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“The most natural thing for a Japanese salmon to do is lay its eggs in a Japanese river,” wrote Akira Kurosawa in his autobiography. In the ’70s, however, living up to his own metaphor was an impossibility for him. No Japanese studio would underwrite the difficult director’s always-over-budget epics—a situation that led him first to attempted suicide (in 1971) and then to the Soviet Union and Dersu Uzala (released in 1974). Like such previous Kurosawa films as Red Beard, this is the saga of a master and his disciple, but with a cross-cultural angle unusual in his work. While conducting a topographic survey in Siberia, Russian officer Arseniev and his men encounter Dersu, a Goldi hunter. Kurosawa was a longtime admirer of John Ford, and this film is his own Wild-East Western, complete with the faithful native guide and the melancholy intrusion of “civilization.” The story and themes are simplistic by the standards of the director’s best work, but the images are potent—even if rendered on murky Mosfilm stock. (This new print makes the movie look as good as it can.) The most memorable sequence is pure man-against-nature: Arseniev and Dersu feverishly build a shelter of cut grass to protect themselves when they’re forced to spend the night on a frozen lake. Although Dersu is as forceful as any Kurosawa hero, the film’s style doesn’t exalt human mastery. Filmed mostly in long shots, Dersu Uzala places man in a world too vast ever to be truly mastered. The film screens daily (except Monday, Sept. 8; see Showtimes for a full schedule) at the American Film Institute’s Silver Theatre and Cultural Center, 8633 Colesville Road, Silver Spring. $8.50. (301) 495-6700. (Mark Jenkins)