"The Hunter" (Dersu Uzala) Analysis
In the middle of a decade with various professional ups and downs, Akira Kurosawa (Tokyo, 1910-1998) decides to shoot, with Mosfilm’s financing, the adaptation of a classic piece of Russian literature, Dersu Uzala (Vladimir Arseniev, 1921). Years before, the Japanese director had already brought other works from this country to the big screen, such as Dostoyevski’s The Idiot (Hakuchi, 1951) or Maksim Gorki’s The lower depths (Donzoko, 1957). This analysis, also available in Spanish version, aims to delve into the director’s 26th film, with no intentions to go into detail about any particular aspect. Both formal and content features will be treated at a general level: the themes and their perspectives, and the stylistic methods used by the director to perform them.
The New Sobriety of “The Emperor”
The hunter (Dersu Uzala, 1975) constitutes in Akira Kurosawa’s extensive filmography a particular film: on the one hand, it is the first film shot outside of his native country, Japan, and with a technical team of another nationality; it highlights the sober and natural tone of the narration and the characters, which contrasts sharply with the majesty and epic genre with which he used to shoot his films (SANCHEZ NORIEGA, 2018: 516). It is more than likely that Kurosawa had not carried it out, given the tremendous difficulty he faced in financing his projects after the failure of his latest feature film, Dodes’ka-den (Dodesukaden, 1970). The Toho, the Tokyo production company that had financed all his successes, turned its back on Kurosawa after this critical and commercial failure. His professional situation worsened even more after his dismissal from Tora! Tora! Tora! (1971), a multi-country co-production about the Pearl Harbor attack, whose scenes from the Japanese side were to be shot by Kurosawa, and which would eventually fall to Kinji Fukasaku (BOCK, 2017: 8-9).
On the other hand, we can understand the offer of the USSR (Mosfilm) to Kurosawa, as a Soviet attempt to link their cinema to a prestigious foreign director, in order to universalize the production company. To all this, we must add a single imposed restriction: the film had to be an adaptation of a Russian literature work and had to be filmed in Russia, starring Russian actors. However, it is likely that the limitations that Mosfilm imposed on the film were more than the official ones. The listed screenwriters are Akira Kurosawa and Yuri Nagibin, one of the most prolific writers in the country at the time. It is known, according to Peter B. High1, that there are two versions of the script: the second and final one, but also a first version that Kurosawa wrote on his own, which included more tragic fates for each character and a much more pessimistic general nature. Taking all this into account, the incorporation of Nagibin can be interpreted as another imposition of Mosfilm on the director to lighten the story, in order to achieve greater cultural relevance from the outside perspective, since it is difficult to disassociate the culture from the geopolitical interests that, at the time, both superpowers -USA and the USSR- were trying to impose on all their influences.
Treaty on Friendship
Above all, it is surprising the creative freedom that was granted to the Japanese filmmaker to make his film, allowing him to build his own aesthetics. Despite the fact that most of the narration takes place outdoors2, The Hunter tells an intimate story, with a nostalgic evocation of the friendship between two men with radically opposite conceptions of life (SANCHEZ NORIEGA, 2018: 516). On the one hand, Captain Arseniev (Yuri Solomin), portrayed as the leader of a topographical expedition, charismatic (he won’t come into conflict with his men at any point of the film), who embodies the values of progress and a modern civilization; while, on the other hand, we are introduced to Dersu (Maksim Munzuk), a hunter of Mongol origin, native to the Goldi tribe, nomadic and solitary, of animistic conceptions and extremely respectful of the taiga.
Kurosawa uses a simple narrative structure, which contributes to creating that feeling of nostalgia due to the fact that the whole story is told through two great flashbacks, except in the opening scene: in a supposed present from which the story is narrated in voice-over, we find out about the Dersu’s death, but not about the circumstances: “The two flashbacks are presented with a five years interval, taking place in 1902, the first expedition through the taiga and the encounter with Dersu; and in 1907, the second trip of Arseniev, where he consolidates his friendship with the goldi hunter. Both flashbacks articulate the film in a two-membered manner.
Precisely, in this second flashback, the fullness of friendship is transmitted in an emotional sequence of black and white photographs in which we distinguish a happy Dersu, in the company of Arseniev and the soldiers” (HERREROS MARTÍNEZ, 2019). Another important narrative element is Captain Arseniev’s voice-over, which is used throughout the film intra-diegetically, and which helps to tell the story from the captain’s point of view.
The Ubiquitous Taiga
We can almost speak of nature in The Hunter as one more character, in the sense that both Dersu and Arseniev establish links with it, and it influences them in different ways throughout the film. What stands out the most about this, is the way Dersu treats each element of nature. The culture of his descendants considered that the taiga, as well as the people, constitute a single concept. Their relationship consists in the exchange of what is purely necessary.
