I am inclined to compare the cinematography of “Dersu Uzala” to a Hiroshige, but the film’s visuals come into their own, original being. Hiroshige would show us blossoms bordering the view, while other artwork and films about forests would show the vertical properties of the trees, blocking the sunlight. There are not a lot of animals shown in this film’s version of Siberia, but the two or three that show up do end up being like characters instead of just props.
Kurosawa is hailed as a master in black and white cinematography, but I am probably one of the daft ones who think that colour is his best friend. I like the films he made in the 70’s and 80’s compared to the dusty look his classic material. In this film, the trees crowd in and cozy up on the Russian surveyors and their eponymous Mongolian guide, although there is enough sunlight to make the footmen feel safe, for a while.
That’s the reason why I like this film – I don’t mind the good samurai versus bad samurai, but I love that nature can turn from pretty backdrop to harsh villain. The exact opposite of the crowded forests is the barren lakeside during winter, the object of Arseniev’s expedition. Getting lost from their colleagues, Dersu warns Arseniev to work fast and cut the grass before the sun disappears. The sunset looks just as menacing as the one that takes over the frame in “Lawrence of Arabia.” Arseniev faints a few times from exhaustion and cold and Dersu is there to save his life.
“Dersu Uzala” is not just a study of nature. The titular character is a great addition to great characters of colour in film, being more stern than your average Uncle Tom. It is also a study in friendship, and how friendships are more about the circumstances that begin them instead of the two parties involved. Just like friendships it is how some people are only fit for certain environments and certain times, and how the hostile forests and the urban order can do to those people.