• Dersu Uzala

    By Donald Richie

    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.

19 comments

  • By Kenneth Starcher
    November 25, 2008
    02:05 PM

    I bought the DERSU UZALA laserdisc off ebay recently, and I watched it for the first time last night. I absolutely loved it. I'm an up and coming Kurosawa fan, and I wish Criterion could reaquire the rights to this film to make an outstanding DVD of it. This and DODES'KA-DEN both need great Criterion releases.
    Reply
  • By Sergio
    November 25, 2008
    04:13 PM

    Could not agree with you more ken this is by far my favorite movie of all time
    Reply
  • By nativeson1962
    February 23, 2009
    02:37 PM

    Absolutely a great movie, I liked the PHOTO SESSION in the movie, an example of true & everlasting friendship
    Reply
  • By Alejandro Montiel
    June 05, 2009
    10:55 AM

    I watched this film many years ago as a teenager and it left a very deep impression in me. I was then able to watch it again many years later as a father and it moved me deeply, in ways no film has moved me. I would love to see Criterion give this film the loving treatment they have given other Kurosawa films and give the world the gift of a perfectly crafted DVD, the way only Criterion can do it. Please, reacquire the rights to this film and release it again.
    Reply
  • By PD Singh
    August 09, 2009
    01:57 PM

    One of my all time favorites, Dersu epitomises for me the world that ought to be and is possible if only people could see and understand. There is so much I can talk about Dersu - the absense of a subject-predicate structure, being just part of nature, that which is done out of love takes place beyond good & evil...It is just amazing and haunting
    Reply
  • By hugo
    November 12, 2009
    04:13 PM

    The only available DVD version of Dersu Uzala is really of terrible technical quality. How to find the CRITERION version? Even second hand. Is there such a thing. PLEASE, Criterion: Dersu Uzala is a must. A 25 DVD Kurosawa boxed set and no Dersu Uzala???
    Reply
  • By Ben Trowbidge
    December 20, 2010
    05:19 PM

    The question has been asked - why it has not received the Criterion treatment ?
    Reply
  • By Harry
    June 27, 2011
    09:31 PM

    Please, bring this to the Criterion Collection! This masterpiece needs to be restored and put on BluRay or HD-DVD. All the copies out there are crappy, blurry, hazy. It would be one of the greatest pleasure for cineasts to see this milestone shining in its original colors and sharpness. I'm eagerly waiting for this to be released.
    Reply
  • By Johannes
    July 10, 2011
    10:00 PM

    This and "Dreams" should get the Criterion treatment, given how they're about the only films by Kurosawa you haven't done yet.
    Reply
  • By Enrico
    December 12, 2011
    04:58 AM

    Best is to see it "live," that is, at the cinema as I did tonight, in Vancouver. It's a big movie; see it big. I saw it many years ago and remembered loving it, but not the details, except for the tiger seen through the bramble, so wild and majestic and fearful. If your local art movie theatre brings it back, do yourself a favour and go and see it at the theatre, as intended!
    Reply
  • By Daniel W.
    January 03, 2013
    11:01 PM

    I absolutely love this film. It really really needs a criterion blu ray ASAP!
    Reply
  • By Jason M.
    June 06, 2013
    03:15 PM

    for the love of all that is holy, release this on DVD/Blu-Ray! the Kino release is an abomination! there are NUMEROUS threads and forums online begging for a criterion release. barring some legal circumstances, there's no reason to not rerelease...
    Reply
  • By Mark Lager
    July 08, 2013
    07:21 PM

    The fact that Dersu Uzala, Kurosawa's most underrated film, his masterpiece, has not been given the proper restoration and re-release is the greatest tragedy in cinema history.
    Reply
  • By Luiz
    July 15, 2013
    11:01 PM

    The most recent Artificial Eye release with just one disc is quite good.
    Reply
  • By Just askin'
    July 21, 2013
    04:58 PM

    Why isn't this film re-released on Blu-Ray yet? I own this on an original DVD (just the common version, not a Criterion one), yet it seems that all the DVD versions come from relatively poor quality source film/audio material. If Criterion is lacking the funds for some reason, here's an idea: why not start a Kickstarter project or something like that to restore this masterpiece film in full HD?
    Reply
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    • By Daniel W.
      September 30, 2013
      05:54 PM

      That sounds like a great idea!!!! I would donate to that!!! Dersu Uzala on Criterion blu-ray please!
  • By Judith Van Buren
    September 29, 2013
    09:54 PM

    Ditto ditto ditto. Please. Is there a reason it can't be released?
    Reply
  • By Philip
    October 01, 2013
    06:11 PM

    Dersu Uzala is my favorite Kurosawa by far. Also an important film in his canon; a triumphant return to filmmaking after a suicide attempt, and a winner of the Best Foreign Film Oscar in 1976. Blu Ray please, for the gorgeous nature photography.
    Reply
  • By Akira Kurosawa
    December 20, 2013
    02:29 AM

    Lets strike a blow for God and get this bad boy on the shelf.
    Reply

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