No question about it, Akira Kurosawa was one of the most respected and influential filmmakers who ever lived. His outstanding career is filled with such masterworks as The Drunken Angel, Rashamon, Ikiru, The Seven Samurai, Throne of Blood, High and Low, Kagamusha, Ran, Dreams and many others. The admiration that western filmmakers felt for the master is well known. The Seven Samurai was remade in America as the western The Magnificent Seven while his action film Yojimbo became the basis for Sergio Leone’s A Fistful of Dollars, the spaghetti western that turned Clint Eastwood into an international superstar. Ingmar Bergman admitted that his 1960 film The Virgin Spring came out of his admiration of Rashamon, later dismissing his own film as “a lousy imitation of Kurosawa.” And of course George Lucas has frequently sighted The Hidden Fortress as one of the biggest influences on Star Wars.
Everyone has his or her detractors though. The film critics that would later make up the French New Wave tended to compare Kurosawa unfavorably to the older master Kenji Mizoguchi, director of such films as The Life of Oharu and Ugetzu (critics often have a tendency to criticize artists for who aren’t rather then for who they are). In his own country Kurosawa was often criticized for being an “elitist”. This is because he frequently focused his films on the achievements of extraordinary individuals rather then society as a whole. Many also took his popularity in the west as an affront to his Japanese identity and criticized him for pandering to western tastes. Indeed Kurosawa, who studied western style painting, who based many of his films on the works of Shakespeare, Gorky and Dostoevsky and who was unabashedly fond of American Westerns (he once said that Stagecoach was his favorite movie) wore his western influence on his sleeve, even when dealing with stories set in feudal Japan or Tokyo following World War II.
In later years Kurosawa would find himself at odds with the Japanese film industry, particularly Toho studios, the company that became a media giant thanks in part to Kurosawa influence (along with his own films, Kurosawa was a mentor to Ishiro Honda, the man who created and directed most of the early Godzilla movies). While trying to get his massive samurai epic Kagamusha off the ground in 1980, Toho refused to finance the film, stating that Kurosawa was too old to direct. News reached George Lucas, who reportedly said, “It was like saying that Michelangelo was too old to paint. He and Francis Ford Coppola convinced 20th Century Fox to co-finance the film. It ended up winning the Palm d’Or at the 1980 Cannes Film Festival and became one of the highest grossing Japanese films up to that point in time. French producer Serge Siberian brought Ran, Kurosawa’s 1985 retelling of King Lear to the screen while Steven Spielberg helped him get Akira Kurosawa’s Dreams made, a film in which Martin Scorsese has a memorable cameo as Vincent Van Gough.
Considering the fact that he was so well regarded outside of his native country you might ask yourself, why didn’t he leave and make films in Hollywood or somewhere else abroad? Well, he did. After the commercial failure of his 1965 film Red Beard (his last with his frequent leading man Toshiro Mirfune), Kurosawa went to Hollywood where he was to direct a low budget thriller called Runaway Train for Embassy Pictures. Alas, the project fell apart and would end up being made by another director.
Kurosawa was next recruited by Daryl F. Zanuck, then nearing the end of his long reign as the head of 20th Century Fox to work on a very ambitious film called Tora! Tora! Tora!. Much like Clint Eastwood’s future Flags of Our Fathers and Letters from Iwo Jima, the Zanuck project was to tell the story of Pearl Harbor from both the U.S. and Japanese perspective. Kurosawa was hired for the Japanese portion and David Lean the American. But Lean dropped out of the project and was replaced by Richard Fleischer, son of the legendary animator Max Fleischer and director of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea and Fantastic Voyage. Kurosawa worked on his section of the film for three weeks. The language barrier with the crew and his somewhat relaxed filmmaking methods eventually lead to his dismissal.
Upon returning to Japan, Kurosawa went to work on Dodes’ka-den (1970), a flawed but visually stunning film (Kurosawa’s first in color) that unfortunately was a box office failure. The director then fell into a deep depression. Though he was traumatized by the suicide of his older brother Heigo, whom he unabashedly adored growing up, Kurosawa attempted suicide by slashing his wrists and throat. Thankfully he was discovered in time and rushed to the hospital. After his recovery he accepted an offer to make a movie in the Soviet Union, his first and only film that he directed outside of Japan.
Since the 1930’s Kurosawa had wanted to make a film based on the Memoirs of Vladimir Arsenyev, a Russian topographer who mapped the Siberian wilderness at the beginning of the twentieth century and the unique friendship he developed with an indigenous person named Dersu Uzala. Kurosawa abandoned the project when he realized that it would need to be made in Siberia. In 1973 the Soviet production company Mosfilm learned of Kurosawa’s desire to make a film about Arsenyev and offered him a generous budget and complete creative control to bring the film to the screen (apparently nothing in the film angered the Communist censors, always the final judge in Soviet films).
Mans relationship to the natural world is a frequent theme in Kurosawa’s films. The forest most certainly is an important character in Rashomon and Throne of Blood. Bringing out the natural beauty of the countries flora and fauna was only part of the assignment. With Dersu Uzala he was leaving the small, lush, volcanic island of Japan for the vast, rugged wilderness of Siberia. It must have felt like stepping onto the moon for him. Indeed, it must have been for Captain Arsenyev. In land area Russia is by far the largest country in the world, stretching from Eastern Europe clear across Asia. To help emphasize the vastness of the landscape Kurosawa shot the film in 70mm, a format that has become all but obsolete (though Quentin Tarintino has brought the format back recently for The Hateful Eight).