To represent the imposing Ussuri, Kurosawa boasts his particular use of depth of field to show the environment of the taiga in the most powerful way possible. The director is used to superimposing in the foreground branches of trees or other objects in the environment, in order to feel that all that life is much more present in the characters, and that it plays a relevant role [see Figure 1].
Thus, the habitat is shown in different ways throughout the film, either with violence, or in a peaceful and calm way. In all cases, it has a strong relevance for the development of the action, since many of the expedition team’s decisions are made based on the environment of the taiga, the weather conditions and the orography of the land. In Arseniev’s own words: “Sometimes the mountains and forests seemed cheerful and attractive. However, sometimes, they were gloomy and wild. It was not just a personal opinion. All the men in the unit shared this feeling” (min. 4:26’).
Tony Zhou (2015) highlights in his video on the composition of the movement in Kurosawa the importance that atmospheric elements acquire in his films: “In each one of his films, the background of the shot shows some type of weather: wind, water, fire, smoke, snow… An advantage of this, is that the shots have a lot of visual interest. Even when people are still, there is rain in the background to get your attention”. The hunter is no exception. There are dozens of sequences in which the meteorology or the behaviour of the stars conditions the characters, not only in bad situations, but also in endearing sequences, as an emotional catalyst [see Figure 2].
From Arseniev’s Novel to the Film Version of Babayan
The hunter is directly inspired on the eponymous novel on which it is based, written by Arseniev himself (Dersu Uzala, 1921). This original work was conceived as travel memories, whose main function would be to leave testimony of the events of two expeditions to the Ussuri. But evidently, Arseniev does not dispense with the most emotional and nostalgic dimension, as a result of the friendship with the hunter, although to a lesser extent when compared to the Kurosawa feature film. In the narrative field, both of them resort to Arseniev to tell the story, although there are differences: “If in the book Arseniev himself, in the first person, displays his descriptive capacity synchronized with all the knowledge that the trip provides him, in the film it is Dersu who monopolizes the voice of knowledge. Captain Arseniev, like his companions in the detachment, is a mere witness, with amusement and amazement, very soon with tended admiration, of The hunter‘s ability to read the signs of the taiga” (MIRANDA, 2018, p.353).
In the same thematic line, a first film version of the literary work is presented, directed by Agasi Babayan (Dersu Uzala, 1961). Again, it treats the relationship between these two men with a secondary nuance to action. Compared to the 1975 version, Babayan decides to show the taiga environment much more explicitly, directly through images. His techniques refer to those of the nature documentary: sequences of animals, plants or hunting are frequently shown. In The hunter of Kurosawa, hardly any time is spent in capturing these situations, an obvious sign of a turnaround in the Japanese filmmaker’s approach to these two works. For example, in scenes such as the deer hunt (min 106: 15 ‘), nature acquires a secondary character: as a result of the act of hunting, Dersu realizes his inability to survive in the taiga [see Figure 3].
In Kurosawa’s film, more importance is given to the relationship between the two main characters. In fact, on many occasions, it is only the two of them that appear on screen, especially at decisive moments. The Japanese filmmaker uses this to give a more intimate and naturalistic character to the sequences. Thus, scenes such as the night in the blizzard on the frozen lake of 1902 are produced in these circumstances, which serves as a turning point to consider Dersu a true hero of the taiga for saving the captain. Another one of these scenes would be the reunion between the the two main characters in 1907, or the scene in which Dersu’s visual impairment when hunting becomes visible, which culminates in The hunter‘s final exhaustion.
Old Age in Dersu: Découpage of Li-Tsung Ping’s Secuence
Kurosawa’s obsession with old age is also present in The hunter, mainly depicted in Dersu. We see from the second flashback how he experiences in his own flesh the passage of time: difficulty of movement, loss of sight, missteps… This topic is also deepened at minute 32:20′ with a third character, Li Tsung-ping, a 64-year-old man who also lives in the taiga.
We can interpret the scene as a dedication of the director to this stage of life, which he had already dealt with in depth in To Live (Ikiru, 1952) and later in “The town of the watermills”, the chapter that closes The Dreams of Akira Kurosawa (Yume, 1990)3. Li Tsung-ping is given a second chance. Old age is one of the most important stages of life for Kurosawa. In a letter to Ingmar Bergman, he states: “a human being is not capable of creating extraordinary works until he reaches the 80’s” (GALVAN, 2013). This scene also highlights some formal features of the author: on the one hand, his perfectionism in the raccord and the physical continuity of the characters. Kurosawa used to shoot his films with several cameras at the same time. It should be kept in mind that he considered editing work was the most important part of the production, and therefore he would edit himself his own work (although it is not the case in this film). Another characteristic of the director is his use of depth of field to portray several characters on the same shot. Despite having a rather slow rhythm, the internal montage of the staging of The Hunter is quite complex, in the sense that numerous actions occur in the same sequence and scene. An example of this is the last scene of this sequence of Li Tsung-ping.
