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Kurosawa's 1975 Academy Award winning film Dersu Uzala1 is a hypnotic and deeply moving portrayal of friendship and survival in the magnificent and treacherous Siberian wilderness. Based on the journals of the Russian explorer Vladimir Arseniev, the film chronicles several of the author's expeditions to create geological maps of Eastern Siberia.


This, however, is no mere documentary about the day-to-day lives of Captain Arseniev and his small band of Russian soldiers. Although the captain and his men are knowledgeable about many things they are not equipped mentally to survive in the wilderness. They need a guide for their difficult task. A Mongolian frontiersman, Dersu Uzala, becomes their guide and friend. At first the soldiers do not understand why Arseniev asks Dersu to guide them and they mock the stranger. But as they confront the inherent dangers of the wilderness they begin to admire and respect him for his natural powers and instincts about life, survival, and identification with all creatures. Dersu and the captain are particularly drawn to one another and develop a mutual respect and a friendship that deepens over time.


I viewed Dersu Uzala recently without the benefit of subtitles. The dialogue is entirely in Russian and I do not speak or read the Russian language, but somehow that did not detract from the experience at all. I became completely immersed in the film just as I had in the past when subtitles were available. I have had a similar experience when viewing Kurosawa's Ikiru without English subtitles. It just did not make any difference because of the expressiveness of the characters and their interactions with others and the environment. In Ikiru, the institutional environment and cold professional relationships are stark, stultifying, oppressive. I sympathized with Watanabe as I witnessed his stark loneliness and fear of dying. I rejoiced when he found a way to bring meaning and hope into his life through helping others be seen as fully human.


In Dersu Uzala, it is altogether easy to understand and enjoy the developing friendship of Dersu and Arseniev. It is at once consoling and instructive to witness Dersu's reverence for nature and his fellowmen and the ways in which those around him begin to emulate his ways. In one of several poignant moments in the film, Dersu and the captain are reunited 5 years after their first expedition together. I was overcome by their spontaneous joy at seeing one another again. There are also terrifying moments when their lives are threatened on the frozen plains and in flooded spring rivers. Dersu, even when his own life is in danger, knows exactly what to do. His instinct for survival and desire for life is profound and essential to be shared.


Kurosawa's cinematic genius is, of course, evident throughout the film. His camera captures the emotions and inner lives of the characters so sensitively that one can easily imagine dialogues between them and with oneself. There are quiet, slow-paced scenes in the dark of night when the campfire light turns tree trunks into grotesque orange mythical sculptures, bleak gray and white scenes in the crowded Russian village where Dersu tries to live with the captain and his family in a small room when his sight begins to fail, to sweeping scenes of the incredible beauty of mountains, rushing rivers, and waterfalls. Most memorable for me are those nearly fatal hours on the frozen plains when Dersu and Arseniev are unable to find their way back to camp, their footprints are covered over with drifting snow, their compass readings offer no help, and they become completely enveloped in a world of violent winds and blazing colors. The ground before them and behind them, the very horizon swirls with gray and blue forms melding into one another. The setting sun, like a gigantic glowing coal, fills the screen. For several moments, one is made aware of the need of greater energy in the presence of nature's force threatening one's own mortality.


It seems too obvious to add here or after seeing the movie that we nurses share this need and awareness all too often albeit in other forms and settings.




1. Kurosawa A. Dersu Uzala. Japan/Russia: Fosfilms; 1975. [Context Link]