The film opens with Captain Arseniev (Yury Solomin, not sure why Arsenyev’s name was respelled for the movie) arriving in a forest that is being cleared for development. He is trying to find the grave of a man he buried three years ago. No one knows anything about it. We then flash back to 1902. Arseniev is leading a small crew of soldiers across the Siberian tundra on a mapping expedition. Along the way they meet Dersu Uzala (Maxim Muzuk). He is a member of the Goldie tribe of indigenous people, though he does speak Russian (the subtitle translator does a good job of showing how his grammar isn’t perfect). He tells the men that he hunts for sable and that he had a wife and child who died of small pox. Arseniev asks Dersu to be his guide. He accepts.
Arseniev seems to respect Dersu right from the start. He clearly knows the terrain like the back of his hand. The other soldiers are more condescending, at least they are until they realize how skilled Dersu is at surviving in the harsh wilderness. He can instantly ascertain what kind of people had visited by their tracks and what kind of articles they left behind. At one point the men target practice by tying a bottle to a string, letting the bottle swing and trying to hit it. Dersu chides the fellow soldiers for wasting bullets and also for trying to hit the bottle. “Where you find bottle in woods?” he asks. He then surprises the soldiers by firing his rifle and hitting the string, allowing the bottle to fall to the ground without shattering. Dersu is a crack shot.
In another scene the group takes refuge in a hut that Dersu has built. Before they leave Dersu places some wood and food in the hut. Why is he stocking the hut up with provisions when they are planning to leave? “Other people find hut with wood. No die. “
Not dying is something Dersu is an expert at. In one of the most exciting scenes the crew approaches a huge, frozen lake. Arseniev and Dersu go on ahead. Suddenly a blizzard starts to hit. “If night come we die.” Dersu tells the captain. Dersu thinks on his feet. He instructs the captain to start cutting down the tall grass, the only vegetation growing in the region. I won’t say how Dersu saves himself and the Captain but it is a very clever surprise.
At the end of their expedition, the men come across the tracks of the Trans-Siberian Railroad. Arseniev offers to bring Dersu with him to Vladivostok, but Dersu refuses. His place is in the forest hunting sable, not in a city.
Three years pass. Arseniev is again mapping Siberia. There is very little voice over in Dersu Uzala but what little there is I find intrusive. At one moment Arseniev’s voice over tells us that he hopes to encounter Dersu, a fact we could easily have deciphered. Well, he does. A soldier from a different party says that that tribesman was looking for a “captain”. Sure enough it’s Dersu. The two friends embrace.
Once again Arseniev and his men get a chance to see Dersu in action when he is in a boat that gets caught in the rapids. He grabs onto a tree right before his boat crashes into the rocks and then instructs the crew to chop down a tree to save him. They also get a sense of Dersu’s respect for nature when they come across some animals caught in traps. Dersu is appalled that anyone would fail to dismantle their traps after they’ve moved on.
At one point Dersu realizes that a tiger is tracking the crew. “Go away tiger or we will shoot you with guns.” Eventually the beast comes after them. Dersu, always a crack shot, fires. But he only wounds the tiger. While the others are relieved to be alive, Dersu is frightened. He thinks that by wounding the tiger and causing him to suffer that he’s angered Kanga, the spirit of the forest. He’s also afraid that if his eyesight is going he won’t be able to survive in the forest anymore. Once again, Arseniev makes an offer for Dersu to move in with him. This time Dersu accepts.
But as you can imagine, life indoors doesn’t suit someone who has lived in the wilderness his entire life. Though Dersu immediately bonds with Arseniev’s wife and son, he finds life in Vladivostok to be unbearable. He doesn’t understand why people are charged money for water and firewood. He gets arrested for shooting his rifle off in the town square and eventually falls into a deep depression.
It’s soon clear that Dersu can’t live in the city. That incredible spark that he had has been extinguished. Better to try and live by his wits in his old age then try to get used to an environment that he just can’t adjust to.
Before going back out to the hills, Arseniev gives Dersu a gift. A brand new military issue rifle. Unfortunately, no sooner does Dersu return to his natural habitat that Arseniev gets word of a Goldie who has been killed. Arseniev finds Dersu’s body and deduces that he was killed for his rifle.
Admittedly, Arseniev is not nearly as interesting as Dersu, which I’m sure is by design. The actor who plays him, Yury Solomin, is actually a highly accomplished and decorated Russian stage actor who once served as the Minister of Culture for the newly formed Russian Federation following the breakup of the U.S.S.R. Manxim Munzuk who plays Dersu was the founder of the National Theater of the tiny Republic of Tuva and was himself a versatile actor, painter, director, playwright and scenic designer, among other disciplines.
In Russia, Dersu Uzala won first prize at the 9th Annual Moscow International Film Festival and reportedly sold twenty million tickets in the U.S.S.R. In the states the film won the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language film. And yet it remains little known in the west, odd given Kurosawa’s near Godlike status among film enthusiasts.
I rented the DVD of Dersu Uzala on Netflix before writing this blog. The film was still thrilling but I’m afraid that the print quality of the transfer was lacking. What I would give to see a fully restored 70mm print of this film!
Still, Dersu Uzala belongs in the pantheon of Kurosawa’s best films. It’s a classic story of human camaraderie, the triumph of the human spirit and the important role the natural world plays in our lives. If your someone who worships great directors, lord knows I am, then Dersu Uzala is one movie you’ve got to check out.