Dersu Uzala (1975) – A Movie Review

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.

Ransom – A Movie Review and Comparison – Part 3

Any of you who have followed the guest contributors here may know that The Fatman is a more learned student of the cinema than I am.  When he saw my Ransom reviews, he alerted me to a ransom-type movie by the acclaimed Japanese director Akira Kurosawa called “High and Low”.  Now, Kurosawa is best known to American audiences from his homage to the American Western called “The Seven Samurai.  And the American Western’s homage to him is the movie “The Magnificent Seven.”

So anyway, I decided to give it a spin.  “High and Low” is not a direct retelling of the Ransom story in fact it is based on an American crime novel called “King’s Ransom” written by Evan Hunter under the pen name Ed McBain.  But I think it still fits under the umbrella of the Ransom comparison.

Kingo Gondo (played by Kurosawa regular, Toshiro Mifune) is the CEO of a large shoe manufacturing company with the very original name of National Shoes.  He is extremely wealthy but came up through the ranks from humble beginnings.  He lives in a beautiful home on a prominent hill overlooking the city.  He has a wife, Reiko and young son, Jun and they share the home with his chauffer Yutaka Sada and his son, Shinichi, who is Jun’s friend.

Gondo is being pressured by the Board of Directors to back their play to oust the founder of the company and start making stylish but poorly-made shoes at a high profit.  Gondo disagrees saying the answer is to upgrade the style of the current well-built shoes and thereby maintain the brand and expand the market.  The Board threatens to oust him instead.  In discussions between Gondo and his assistant we learn that Gondo has anticipated this hostile takeover and has collected enough loan money to take over the company himself.  He has a check for fifty million yen that his assistant will deliver by train that night to lock down the stock he needs for the takeover.  The loans will basically mortgage everything he owns but he knows he’ll be able to pay them off once he has control of the company.

During these discussions we see Jun and Shinichi dressed as cowboys chasing each other around with cap guns.  And now that Jun has won the game as sheriff, he trades costumes with Shinichi and assumes the role of outlaw.  Gondo gives the check to the assistant and tells him which train to take.  But before the assistant leaves a call comes in from someone claiming to have kidnapped Jun.  The kidnapper says the ransom will be thirty million yen.  Gondo tells the kidnapper he will pay the ransom.  Now Gondo tells his assistant to cancel his train ride because Gondo will need that money for the ransom.  Almost immediately Jun walks back in the room and Gondo assumes the call was a hoax.  But when Jun asks everyone where Shinichi has gone the adults realize that the kidnapper mistook the boy wearing Jun’s costume for Jun and kidnapped Shinichi by accident.  Sada is now understandably worried about his son but Gondo tells him that the kidnapper will release Shinichi when he realizes the boy is not from a rich family.  But the kidnapper calls back and says he will demand the ransom for Shinichi instead and he will kill the boy if the money is not surrendered.  Gondo refuses and hangs up.  Now the police are called in.

The police show up and go through the same phone tapping routine we’ve seen in the other two movies and analyze the kidnapper’s demands and mindset.  They try to convince Gondo that this particular kidnapper is extremely angry and seems to have a grudge against Gondo or at least against the rich.  They ask him if he will consider paying the ransom but he explains that he must go forward with the takeover or he will be out of a job and ruined financially.  At this point Sada and Reiko separately beg Gondo to relent and pay the ransom.  Gondo refuses.  The police ask that at least he tell the kidnapper that he will pay the money in hopes that they can catch the kidnapper during the ransom exchange.  Gondo agrees to this.  He gets the instructions from the kidnapper and after seeing Sada break down in despair Gondo relents and agrees to pay the ransom.

There is an intricate arrangement with bags of cash that will fit through a narrow bathroom window on the train once Gondo sees Shinichi standing with his captor adjacent to the tracks.  The money is payed and Shinichi is freed.  Gondo loses his house and all his possessions to his creditors.

The rest of the movie is a police procedural about trying to find the kidnappers and get Gondo’s money back.  Small clues gathered from the kidnapper’s phone conversations and the somewhat vague information provided by Shinichi combine to allow the police to hunt down the gang.  The final part of the movie involves some heroin addicts who were part of the gang and we get some scenes of the seedy world that these people inhabit.  Finally, the kidnapper is caught and because of the murder of his accomplices he is given a death sentence.

We see Gondo get his money back but it is too late to restore his old life.  He takes a job with a smaller shoe company and he actually enjoys the work more because of his greater creative control there.

In the last scene the murderer asks Gondo to come to the prison to talk.  He explains why he picked Gondo.  From his tenement below the hill he dwelt on Gondo’s affluence and the anger this engendered drove him to his crimes.  He claims not to be afraid of his death but by the end of the conversation he breaks out in hysterics and is dragged away and the movie ends.

This movie is sort of a hybrid.  The story really is a police procedural.  The crime allows for the police to solve the puzzle of finding the criminal and getting justice for Gondo.  But the predicament of Gondo is a very Japanese story.  The honor and the prestige of the “great man” is a theme that interests Kurosawa and specifically he is examining how the modern capitalist model has removed the human element from the equation.  Gondo was a poor man who became rich and Sada is a poor man who is entirely at Gondo’s mercy for his son’s life.  Basically, we are watching a struggle for Gondo’s soul.

Japanese cinema is in some ways hard for Americans to enter.  In addition to the language barrier and the need to read the subtitles, facial expressions and even mannerisms are decidedly different.  I like the movie and thought it was well done.  Whether anyone who hasn’t seen Japanese films would enjoy it is an open question.  I recommend it.