A Month of Kurosawa: Dersu Uzala (1975)

To celebrate the upcoming release of my book, Akira Kurosawa: A Viewer’s Guide, due out Dec. 15 from Rowman & Littlefield — preorder here! — I’ll be doing capsule reviews all month covering every single Kurosawa film and posting (very) brief excerpts. These will be short impressions and recommendations, nothing more. For a full, detailed analysis of each, grab the book!

Dersu Uzala (1975)

During a period in his career when Kurosawa had fallen out of favor and was no longer the influential icon he once was, he found himself deep in the Soviet Union making a film about nature, survival, civilization, and friendship. That film was Dersu Uzala, based on the autobiographical book of the same name by Vladimir Arsenyev. It’s also one of his most underappreciated works.

The film’s story is a simple one. While out on an expedition, some Russian military men led by Arsenyev come across Dersu Uzala, a Nanai trapper and hunter who lives alone in the wilderness. Over the course of two separate expeditions, Dersu helps Arsenyev and his men come to understand how to survive in this difficult region. The two men form a deep bond. Dersu is aging, though, and the modern world is encroaching on his wilderness…

The drama here is sparse. Instead, the narrative is primarily focused on the growing bond between these two men, surviving in a hostile wilderness, and with Dersu’s views on how to coexist with the world around him.

From the book:

There is a moral simplicity here that is not present in most of Kurosawa’s previous work. Dersu is good. That’s all. He is unblemished by the moral failings that plague us all. His simple poverty, his simple life, his closeness with simple ways of living, is all presented as a form of purity. This is in stark contrast to films like No Regrets For Our Youth, Rashomon, or Seven Samurai, where the “simple” and “pure” are shown to be anything but, hiding the same undercurrent of greed and selfishness that infects the upper classes in films like The Bad Sleep Well and The Idiot.

Though nominated for an Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film, Dersu Uzala is widely overlooked in the Kurosawa canon. It is rarely studied, has never gotten a deluxe home viewing release, and is basically thought of as that movie Kurosawa did between the time his career took a nosedive and when he returned to form with Kagemusha and Ran.

That’s too bad, because in my view this is a wonderful, uplifting, bittersweet movie that pulls me in every time. I heartily recommend it. It is one of his best overlooked gems and is a personal favorite.

Check out my upcoming book for a full analysis exploring this film’s ideas, themes, good points, and bad

You can get the movie in this home release version.


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