was on clear display in so many of previous films (and discussed in Robin’s previous posts on Rashomon and Seven Samurai).

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Some of the photography captured by Kurosawa’s cameras are amazing and deserve special praise. In one scene, Dersu discusses the cosmos with the Captain as they both stand beside a tripod with the sun descending in the distance and the moon peering out in the sky above. The blue and orange hues of the background create a stunning picture. There are also other times as the team trundle through the landscape in the foreground, where for a second you think this could be a John Ford western transplanted to Russia (imagine?) but then you realise that Kurosawa was always a unique and special director who actually influenced Hollywood rather than the other way around! Kurosawa obviously relished capturing natural light on film, particularly at twilight. This is utilised to great effect during the taut, 15-minute blizzard sequence. The sun is setting, the menacing music raises up a notch and the wind starts to blow and howl. The light fades slowly until both the Captain and Dersu are only shadowy silhouettes scrambling around trying to gather grass for their make-shift but potentially life-saving shelter. It is a dramatic and bone-chilling sequence that requires your full attention, and this is largely down to the enormous sense of realism that Kurosawa brings to it.

Towards the end of the film, before Dersu starts to lose his eyesight, the Captain takes a series of formal photographs of Dersu and the crew. The sequence serves as an indication that Dersu is truly proud and happy to be hanging out with the Captain and his crew. As the old mounted camera takes the shots, the scene gives way to a black and white montage of the still images. Kurosawa modelled these on actual photographs contained within Arsenyev’s book. As you can see from the photographs of the real Dersu and Arsenyev above, Kurosawa recreates them quite accurately and I think both Munzuk and Solomin were cast very well in the roles on their physical likeness alone. It is indeed a beautiful homage to the spirit and memory of Dersu Uzala.

The power of friendships

The main emotional thrust of the film’s story is in the relationship between Dersu and the Captain (and also, to an extent, the team of surveyors/soldiers). The friendship that develops over time between both men, who are from very contrasting ethnic and physical backgrounds, is one that truly captivates. There is something akin to an asexual bonding between the men, a sort of non-traditional love story if you will. I suppose it is not unlike the concept of ‘brotherhood’ that many men invoke when speaking about shared life-threatening moments during wars. The wholesomeness of this friendship is best represented at the beginning of Part 2 when they are both re-united in the woods after several years being apart. The unmistakable short gait of Dersu with his fur coat and backpack appears in a gap between the trees as the Captain madly searches for him. They both giddily react and run to embrace each other. It is just like a long-awaited coming-together of two lost lovers in a romantic drama! The Captain of course owes Dersu his life so it is entirely understandble.

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For Dersu, things were very different before the Captain came along. He had resigned himself to a life of solitariness and self-sufficiency in the wilds after the death of his family. Even though he still communicates to his family’s spirits by the campfire every night, he knows he has lost them forever, but instead of openly grieving he finds comfort in hunting day in and day out. The Captain, who admires Dersu’s resourcefulness and intelligence, presents a sort of companion that makes his pent-up grief even more bearable. Their relationship is never over-sentimentalised by Kurosawa and I guess the general harshness of life in the frontier builds you for the sad conclusion (which has already been indicated in the prologue).

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The friendship that burgeons between the soldiers and Dersu is also quite captivating. Their arrogance and mockery towards Dersu is clearly outlined from their early encounters with him, but they are soon brought into line by the teachings of the wily old hunter. He schools them with his pigeon English – ‘got eyes that don’t see’. In a game where the men shoot at a swinging bottle, Dersu out-wits them all by shooting at the string instead – he saves the bottle because, he says, it can be useful in the woods where it is a scarcity. He also explains to them that all the elements in the woods are alive and should be treated with courtesy and respect. Just like the Captain, the men become so enamoured with Dersu that when they meet up for the second time, they gleefully sing to him by the campfire.

The spirit of Dersu

Dersu is old-fashioned but he is also very down to earth. He treats all creatures as his brothers and sisters, and he seeks to nurture all he encounters with compassion. For example, when the team come across an extremely shy Chinese man living in a basic wooden hut, Dersu goes to him, offers him food and shares a pipe with him. He finds out that the man has been in the woods for over 40 years after his brother had ‘stolen’ his wife away. Dersu gives him the courage to leave the coldness of the hut and return to the town he came from, much to the Captain’s amazement. It is very humbling to immerse in the humanity of Dersu’s character. In addition to his emotional intelligence, he has also survived in the extremes on his own for so long because of an instinctive and pragmatic attitude. He knows and understands the changing seasons and he ensures to maintain the environment around him so that others can use it the same way in which he has. He even leaves things behind such as food or kindling for camp fires. He works studiously to fix things up, such as an old broken hut or a hidden deer trap. As part of his spiritual beliefs, he speaks to and praises other creatures in the woods because he understands that they are part of a sustainable system that he and his ancestors have flourished in for many, many years.

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Having said this, western civilisation has clearly been decimating Dersu’s way of life – small pox, deforestation. Kurosawa does not want to ram this message down our throats. He rather approaches this fact subtly and allows Dersu’s character to be a reminder, rather than a scolding, of the intrinsic values that is being lost. Like in my work with Aboriginal Australians, the connection to the landscape in which many generations of people have lived is essential to their survival. As Dersu demonstrates, there is no room for naivety. The landscape can be harsh and unforgiving, but if you nurture and work for it, it will work for you too. This is the mantra of many Aboriginal elders I have worked with in remote parts of Australia and here, it is embodied in the character of Dersu – a tribal man from the forested wilds of Russia who lived over 100 years ago. He embodies a remnant of human culture and tradition that has been fading away from the planet for a long time now.

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Now, although the ending is very cold and devastating, the film overall is a mostly rewarding watch. And this is due to the lasting impression Dersu will have on you. As an Amazon reviewer of the film points out, ‘by the film’s end, we are haunted by the character of Dersu Uzala and nostalgic for a place we’ve never been.’ I couldn’t sum it up better myself. Between the humanity embodied in Dersu (wonderfully depicted by Munzuk) and the engulfing wilderness of the Sikhote-Alin region in Russia, there is an unforgettable classic of cinema history to behold here.

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