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Film Club: Dersu Uzala (1975)

Dersu UzalaOur film club title for the month of July is Akira Kurosawa’s 1975 Dersu Uzala, the only film that Kurosawa filmed outside of Japan.

Following the disappointing commercial reception of the 1970 Dodesukaden, Kurosawa was at the low point in his career. The Japanese film industry was quickly shrinking, and unable to find funding for new projects while also suffering from poor health, Kurosawa attempted suicide on December 22, 1971. The attempt was unsuccessful.

In early 1973, the Soviet film studio Mosfilm approached Kurosawa asking if he would be interested in working on a new project with them. Kurosawa agreed to the idea and proposed to film an adaptation of Russian explorer Vladimir Arsenyev’s autobiographical work Dersu Uzala, a book Kurosawa had been considering for a film from as early as the 1930s. In the book, Arsenyev narrates his experiences with the titular Siberian hunter who acted as his guide for several expeditions to the Russian far east.

Shooting the film began in May 1974 on location in Siberia, and lasted for almost a year under demanding conditions. Dersu Uzala premiered in Japan on August 2, 1975 and did relatively well at the domestic box office, although the critical reception in Japan was muted. Abroad the film was better received, winning both the Golden Prize at the Moscow International Film Festival and an Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film.

The last time we discussed Dersu Uzala at the film club was in March 2009, with the introductory post and its discussion found here and the other discussions accessible through the Dersu Uzala tag. You can also find much more about Dersu Uzala at dersuuzala.cba.pl.

For the availability of the film, see Kurosawa DVDs.

Next month, our attention turns to Hayao Miyazaki’s 1997 animated film Princess Mononoke, which shares themes with Kurosawa’s Dersu Uzala. The full film club schedule is available on the film club page.


Discussion

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Ugetsu

I’m not sure I’ll get a chance to watch Dersu Uzala this month, I haven’t had the free time. I do wish Coco was still here commenting as her comments on Dersu last time were by far the most interesting I’ve read on the film. In truth, it is one of the Kurosawa films I most struggle with – I found it hard to really enjoy the film, which may well be a reflection of watching it on a relatively small screen at home rather than the cinema. I think this is one of those films you are supposed to immerse yourself within rather than just ‘watch’. And its much easier to do this in the cinema. It really does cry out for a full restoration and release to the cinemas.

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Vili Maunula

I’m struggling with the same things and really need to muster the determination to watch Dersu again. It would definitely benefit from a high quality full restoration.

Although I have watched Dersu a couple of times from the Artificial Eye DVD, for some reason I still mentally associate the film with a very poor quality cropped VHS copy that I had in the 90s. It didn’t do the film justice at all.

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lawless

Kino Film’s DVD, which is what Netflix sent me, is adequate visually. I’m not sure what to make of the translation, though. They seemed to go to greater lengths than necessary to make Dersu’s speech ungrammatical and “foreign”.

Although I know Kurosawa had long wanted to film this story, I’m not sure it plays to his narrative strengths. It’s more didactic and unsubtle than his films normally are, and the pacing is a little off. It boggles my mind somewhat that this is the movie of his that won the best foreign film Oscar.

I hate to say it, but I was a little bored watching this. Even though it’s more coherent than, say, Dodesukaden or Red Beard, it’s not as visually or narratively interesting or bold.

Also, does anyone know or can point me to the best source for information in English on the making of this movie? Surely it was something of a vindication for him to be able to make a movie in Russia using a mostly non-Japanese cast and crew after the Tora Tora Tora debacle. How did he communicate with them?

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Ugetsu

Lawless

It boggles my mind somewhat that this is the movie of his that won the best foreign film Oscar.

Yes, the foreign film Oscar is always an odd beast. I get the impression the Academy members have maybe watched one foreign language films over the year and so vote on reputation rather than anything else. Some of the award winning films are odd choices even by Oscar standards. I strongly suspect that the votes for Dersu were more to do with wishing to belatedly acknowledge Kurosawa than to reward the film.

I never got to watch it again this month, but I’d agree with your assessment that the film is curiously paced and lacks structure, which I’ve always attributed to the unusual circumstances it was made. Its been a few years since I’ve read it, and I don’t have my copy to hand, but isn’t there an account of its filming in Teruyo Nugami’s Waiting on the Weather? Going from memory, it does seem to have been a very difficult shoot, with some sections filmed by Russian assistant directors.

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Vili Maunula

I watched Dersu this morning. Seeing it again reinforced my belief that this film desperately needs a high quality remaster. The region 2 Artificial Eye DVD, while adequate for the story, doesn’t really deliver the experience as I believe it was intended to be received.

I would go as far as to suggest that more than any other Kurosawa film, Dersu Uzala is first and foremost intended as a visual and aural experience. Early on in the film Dersu scolds the Russian soldiers for watching but not seeing, and I think that we as an audience also easily fall into the same trap, criticising the film for its rather uncomplicated plot and somewhat loose structure while not realising that these are, ultimately, secondary to the film’s core intention, which is to present us with the world as Dersu experiences it.

Clearly, much of the film was designed as an audiovisual spectacle. Throughout the film, we are shown shots of the Siberian landscape in its various shapes and colours, enhanced by a soundtrack carefully woven from the sounds of animals, fire, water, wind and other natural elements.

Unfortunately, the at times blurry and always washed out images of the currently available home video releases don’t really invite us into Dersu’s world, but rather show us another, browner and less visually interesting Siberia. The sound levels are similarly suboptimal, and as lawless mentions, the subtitle translation could be better. I therefore understand how a reaction like lawless’s above is quite natural for the film, and it is also similar to how I feel about the version that we now have.

