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Literature / Dersu Uzala

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The title character.

Dersu Uzala (Дерсу Узала) is a nonfiction book written by Vladimir Arsenyev, a Russian officer sent on a series of exploration missions in the Siberian Far East at the turn of the 20th century. The novel is named after an indigenous nomadic hunter whom Arsenyev befriended, and whose life was one of primal symbiosis with the harsh environment.

It was committed to film twice, the second and more well-known being by Akira Kurosawa in 1975. This adaptation, produced in Russian, is the sole non Japanese-language film of Kurosawa's career. It's also one of two Kurosawa recipients of the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film—the other being Rashomon—and one of four Russian films to win the award, the others being the 1968 adaptation of War and Peace, Moscow Does Not Believe in Tears (1980) and Burnt by the Sun (1994).

Contains examples of:

  • Bamboo Technology: Save for his rifle, Dersu has no modern gear at all (and his rifle is described as being an antique he inherited from his father). With just a knife and what nature has to offer, however, he can craft pretty much anything he might need. Many times with actual bamboo, not uncommon in the taiga.
  • Chekhov's Gun: A literal, if unconventional, example. When Dersu returns to the wild for the last time Arseniev insists on giving him his Winchester rifle. The rifle is missing when Dersu's body is found later, implying that he was murdered for it.
  • Crazy Survivalist: At least once the Russians laughs of what they consider Dersu's excessive zeal on fire making or camping. Needless to say, he's always right, so the others soon learn to shut up and start digging/lumbering/actually doing something.
  • The Empire: Russia.
  • The Film of the Book: Two of them, one Russian and the other Japanese-Russian, made by Akira Kurosawa.
  • Going Native: The result of enduring several expeditions into the wild for Arseniev.
  • Interchangeable Asian Cultures: The original candidate for the role of Nanai Dersu Uzala was Japanese Toshiro Mifune, and in the end Maxim Munzuk, a Tuvan, got the role.
  • Magical Native American: Though actually of Nanai ascent, Dersu fits the role accordingly, seeing the interconnectedness of all things, living in complete harmony with the environment, performing some shamanic medicine and addressing to all living things as "men". By extension, he might fall in the Crying Indian trope as well. Usually for good reasons.
  • Mighty Whitey: Averted. Arseniev repeatedly acknowledges how much he had learnt from Dersu and how it would have been absolutely impossible to navigate or even survive through the taiga without his guide.
  • My Country, Right or Wrong: In 1922, when the furthest reaches of Siberia were finally annexed to the Soviet Union, Arseniev choosed to stay in Vladivostok and become a Soviet citizen, even if he was hardly a communist.
  • My Master, Right or Wrong: Dersu is extremely loyal, and will accept orders from the leader of the expedition even against his advice.
  • Native Guide: Native Dersu guides the Russian soldiers through the harsh remote Siberian taiga.
  • Nature Hero: Dersu is the quintessential wild mountain man, more at ease in the deepest wilderness than anywhere civilized. As such, he saves the lives of Arsenyev and his men on two occasions.
  • Odd Friendship: Between the young Russian officer and the grizzled native.
  • Officer and a Gentleman: Arseniev, who was a quite literate man and also a hardened officer.
  • Scenery Porn: Arseniev is quite good at describing the unspoiled beauty of the Siberian taiga. Kurosawa's movie takes it up to eleven and explodes with these, all of them Egregious.
  • Snow Means Death: Or at least it would have been for Arseniev, if he didn't had Dersu at hand.

Tropes found in the 1975 film:

  • Fish out of Water: Dersu can't deal with all the restrictions of life in a city—he feels uncomfortable living in a house, he's told he can't fire his gun in city limits, he gets arrested for cutting down a tree. Eventually he goes back into the wild.
  • How We Got Here: The film starts with Arsiniev in 1910, trying to find Dersuís grave. After that intro, we jump back to 1902 and their first meeting.
  • Improbable Aiming Skills: The soldiers amuse themselves by tying a bottle to a string, setting the string swinging on a tree branch, and taking potshots at it. All of them miss. Dersu, who objects to wasting something as useful as a glass bottle in the wild, says he'll shoot the string instead. He hits it, of course. (This makes it feel all the more tragic towards the end when Dersu's deteriorating eyesight means he can't shoot wild game anymore.)
  • Ominous Fog: The fog in the forest sets an ominous mood right before Dersu figures out that there is a tiger very close to them, hiding in the fog.
  • The Smurfette Principle: The only woman in the cast (with the exception of a non-speaking Ussuri woman earlier in the film) is Arsiniev's wife Anna, who pops up twenty minutes before the climax, when Arsiniev is back home.
  • Time Skip: Five years pass between Arsiniev's first journey to Siberia in 1902 and his second in 1907.
  • You No Take Candle: Dersu speaks broken Russian of the "me no understand" variety.