In the forests of the night,
hand or eye
Could frame thy fearful symmetry?"
— William Blake
That blazing image comes miraculously alive in Akira
Kurosawa's "Dersu Uzala." Its sweeping
visual poetry is shaped by the same sense of awe
and inspiration that William Blake experienced in
the face of creation.
Every shot of this Siberian wilderness reinforces
the overriding theme: "How small man is against
the greatness of nature." Although the language
is Russian in this Academy Award-winning Soviet-Japanese
co-production, the genius of the film's vision
is Kurosawa's , and in fact, although there are English
subtitles, no translation is really necessary.
It is a film that Kurosawa, now renowned for those
classics "The Seven Samurai" and "Rashomon," had
wanted to make for 30 years, ever since he read "In
the Wilds of Ussuri" by V. Arsenyev, a Russian
soldier and explorer whose life had been saved around
1907 by Dersu Uzala.
The title character, memorably recreated by Maxim
Munzuk, was a primitive woodsman, one of the last
of the Udeghe, a small, now extinct branch of the
Goldi, who lived close to nature near the Russian
- Manchurian border.
The story of this keen-eyed hunter whose sight began
to fail took on added significance for Kurosawa when
his own eye problems and television's deadly effect
on Japanese filmmaking reduced him to the ultimate
depression of a suicide attempt.
His feelings are reflected toward the end of "Dersu
Uzala." There is a poignant shot of the aging
Dersu, a man used to roaring campfires in the forests,
hunched in front of some thin flames in the small
stove of Arsenyev's Siberian home. Knowledgeable
Japanese believe it is a metaphorical image for Kurosawa's
own despair about life reduced to a TV screen. "How
can men live in such boxes?!" cries Dersu.
There is nothing boxed in about the magnificent
flow of images in "Dersu Uzala." Shot in
70mm by Asakadru Nakai. When Arsenyev, a sensitive
observer as well as surveyor-explorer, writes in
his diary that the forest reminds him of Walpurgis
night, the red glow of the campfire on black tree
trunks takes on the hallucinatory aspect of a gathering
The scenes on the frozen tundra with a deadly gale
threatening Arsenyev and Dersu are among the most
spectacular on film, as Dersu whips into action,
slicing down the silvery plumes of a type of pampas
grass to provide a pyramid of shelter for the night.
The ominous whistling of the wind and the drumbeat
of fear resound through Isaac Svarts' fine score
that adds its own breadth to the scope of the film.
Kurosawa makes us see and understand primitive man's
closeness to nature, his worship of the spirits of
fire and and the trees, and his respect for his fellow
creatures. Munzuk, an actor in the Tuva National
Theater, making his film debut as Dersu, is impressive
and moving in his alertness to the smallest sound
of the forests, his anger at the burning of food
that animals could eat, his courage in the face of
danger and his fear for his fate when he accidentally
kills a tiger that he was trying to warn away from
One adventure involving Chinese bandits is not a
contemporary commentary on Russian-Chinese relations.
Historically, the Chinese were money-lenders to the
Udeghe, and confiscated their wives and children
as slaves if the debts weren't paid.
Yuri Solomin as Arsenyev quietly conveys the intelligence
and intuitive perceptions of a man who combines action
and thought with real warmth and appreciation for
someone so removed from his own culture.
San Francisco Chronicle October 21 1976