Resumption: “Dersou Ouzala”, a magnificent fresco on friendship, in the wide open spaces of eastern Siberia


A chasm hollows out at its heart the career of Akira Kurosawa (1910-1998), historical pillar of Japanese cinema who owes to the latter a shower of masterpieces ( Rashomon , The Seven Samurai , Vivre , Ran , among the most known). In the mid-1960s, the filmmaker suffered the double public failure of Barberousse (1965) and the very original Dodes’kaden (1970). With the industry turning its back on him, the artist, in depression, made an attempt on his life one sinister day in December 1971.

A surviving work, Dersou Ouzala (1975), which is being released in theaters in digital copy – based on a restoration dating back eight years – is the first feature film that Akira Kurosawa directed abroad, in Russian and at the initiative of Mosfilm. The Soviet studio had the flair to welcome a long-standing project of the filmmaker, to adapt the exploration notebooks of Vladimir Arseniev (1872-1930), Russian topographer famous for his work on eastern Siberia, whose shore runs along the Japanese sea.

Shot in natural settings and on 70 millimeter film, this large-scale Japanese-Soviet co-production was not exempt from what we would call today “soft power” on the part of a host regime intending to celebrate the brotherhood between the peoples. Far from sticking to this facade of humanism, Kurosawa was able to draw from this ethnographic material a personal work, a magnificent fresco on the confines of the known world, coupled with an elegiac reflection on the clash of cultures.

Incompatible worldviews

The film tells the story of the ten-year friendship between the explorer (Youri Solomin), an officer in the imperial army, who left with his troop to explore the Ussuri, a southern region of the Russian Far East, and his guide, Dersou Ouzala (Maxime Mounzouk, Tuvan actor), indigenous taiga hunter. The little man, from the Hezhen Mongolian ethnic group (formerly called “golde”), surprises the battalion with his detailed knowledge, at once practical, intuitive and spiritual, of the terrain. In the middle of winter, he will save the life of the “Captain”, lost in the middle of a storm on a frozen lake. Five years later, in the spring, they will meet again. But, one fine day, the guide, an outstanding shooter, kills a tiger by mistake, permanently losing his good humor, then his eyesight. It is then as if the soul of the taiga is slowly flowing out of him.

Through this encounter, Kurosawa finds an extension of one of his major subjects, namely the way in which gazes meet, when they carry incompatible visions of the world. Here, there are two relationships to space, and even to large spaces, in what they contain as unlimited, which are gauged and experienced. On the Siberian relief, Arseniev exercises the overlooking gaze of the scientist: the world is surveyed, translatable into cartographic data. Dersou Ouzala, for his part, is sensitive to signs (he can predict the cessation of a downpour, interpret the cries of animals), reads directly on the surface of things, in the manifestations of nature, because he knows belong, and only moves there when necessary. What is at stake between them is something of a confrontation between Western rationality and Eastern animism, insoluble because they do not assign to man the same place, here central, there relative.

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