I first saw Akira Kurosawa’s film Dersu Uzala in Colorado, when I was about thirty years old and already familiar with the muscular dynamism of Seven Samurai and Yojimbo. Dersu struck me immediately as an old man’s work, and for a while I found it difficult for my younger self to accustom itself to the slow pace of the film’s development. Then in about twenty minutes came a scene in which Captain Arseniev and his men, whom the hunter-trapper Dersu Uzala is guiding through a surveying mission in southeastern Siberia in the early 1900s, are sitting around a campfire behind which a twilit river seems, astonishingly, to be standing almost vertically behind them and flowing powerfully from left to right across the screen. The teapot-lid on the campfire is clattering and the short, squat, bowlegged Dersu takes the pot off the fire and says, “This is bad people. Make racket.” One of Arseniev’s soldiers says, “To you, everything around is people . . . Is fire alive too?” “Yes,” Dersu tells him. “Fire is people . . . Fire, water, wind—three mighty people.” In that moment the film came and got me. I was astonished by scenes so memorably shot they seemed to forcibly engrave themselves on my memory as if on stone—with the reservation that yes, it was a bit slow, and the second half wasn’t quite as good as the first, although it ended wrenchingly well.
Eventually, bluff against the growing condescension to Kurosawa among cinephiles who prefer the masterworks of Mizoguchi and Ozu, I would come to regard it as one of my very favorite films, definitely top ten, and, gradually, as the most thoroughgoingly Tolstoyan film I had ever seen. I don’t only mean its valorization of the primitive, tribal, simple, man of the earth who is Dersu—based on an actual, historical Dersu Uzala—but the unaccustomed breadth and existential inclusiveness of Kurosawa’s point of view, which, like Tolstoy’s, expands your consciousness of life as it enters you. The field of view of the human experience seems evenly lit, and is made visible in depth as if by the simple combination of sight and nature. It renders humanity and nature on an equal basis, not as set and setting, but as integral parts of a whole. This is something that writers could strive for, without taking up a rhetorical position that isolates one empirical reality from another, or unnaturally sections out their point of view. There’s nothing showy about the cinematography. Kurosawa was a virtuoso of dramatic composition but, a few standout scenes apart, he doesn’t make too visible a virtue of it here. The simplest things are eloquent. For all I know this was due to a constraint of the Soviet budget or the limitations of his unfamiliar film crew, but it looks intentional. Kurosawa’s way of seeing rhymes with Isaac Babel’s famous epigram: If the world could write by itself, it would write like Tolstoy.
Nowadays, thanks to a generous birthday gift from a friend, I’m reading Captain Vladimir Arseniev’s journal of his travels with Dersu—Dersu the Trapper, a McPherson reprint of a 1941 original—and it’s helping me contemplate the nature of the artistic registry of life in whatever idiom and to try to wrap in my mind the essence of what makes a book or a film distinctive, and by implication what does not. Arseniev was not a great writer, and I’m reading him in a translation I can’t evaluate, but he was an excellent observer and a learned naturalist. When he tells you about a patch of forest he names the trees for you, and gives the Latin, but his writing sharpens only when he makes small observations of the life around him: the sound of a pica’s chuck, the behavior of woodpeckers peeping out from behind a tree, and other small observations of bird and animal behavior. And of course, Dersu. We can’t have enough Dersu. How many more pages do I have to read before there’s more Dersu. Kurosawa and his co-scenarist never let us wait very long before we get more Dersu, who is played by the unforgettable Maxim Munzuk who, as a sympathetic hero-figure in a Kurosawa film, is right up there with Takashi Shimura’s Kambei in Seven Samurai (who is so sympathetic he doesn’t seem to even slightly mind Toshiro Mifune stealing the film out from under him. I have a special attachment to Takashi Shimura. When I saw Godzilla at the age of ten I was so naïve that I thought that it must be the greatest monster movie ever made because it had the biggest monster, overtopping King Kong, say, by at least twenty storeys. Nevertheless, when Takashi Shimura showed up as the old scientist who has to explain to everyone who Gojira is and why he has come back, just looking at the man’s face made me want to weep, and I had no idea why. He might be my favorite actor in all of film.).
Kurosawa’s parsing of Arseniev’s text is exemplary, and a comparison of the film with the book could teach one a wealth about the selection and arrangement of significant detail, and how to make a story dramatic and unforgettable. And if you read the book you’ll get more of Dersu than can be fit into even so long a film. Arseniev and the translator, Malcolm Burr, have Dersu speaking like Tarzan—the film’s subtitles do better—but there are gems even so:
The pig killed by Dersu was a two-year-old sow. I asked him why he had not shot a boar.
“Him old man,” he explained, speaking of the old tusker. “Him bad to eat; meat much smell.”
I was struck that Dersu spoke of the boar as a man, and asked him why he did so.
“Him all same man,” he said, “only different shirt. Him know everything, know traps, know angry, know all round . . . all same man.”
Dersu and Arseniev may be the greatest representation of friendship in the whole of cinema—when Dersu saves the Captain’s life from a snowstorm in a shelter of reeds, it is as if Arseniev is reborn into a new recognition of life when he wakes in the morning—and a fellow-feeling of that friendship permeates the book as well, undiminished by the relatively arid stretches Arseniev could not have avoided in relating the story of his mission and his notes on the region.
I don’t want to deprive the ending of the film of the power of its secrets, but it’s enough to say that at the end of his second expedition with Arseniev, Dersu’s hunting eye fails him, in addition to which he has brought a curse on himself by—necessarily—shooting a tiger, so that he can no longer live in the forest. Arseniev invites him to come live with him and his family as an honored guest in the frontier town of Khabarovsk, and it is heart-rending to watch this paragon of life in the wild reveal his limitations, as he fails to adapt himself to the life he must live, in town, in the winter, surrounded by the kindness of Arseniev and his wife and son. I won’t disclose the final, tragic irony of this last act, but I can repeat something the distinguished environmentalist Arthur Sacks pointed out to me: the relationship between Dersu and the Captain, their mutual appreciation and the comity of their differentiated hearts, all derive from a Russian surveying mission of the region that in its consequences would help destroy the untrammeled nature of Dersu’s homeground, and the possibility of a life like his for anyone. Sacks also pointed out to me that in the very last scene, when Arseniev visits Dersu’s grave, the forest is being chopped down and a village is being built. (A propos, worse was to come: when Arseniev died of natural causes in 1930, Stalin already had an arrest warrant out on him. His wife was shot as a spy seven years later, and their daughter spent ten years in the Gulag, in Arseniev’s Siberia.)
The closing episodes in Khabarovsk are dealt with in very few pages in Arseniev’s book. Kurosawa has the acumen to draw them out—and to add a last, possibly apocryphal twist—to portray more fully the townbound counterweight to Dersu’s long life in the wild. None of this added, articulated detail is superfluous, even though it contradicts the usual filmmaking logic that tells the director to compress, compress, if possible reduce to a single image the nub of the story he is trying to make memorable and real.
There’s a lot to be learned and applied here.
Mizoguchi made one great film after another, no gaps, and Ozu sailed on an even keel, partly by making the same film many times in slightly different versions. Kurosawa was surprisingly uneven, making some okay flicks, some mediocrities, and a few real failures. He made only one great film in modern dress. You know the one. It ends with an old man on a playground swing in bad weather. Maybe his masterworks were all the stronger for the energy he expended on his hits and misses.
What can you say about something truly great? Everything and nothing.