Monday Movie: Dersu Uzala, by Alexander Miller
Every Monday, we’ll highlight a piece of writing from our vaults. This review of Dersu Uzala originally ran as a Criterion prediction.
Dersu Uzala was a huge comeback for Akira Kurosawa, who suffered a series of setbacks and hardships before collaborating with Soviet-based Mossfilm in this coproduction. Red Beard didn’t connect with audiences the way his previous period jidaigeki films had; then there was the debacle with Tora! Tora! Tora! The commercial failure of Dodes’kaden (a flagship movie for the short-lived Four Knights, a collaboration with Kinoshita, Kobayashi and Kon Ichikawa) led to the dissolution of their co-op and the director attempting suicide.
Dersu Uzala was new terrain for Kurosawa literally and figuratively; the tone and feel of the film seems to have recalibrated the despondent filmmaker’s sensibilities.
What should feel alien is subtly malleable in the director’s hands. Transcending his earlier Westernized style, Dersu Uzala is a testament to Kurosawa’s pioneering aesthetic. The delicate catharsis is in the narrative of discovery and cultural assimilation. This is a journey for the director as well, as it is his re-acquaintance with the medium. Arsenev’s expedition into the remote territory and his alliance with Dersu Uzala after aiding in his survival are indeed part of the memoir from which the film was drawn. Could it be that the project is responsible for saving Kurosawa as well?
There are traces of Kurosawa in Arsenev and Dersu which could account for their unimposing yet flattering likenesses in the film. The theme of exploration is self-sustaining and Dersu Uzala’s inability to settle in the city where Arsenev’s family lived (also a part of the original story) feels more authenticated as it is emblematic of Kurosawa’s many reimaginings of the samurai class contending with the Meiji era’s modernization.
Dersu Uzala marks a transitional point of remarkable technical maturity. There’s a thoughtful repose to the compositions. The picturesque framing retains the static low camera that one would associate with Ozu or Mizoguchi, shorn of the wipes, dissolves and busy camera movements Kurosawa commonly employed.
There’s a mutual understanding, it seems, with the natural beauty of the location and there’s little necessity in magnifying that. The color cinematography by Kurosawa regular Asakazu Nakai (with Yuri Gantman and Fyodor Dobronravov, whose sole credit this is) is painterly, looking like the watercolors the director would often create in storyboarding his projects. Colors bleed and meld into each other in a graduating color palette that constitutes many of the films gorgeous scenes.
It’s difficult to find fault in Dersu Uzala, mostly because its stark simplicity feels like a result of faithfully adapting the original memoirs into the screenplay. While our modern sensibilities might see this falling into the “noble savage” category; there are some didactic components to the narrative, but Kurosawa’s respect for both characters extends with explicit tranquility – the aesthetic is simple; not the protagonists. Dersu and Arsenev have a mentor/mentee relationship, and their contrasting values are innate of their makeup without taking precedence over their thematic positioning. Dersu embodies an uncomplicated life of hunting and trapping; the crux of his bond with Arsenev comes as a result of saving his life, but their bond is one of respect and admiration. Dersu Uzala features a straightforward story with remarkable visual beauty; subtle, expansive and gets to the heart of the directors cavalier spirit of adventure while charting a new chapter in his maturing style.