But consider the enormous difference that exists between the home video copies of what we now have of Kagemusha or Ran, as opposed to what was available only just a little over ten years ago. Now, imagine sitting in a darkened cinema watching a similarly restored copy of Dersu Uzala, with the image sharp and the colours vibrant. And as you sit there, you are not surrounded by the sounds of your neighbour renovating their patio, but the surround system which delivers an enhanced rendition of the original six track sound mix. You are not watching a story. You are being transported into the Russian wilderness.

I don’t know if this was the film that Kurosawa intended to make, and even if that was the case, whether the mid-70s Soviet equipment allowed him to get anywhere close to that goal. But this is the Dersu Uzala that I see existing somewhere behind the blurred versions that we currently have. It is this film that I would desperately want to watch one day.

This is not to say that a restored Dersu Uzala would be 144 minutes of sheer cinematic perfection. The film has its problems. Much of the acting is quite so-so, and many of the scenes feature stronger lighting than seems natural or desirable, resulting in very strong and theatrical shadows. And it is definitely true that the story is not constantly gripping, although my understanding is that Kurosawa specifically wanted it that way, refusing all attempts by his Russian cowriter Yuri Nagibin to add more action oriented scenes.

lawless: Also, does anyone know or can point me to the best source for information in English on the making of this movie? Surely it was something of a vindication for him to be able to make a movie in Russia using a mostly non-Japanese cast and crew after the Tora Tora Tora debacle. How did he communicate with them?

As Ugetsu mentions, Teruyo Nogami’s Waiting on the Weather probably has the best account available in English. In a single chapter alone, she dedicates over thirty pages to the production, almost as much as for Rashomon, and these are the only two films that have their own chapters in the book. To get an idea of the details that she recounts, one of the subsections in the Dersu Uzala chapter is titled “Ticks, Mosquitoes, and Outdoor Toilets”.

The always reliable The Emperor and the Wolf by Stuart Galbraith also features an information packed chapter on the film, which obviously is less memoir-like than Nogami’s. Also, in some details Galbraith and Nogami disagree, as for instance whether Toshiro Mifune was ever seriously considered for the role of Dersu, and who ultimately decided against that casting decision.

As for how Kurosawa communicated with the crew, he had an interpreter, Leo Korshikov who worked for the Asian Institute in Moscow. Nogami writes very positively about him. Kurosawa was also accompanied by a core team of five crew members from Japan, including the veteran cinematographer Asakazu Nakai and of course Nogami herself, whom Kurosawa ended up giving an assistant director’s credit for her role in the production.

There was also an interesting hour long Russian documentary on the film made four or five years ago, but I don’t think that it has ever been made publicly available. The only reason I know about it is because the filmmakers contacted me and shared a subtitled copy. I now wonder what happened to the project, as it was very much a finished documentary and they were simply looking for an outlet to release it through. It was really good, as well.

Next year, in fact almost exactly a year from now (2 August 2015), will mark 40 years since the film’s release. Let’s hope that someone somewhere is already working on a remaster and that it comes with plenty of extras, including the Russian documentary!

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lawless

Vili:

I would go as far as to suggest that more than any other Kurosawa film, Dersu Uzala is first and foremost intended as a visual and aural experience. Early on in the film Dersu scolds the Russian soldiers for watching but not seeing, and I think that we as an audience also easily fall into the same trap, criticising the film for its rather uncomplicated plot and somewhat loose structure while not realising that these are, ultimately, secondary to the film’s core intention, which is to present us with the world as Dersu experiences it….

Unfortunately, the at times blurry and always washed out images of the currently available home video releases don’t really invite us into Dersu’s world, but rather show us another, browner and less visually interesting Siberia. The sound levels are similarly suboptimal, and as lawless mentions, the subtitle translation could be better. I therefore understand how a reaction like lawless’s above is quite natural for the film, and it is also similar to how I feel about the version that we now have.

As I indicated, I thought the Kino Films Region 1 (presumably) DVD I saw was at least minimally satisfactory in that regard. I don’t know how it compares to the Artificial Eye Region 2 DVD. I’m also not sure how it compares to the original master; given when the movie was made, it seems to me that the current technology, Kurosawa’s relative newness to the use of color cinematography, and the relative unfamiliarity of him with most of his crew and vice versa might have had a detrimental effect.

However, my opinion of the movie took these things into account. The film’s combination of an exposition of Dersu’s philosophy and background in the guise of a memoir of Arseniev’s interactions with him and a nature documentary wouldn’t appeal to me as a narrative no matter how much one improves the audiovisuals. Not only do I feel somewhat hit over the head with a simple (and sometimes simplistic) story that I’ve seen before, the movie falls into the “magical [insert term for an “exotic” non-white person of some sort]” category. (See TV Tropes: Magical Asian, although Dersu more closely resembles a Magical Native American. See also Noble Savage.) It’s not that it’s not true in some sense but that it others both Dersu and his companions and serves to highlight his attributes in contrast to that of his white protege, Arseniev, and his clueless companions.

I know the film was based on Arseniev’s memoir, but perhaps it would have been less problematic had it made Dersu the POV character. With Arseniev narrating, this is his story, not Dersu’s. I cut Kurosawa more slack in this regard than I would a European or American director, but I can’t cut him slack completely because the tropes used still have, as the TV Tropes entries mention, Unfortunate Implications.

Also, thank you, Vili and Ugetsu, for the information on where to find out more about the making of this film.

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lawless

I read Teruyo Nogami’s book “Waiting on the Weather,” which as Vili and Ugetsu mention above contains a chapter on the making of Dersu Uzala, and posted a review here.

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