Akira Kurosawa is probably best known in the West for his films that are set in Japan’s Sengoku period like “Seven Samurai” (1954), Kagemusha (1980) and Ran (1985). But one picture of his that I recently watched is set in turn of the century (19th to 20th century) tsarist Russia and is based on the memoir of a Russian explorer, Vladimir Arsenyev, concerning his travels in the Ussuri basin in the Russian Far East. Dersu Uzala was a Nanai hunter. The Nanai are a tribal people who live in the area. Dersu guided Arsenyev’s surveying crew from 1902 to 1907. His knowledge of the climatic and topographic dangers of this wild area several times saved Arsenyev and his men from death.
The story very simply and directly demonstrates the friendship and respect that Arsenyev and Dersu develop and when the elderly Dersu is no longer able to survive as a hunter Arsenyev takes the old Nanai home with him to Khabarovsk. But although Arsenyev’s wife and son adopt the strange tribesman as family, we see the stifling restrictions of the town wither the old man’s spirit and he declares that he must go back to the forest. His death and the cause of it completes this story about simplicity and modernity colliding and the humanity that exists on both sides of that intersection.
One of the interesting things about Dersu’s world view is his animism. He sees “people” in almost everything; the sun, the moon, water, fire, the wind, the forest. And he feels that the forest spirit watches him and punishes actions that are forbidden such as his killing of a Siberian tiger that threatened the expedition at one point. And we see his empathy for his fellow man in the practices that he follows. For instance, Dersu leaves salt, matches and firewood at the shelters that he leaves in the woods for the next stranger who will come along.
The movie was filmed in the Russian Far East. The Arctic ice flows and limitless taiga forest is an impressive if forbidding back drop for the story. Mainly it is a story of men on an adventure in the wild. Although the film is in Russian with subtitles, it’s a pretty good story. I recommend it.