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Kurosawa made the acquaintance of Desu Uzala thirty years earlier, when he read Vladimir Arseniev’s account of charting the Russian-Manchurian border in the earlier part of this century.
There, the Russian soldier and explorer had met Dersu, the Siberian hunter, man of the tundra. Just as the author had been attracted to this to this instinctive and natural man, so the film director was impressed by Dersu’s living in accord with nature, undistracted by the works of man. Thus, when Kurosawa was approached by Mosfilm to make a film in the Soviet Union, he already had his subject.
Indeed, Dersu Uzala is practically a Kurosawa character. Like Sanshiro Sugata, he is untutored in urban ways but possesses a natural native intelligence; like Sanjuro, he contains a practical and hardy stoicism; he is reserved, simple, direct, like Kahei the priest; like both Dr. Red Beard and the Professor in Madadayo, he knows what is right; and resembling the old man at the conclusion of Dreams, he stands alone as the natural world he so loves disapears.
Also, like so many of Kurosawa’s heros, Dersu Uzala is sacrificed. Resembling the stoic sword master Kyuzo in Seven Samurai, felled by a shot from that new invention the rifle, Dersu, instinctive man of the steppes, is done in by civilization.
In Kurosawa’s original script, Dersu suffers further changes, somewhat resembling those of Kanji Watanabe in Ikiru. The Siberian hunter not only has (like Kurosawa during this period) trouble with his eyes, he also becomes aware of his unaviodable death and is, like Watanabe, almost unmanned by it.
In a powerful unfilmed sequence, Dersu and Arseniev find the corpse of a Chinese, the eyes of which crows have pecked away. The Russian says, under this scene: “In looking at this lonely corpse, Dersu was seeing the face of his own future, alone, helpless on the steppes. He had looked into the face of his own death, and knew terror. Thereafter, he wrapped himself more tightly in his habitual silence.”
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.
Thus, the argument continues, when the director was again able to make a film, and one—thanks to Mosfilm’s generosity—free of any financial considerations, he no longer felt the despair which had perhaps motivated the first version of the script. At the same time he did not, through his hero, wish to revisit those scenes from which he himself had been so recently delivered.
Whatever the reason, the finished film differs from the original script. In the former, Dersu dies through the machinations of progress, not—as in the latter—through the existential fact of having been born at all, and being thus doomed to death.
These changes are all in the second part of the film. The first retains much of the original script, including the picturing of the elementals that had originally attracted Kurosawa to the story: the amazing shots of the Siberian tiger; the astonishing scene of the two men gazing at both the rising sun and setting moon, all in the same 70 mm shot; and the superb sequence of the blizzard by the frozen lake.
One of the most beautifully composed and photographed of Kurosawa’s films, Dersu Uzala visually illustrates its theme—in Arseniev’s words: “Man is too small to face the vastness of nature.” The camera is always at eye level: It is through the human eye that the vastness of the steppes is viewed, and it is the human figure, small in this elemental landscape, that one remembers after having seen the film.
This is one of the last appearances in Kurosawa of the humanism which so illuminates his films. Later pictures (Kagemusha, Ran) would end with vast panoramas of death undignified by hope. Dersu Uzala is one of the final and most persuasive statements of a major thesis in the director’s films: the fact of courage in the face of death.