Akira Kurosawa has had quite the checkered history with his work. For a sizable period, he was considered a financial risk, and was thus denied funding for his films from the Japanese studios he worked with. It was thus that he ended up resorting to working with Russia, after they approached him at a particularly dark period of his life, and he proposed an adaptation of the Russian novel Dersu Uzala, which they happily agreed to. The resulting film wouldn’t be the smash success that would cause his home country to invite him back with open arms (that would end up being his next film, Kagemusha), but history, it seems, has been kinder to Dersu Uzala than some of the master’s other lesser-known works. I don’t know if I’d wholly agree, but there was an ethereal magic to Dersu Uzala that was hard to ignore.
The film is split into two parts, almost like an epic. The first part deals with a group of Russian soldiers, led by a man named Arseniev right after the turn of the 20th century, as they explore an unmapped region of the Russian landscape. There, they meet an old man living in the wild, the titular Dersu, who speaks in broken Russian and appears to have little knowledge of their cultural background. Laughing at the man at first, their opinions quickly change when Dersu shows his aptitude at tracking, hunting, and living in the wild, and he ends up saving Arseniev’s life curing a blizzard. Part two picks up 5 years later, when Arseniev returns to the region and meets back up with Dersu, finding the man’s age catching up to him, and he tries to bring Dersu to the city to try and reintegrate him into Russian society. Now, despite the expounding on the plot that I’ve done, this film has a plot merely as an excuse for Kurosawa to feature the environment the film was shot in, as the plot consists mainly of opportunities to show the Russian men that Dersu isn’t just a doddering old man in the wilderness, but a man to be respected. That said, I don’t know that Dersu Uzala really succeeds at what it wants to do, and it is what the film wants to do that is the main issue I had. There’s an interesting conundrum inherent to Dersu Uzala; the film is quite obviously supposed to be a love letter to the region and the people living there, but the region, in my opinion, isn’t all that aesthetically pleasing, so the film is a showcase of a very muddy, grungy, dreary landscape, which doesn’t make for a very appealing film, especially one that runs over two hours (the second half’s sections in the city notwithstanding). Still, Kurosawa is too careful of a director to let material like this go to waste, and it’s this care and attention he gives it that makes the film what it is, even if what it is is hampered slightly by the material itself. Even with the landscape, Kurosawa manages some amazing shots, particularly when he uses the sun, or the contrasting colors in the environment (of which there is very little to be found, which makes when it does show up all the better).
This was somewhat lesser than what I’ve come to expect from Kurosawa. Now, that might be a little unfair, seeing as I’ve come to expect pure greatness from Kurosawa after films like Ran and Seven Samurai, but this is the List we’re talking about, and in terms of the List, this is a bit of a superfluous entry for both Kurosawa and for environment-showcasing films, mostly on the grounds that the environment in the film isn’t really worth showcasing all that much. Other such films do a much better job with much more entrancing landscapes than this, and Kurosawa’s definitely done better work, so there isn’t too many reasons to sit down and watch this one. I don’t think I’d go so far as to call it a disappointment, and if you go into it with the right mindset, it shouldn’t end up being one for you. But I don’t see any reason for me to ever see this one again.
Arbitrary Rating: 7/10