Dersu Uzala (1975) – Akira Kurasawa

Naturally, Kurasawa’s only non-Japanese film is uneven. This Soviet coproduction has its feet in two worlds, just like it’s title character. A soldier-cartographer finds a guide in the plucky Dersu Uzala, a Soviet Asian. Dersu exists happily in the harsh terrain of Siberia and feels a kinship with the otherwise uninhabitable land (“Fire is men,” he says, relating, in his broken Russian, his belief that all of nature is connected), but when the mapmaker brings him to his township, Dersu can’t abide by the loss of freedom. Kurasawa’s typical flair for action is on display here, certainly in the two men’s rough night on an ice field, and so is the master’s soft ability to bring larger themes out of a tense story. Far from perfect, this still remains an important movie from a most important director, if for no other reason that much better and grander projects like Ran and Kagemusha might not have been made if Dersu Uzala didn’t put Kurasawa back on the map after he fell out of vogue in the late 60s. There may be a little autobiography in this tale too when considering that Kurasawa had been cast off as a relic in Japanese cinema and passed over for newer filmmakers.

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