Kurosawa’s use of the disposition of actors also serves to generate a greater emotional distance between the protagonist couple and the rest of the team. Dersu and Arseniev tend to be in the image differentiated from the group of soldiers. The team, on the contrary, usually appears quite together, performing the same actions, which gives a greater sense of unity [see Fig. 15].
Humanize the Wild
“I learn everything I have to know, and I have everything I need to have.” With phrases like this, Kurosawa builds his main character, Dersu, the hero of the taiga. He does not hesitate to praise him, even though it involves navigating against the convictions of his time. Because Dersu is considered a figure who has reached fullness in his life. A state of well-being that has been truncated by the pitfalls of an old age that is looming (and that obviously constitutes the natural part of the human being), although the final thrust comes from an anonymous person struggling with Dersu to get his rifle (which was only suggested). In fact, it was Dersu himself who predicted his death at the hands of a tiger, an Ampah. Little did he know that this animal was the tiger of civilization.
Precisely on the issue of Ampah, Kurosawa agrees with Dersu. In the last scene that the hunter spends in the forest, this tiger appears again. Dersu considers his final moment has arrived. For Arseniev, this tiger was possibly “the ghost of fear faced with the taiga, arisen from the mind of a poor old man.” The tiger appears with a “magical” effect that wraps the image in a reddish color. Thanks to this, the viewer sees the animal in the same way as Dersu (as if he really intended to kill him) [Figure 16].
“Human beings have forgotten that they are also part of nature,” claims Kurosawa. Dersu does not. The gold unites people and the elements of nature in a single term: for him they are all “people”. For Dersu, the human being must be part of this idea of communion and respect for “the people”. He lives the worst stage of his life in the captain’s house, away from the nature of the taiga, as if he did not find his place in civilization. Dersu embodies the ideals of communion with nature. Kurosawa signs a film about respect, which finds in the actions of its main characters an ecological oasis against all the acts that the “savage” civilization commits [Figure 17].
[*] This article is one of the results of the Collaborative learning of film analysis in transnational and interuniversity environments project, developed in the academic year 2019/20 among the students of the subject Teoría e historia de los medios audiovisuales of the Degree in Media Communication (Grado en Comunicación Audiovisual, Facultad de Comunicación y Documentación, Universidad de Murcia) and the Japanese Studies Program of the BA Film and Media of the School of Arts of the Birkbeck Collage (University of London).
 “In rewriting, Kurosawa removed this and many darker scenes, considerably lightening his film. Critic Peter B. High, who has compared the two scripts, believes that Kurosawa wrote the first version during his dispair over the financial failure of Dodes’Ka-den and the personal failure of Tora! Tora! Tora!, for which he was fired by Twentieth Century Fox. These two events perhaps prompted Kurosawa’s suicide attempt, during the course of which he learned much about the true nature of death” (RICHIE, 1995).
 The film was shot for two years, under harsh weather conditions, in the same places where the action takes place, in the heart of the Siberian taiga. The play earned Kurosawa the Grand Prix of the Moscow Festival and the Oscar for non-English speaking production, as well as having considerable success in the critics and among the public.
 In “The Town of the Watermills,” a young traveler meets an old man who is fixing the wheel of a watermill. The old man, played by Chishū Ryū, Ozu’s favorite actor, explains that the villagers decided to opt for spiritual health by giving up the comforts of modern life, hence the longevity of its inhabitants. At the end of the episode, the funeral procession of an old woman takes place, which they celebrate with joy, since she enjoyed a good life. Here Kurosawa expresses not only the reaction of a man to mortality –as he would do in Ikiru-, but to an entire town.
- Referencias bibliográficas
/ Bibliographic References
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GALVAN, L. F. (2013, december 23rd). The letter Kurosawa wrote to Bergman. Recovered from <https://enfilme.com/notas-del-dia/la-carta-que-kurosawa-le-escribio-a-bergman>. Date of research: 13/03/2020.
SANCHEZ NORIEGA, J.L. (2018). Historia del cine. Teorías, estéticas y géneros. Madrid: Alianza Editorial.
MIRANDA, L. (2018). Natura y cultura. Dersu Uzala (1975). En I. P. Rico y A. Peña (eds.), El legado de Akira Kurosawa (pp. 352-359). Málaga: Applehead Team.
KUROSAWA, A. y BOCK, A. (2017). Autobiografía (o algo parecido). Madrid: Fundamentos.
ZHOU, T. (2015). Composing Movement. Every frame a painting. Recovered from <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=doaQC-S8de8>. Date of research: 15/03/2020.