Thursday, May 23, 2013

The Man Lost in Ice

In 1975, four years after his suicide attempt, Akira Kurosawa made his first and only Russian film, Dersu Uzala. It's easy to see in it parallels to Kurosawa's life at the time; the movie tells the story, based on the memoirs of explorer Vladmir Arsenyev, of a Nanai hunter named Dersu Uzala who lives alone in the wilderness years after the deaths of his wife and children. One thinks of Kurosawa's exile from the Japanese film industry and his depression over the lack of respect he received from the newer generation of Japanese filmmakers. The film is beautifully shot on location in east Russian wilderness and effectively portrays men struggling to survive in hostile taiga.

In 1902, Arsenyev was captain of a military survey team into eastern Russia where they met Uzala early one evening. Arsenyev was quickly impressed by Dersu's familiarity with the region and asked him to be their guide. Dersu agreed, to their good fortune, as in the film we see the Nanai man repeatedly save the soldiers from death through his knowledge of survival techniques.

In the most memorable scene in the film, Arsenyev and Dersu are separated from the others, lost on a snow covered plain, partly land and partly frozen lake. As night begins to fall, Dersu tells Arsenyev their only chance for survival is to cut grass and cut grass quickly.

When Arsenyev wakes the next morning after collapsing from exhaustion while cutting grass, he finds himself in a crude hut Dersu has made from the piles of grass and some rope.

This is Kurosawa's second colour film and its palette is more restrained than his first, Dodesukaden, and the films that would follow Dersu Uzala. Particularly in the above mentioned scene, the desolate, wind-blown landscape recalls some of Kurosawa's black and white films of the 50s, particularly The Hidden Fortress and Throne of Blood.

Dersu is shown to be a deeply superstitious character who regards all things as possessing sentience: plants, rocks, rivers, and animals. In addition to the cultural separation from the other characters, this further seems to isolate Dersu. He's a hermit whose efforts at survival have made him slightly mad, more than can be explained by religious beliefs. When he shoots a tiger despite his fears regarding how the tiger's spirit might take revenge, he becomes irritable and a difficult companion to Arsenyev's group. Yet Dersu never ceases to have keener instincts and knowledge about the environment than anyone else. It's not unlike Kurosawa, who earned international praise in the 1950s and then met with disaster in the 1960s in terms of his career and his reputation. So the movie can be taken as an assertion of an individual's worth independent of social and professional spheres.

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