Kurosawa’s Forgotten Gem: Dersu Uzala

by Ezekiel Fry

Dersu Uzala is a very unique film within Kurosawa’s body of work. Unlike previous ventures such as Throne of Blood or The Bad Sleep Well, Dersu Uzala is haunting not in a foggy and obscured manner, but in its gutturally bright brilliance. Nature, when seen through Kurosawa’s lens, and captured on 70mm film takes on an almost ethereal beauty and transcendence that has the same evocative presence that scenes in Spider’s Web Forest or the dirt pit have in the previously mentioned films. Kurosawa has always been adept at capturing the strength of nature in his work and exploring humankind’s relationship, be it directly or indirectly, with the wilder elements of the world. With Dersu Uzala he takes this process one step further, placing humanity beneath nature, this is not a relationship of equality—humankind must bow to nature at every turn or be buffeted from the land of the living. There is a brooding quality to the presence of nature that only truly appears perhaps (and only to a much smaller degree) in Throne of Blood’s forest scenes. From the initial scenes with Arseniev looking for Dersu’s grave, to the final scenes with the same connection, the body of the film is fraught with peril and tension. The wilds of Siberia are unforgiving.
The menacing presence of nature is felt most tangibly in the scene in which Arseniev and Dersu must create a hut out of grass on the darkening steppes or face the harsh reality of freezing to death. Dersu continues yelling at Arseniev, “Must work fast, Captain!” This simple statement, in addition to the maniacal voice of the wind and the men’s fervent motions give incredible weight and gravity to the struggle. We do not question whether this is truly a life or death moment. Everything hangs in the balance and Arseniev must pluck up whatever inner reserves he has left in order to help Dersu save his (Arseniev) life.
There is no bombastic moment, no great battle scene, no brutal fights, merely the men trying to survive in the cold, and yet stunningly beautiful, frozen lands of eastern Russia. Although the structure is intensely formal, with the bookend scenes of Arseniev and the two major flashback expeditions as the body of the piece, this is perhaps as close to a meditation as Kurosawa ever reached in his work. The film simply flows. The characters meander through a world which changes seasons but never actually gives up its true identity. We never get over the mystery of the woods or the chilling silence of the steppes. Dersu has initiated us into the world that he understands (at least better than we) but there is no piercing that final layer and seeing things in a familiar light. Perhaps that is why Kurosawa’s lighting on this film is so strikingly different from any of his other films. He is attempting to create an alien world out of the one that we live in, or at least live next to. Such a beautiful film, even if it doesn’t pack the wallop that many of his other works do.