Looking for sources of funding after a failed suicide attempt, Kurosawa received an offer from Mosfilm to direct a beloved Russian autobiography, the memoirs of a turn-of-the-century explorer. Captain Vladimir Arseniev led a series of expeditions from 1902 to 1907 to map the Ussuri region of the rugged Siberian wilderness. During his journeys he repeatedly ran into and befriended a native hunter-guide by the name of Dersu Uzala, played by Tuvan theater actor Maksim Munzuk, whose bow-legged trot, friendly demeanor and wizened face endears him to the explorers as well as us. Actor Yuri Solomin captures the patience and wherewithal of Arseniev, a man who seems more a naturalist and scholar than a government-issue cartographer. Arseniev shares with the Goldi hunter a religious sense of wonder and awe at the miracles of the wilderness. Though the film did not turn out to be what Kurosawa had hoped for visually—the colors are more dull and muted than intended—there is much to admire in the feral wilds of the Taiga.
Kurosawa largely succeeds with Dersu as a character. He is developed insofar as a man of his talents could be. He is not dynamic in the way that we expect from a protagonist, but his psychology is clear: his senseless killing of a tiger in the film’s second act convinces Dersu that nature will seek retribution against him and that he is no longer fit to continue his wonted lifestyle. The moon is his calendar, the trees and stones his rites and so his penance is accorded with the rhythms of nature. Kurosawa’s commentary is most visible here and at the film’s finale where Dersu’s remains are subsumed by a growing urban landscape, a tragic fate to be sure but also a necessarily fitting one. We shall all yet succumb to the citadel of culture and industry as the old order gives way to the new. And maybe there is an entirely different dialectic occurring at the same time. Arseniev’s life is threatened when he decides to leave the group and the beaten path to inspect a frozen lake for his own aesthetic pleasure rather than charting it. He is caught in a blizzard here and Dersu saves his life in a memorable sequence. Arseniev is nearly destroyed by that which he admires and yearns to be close to, while Dersu is prematurely cut down by his own superstition.
I think it’s a mistake to regard this film as many have as a simple allegory of man’s declining relationship with the planet. The focus on Dersu as a human being precludes this interpretation and otherwise there is too much symmetry involved. The city dwellers are not presented as monsters or derelicts, and they will go on thriving while men like Dersu corrode with the earth. It is Dersu himself that makes it so hard for Dersu to eke out an existence in the civilized world. This is more a film about aging and obsolescence from a personal perspective. It’s also about the smallness of man in the vastness of the universe and man’s inextricable mortality. Despite this despairing message, there is a sort of affirmation of life to be found. The sincerity and beauty of Arseniev’s friendship with Dersu is something to behold; Kurosawa continually revels in their relationship, a dyadic close to that of a teacher and student but also, and above all, one of camaraderie.
What Dersu feels I think every thinking man feels somewhere in his psyche. He is not alone in the world as much as he may want to be. Capitalism, industrialization, development, progress, collective action—these are systems, ways of ordering man’s relationships; they are frustratingly complex propositions and they make us feel small, but what are the alternatives? Dersu’s world is spurious and unrealistic. Sure, we all just want to be able to chop firewood for ourselves or have water to drink so we have to get creative to share limited resources. But nevertheless the feeling of confinement is very real, the lack of freedom of action is an oppressive thought and modern man carries it with him everywhere he goes. Modern man still has a little bit of Dersu in him.
Unfortunately, this is a sympathetic portrait and an idealistic one, not the conflicted film I’ve just described. Despite its arguable strengths, Dersu Uzala may very well be the least humanistic Kurosawa film. It is a grand, magnificent 70mm, wide-screen picture with colorful stereo sound effects, but it is also lifeless. Kurosawa’s increasing despair is first evident here, for even in Dodesukaden five years earlier we still have an almost obsessive focus on the inexorable human being, something Kurosawa insists upon throughout his career. Dersu Uzala by contrast lacks the moral and emotional substance of his earlier work, as a result bordering on sentimentalism. Kurosawa’s team was shooting in a pitiless and lonely land and this works well to heighten the alienation of the characters (and man generally), but this also works against his rather puerile theme and reveals the despairing state of a filmmaker who has apparently given up hope for man’s betterment. Virtually all of his films up until this one depict a transformation or an illumination of the soul in one or more characters who fight to recast themselves in a world they never chose.