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Dersu Uzala

Tiger!Tiger!
burning bright
In the forests of the night,
What immortal 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 of witches.

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 the soldiers.

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

 

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