By Mike Dub
Kurosawa has always been considered by critics to exhibit the most “western” style of filmmaking of all the Japanese greats. So it shouldn’t come as too big a surprise that Dersu Uzala at times feels more like one of those large-scale epics coming out of the U.S. in the previous ten years. Unfortunately, especially throughout the first half of the film, Dersu comes off as old-fashioned as many of those other films.
The film tells the story of early 20th century Russian explorer Vladimir Arsenyev (on whose memoirs the film is based) and his friendship with an aboriginal tribesman, Dersu Uzala. Even before the story is laid out, though, we know where it’s going. Despite Arsenyev’s initial prejudgment of Dersu as an unsophisticated savage, Dersu saves the day – and Atsenyev’s surveying crew – several times with his crafty wit and experience, leading to a strong bond that would last years.
The biggest problem of the two-hour, forty-minute epic is that it spends the entire first hour validating Dersu’s very existence, as though culture has not evolved in the fifty years between the film and the publishing of Arsenyev’s memoirs. In an endless stream of unnecessary exposition, Dersu continually proves himself better than the Russian crew. He is smarter, stronger, savvier, a better shot with a rifle, a better tracker, and even, despite seeming to have had virtually no human contact for years, Dersu is wittier than the Russians, always able to one-up a demeaning jibe.
Dersu, a relic of pre-industrial civilization, is not only a better woodsman than his new compatriots, but he constantly drops Miyagi-like pearls of wisdom that reiterate his respect for and connection to nature. When Russian soldiers dare him to join a contest that involves taking target practice at a glass bottle, Dersu derides, “Why shoot and smash…? Where in forest you find bottle?” When asked why he refers to nature with human pronouns, he explains, “Fire, water, wind: three mighty men.” Like so many other films, the hero here is depicted with condescending novelty that passes for respect.
Films like Dersu Uzala, which feature clashes of culture, particularly an advanced culture versus a primitive one, often suffer from viewing the world through the perspective of the outsider. Even though it is Arsenyev and his men that are trespassing into Dersu’s world, it is Dersu and his primeval methods that are alienated from the viewer. He is the one who must prove his value – Arsenyev’s is never questioned, at least not overtly.
Because that perspective holds so true in the first half of the film, the second half of the movie, when we begin to see Dersu on his own footing, dealing with his own complicated fate, that the movie picks up. After saving Arsenyev’s life during a snowstorm, it seems, the film is satisfied that Dersu has proved himself worthy of his own storyline. Accordingly, the second half of the movie deals with the ever-encroaching machinery of industrialization, and Dersu’s inability to secure a place in the new age of the 20th century.
If the plot of the film is not the strongest, the movie remains compelling because of the stunning color cinematography. Kurosawa was a master of black-and-white images for decades leading up to Dersu, and here he uses color in much the same fashion. His super-wide 70mm lens allows him the full expanse of a palate of highly contrasting colors. At their best, Kurosawa’s images highlight the desolation and beauty of unsoiled land, but even the less poetic images are still striking in their depth and layered colors. When the dialogue becomes too hammy and the plot too predictable, the visuals still keep the film afloat.
Dersu Uzala does have heart, even if it is too often overrun by the simplistic mechanisms of its first half. By the end, though, Kurosawa finds his footing and manages to convey a nuanced, more complex understanding of the themes of his film, if not the characters. Civilization may be supplanting our connection to our more primitive and connected past, but Kurosawa suggests, even that erosion of unspoiled nature may be part of the natural order.