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Dersu Uzala: Kurosawa’s Poem of Despair?

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    In 1976, after a screening at the New York Film Festival, the NY Times film critic Richard Eder wrote: “Essentially, “Dersu Uzala” is a Tolstoian parable about the encounter of the blind and deaf power of civilization with the perceiving and magical helplessness of nature.”

    I find the characterization of nature as “magical” supported by the hushed reverence and awe one feels for the fierce beauty of the Siberian wilderness while viewing the film. Kurosawa films breathtaking scenes of the expansive majesty of Siberia, and through the men’s harrowing, transformative encounters with nature’s power, we, the audience, gain a reverence and sense of awe for the land and respect and love for Dersu, who lives in harmony with it. Dersu, played by Maxim Munzuk, is a character at one with the terrifyingly beautiful and murderous forces of nature-(emphasis on the murderous). So, the words of Richard Eder in his characterization of nature as “helpless” is fascinating.

    Is nature helpless? Nature can kill, and it is the rule of nature that one lives and dies. Nature, though, is “helpless” in the face of civilization’s advancing technology machine of power that devours the land and its resources. In the course of the development of civilization we have gone from seeing nature as a duality (life-giving and life-taking) to viewing it as a banquet to be consumed. The “Goldi” or “Nanai” tribal people live in harmony with animistic forces they respect- an attitude that is replicated in many tribal cultures across the globe, whereas “civilization:” and its advanced technological capabilities allow man to alter the face of nature and to see nature as man’s servant.

    (Now, some thirty plus years after the making of this film, we look back at the filthy mess we have made of the environment, and wistfully think of the purity of what once was…)

    The initial difference between Arseniev, the topographical explorer and captain of a surveying team and Dersu Uzala is the difference between a mind that maps, measures and controls nature compared to a mind that respects nature as an equal.

    The laws of nature always trump the constructs of civilization. Although civilization can delay or mask the truth of one’s own mortality (a condition of nature: both life-giving and life-taking- a Shiva dance of birth, growth, decay and death) the underlying reality of death is there…once the muffling carpet of civilization is removed, one can see the abyss. Arseniev, in the wilderness, learns that he must, without the buffer of civilization, respect and attend to the abyss. He begins to see the abyss, and twice nearly falls to his death-but is rescued twice by Dersu Uzala.

    The comfort of a warm fire in a stove, a soft bed, the shelter of four walls and roof, books…these pleasures of civilization for Arseniev are a dystopian paradise that is a prison for Dersu.

    What is the mood of the film Dersu Uzala? It is one of discovery of the hard realities of nature within the powerful beauty of her pristine face, and a reminder of how much we lose when we lose sight of her. It is a lesson in the awesome and the sublime, and it, conversely teaches us the limits of civilization, and the losses we incur when we trade the awesome and sublime for the comfortable.

    The Romantic movement in literature and painting have had a profound effect of the writings of the actual Arseniev, and, later, on the odd figure of Akira Kurosawa. I have puzzled over why Kurosawa was considered “western”, and am convinced it is to some degree due to his inheritance and active adoption of the impoverished traditions of Romanticism that make him look to some “western” more than “Japanese”. I also think that it is his “Japanese-ness” that problematizes his version of Romanticism and makes it more interesting.

    Not unlike Seven Samurai , the film Dersu Uzala is also a tale of loss. Both stories reflect on a class that is on its way out of the culture. Interestingly, it is a gun that kills our heroes in both films.

    Dersu seems more “modern” to me in some ways than Seven Samurai-relevant to our current concerns over global warming, conservatorship of the environment, and tribal identity in a time of globalization and change

    Both films have a coda presenting a mood that is resigned to loss. It seems to be that Kurosawa is urging us to believe that it is memory that keeps life from being utterly bleak and nihilistic.



    Thats a great analysis coco.

    I must admit I’m just catching up on my watching now (I’m behind on my reading, I’ve read little of the literature on this film). I just watched it last night.

    My first feelings are quite mixed – I was deeply impressed by the subtlety of the story – the fact that Dersu was not portrayed as some sort of noble mountain man, but a man whose love of nature is balanced out by his terror of it. Someone who is made to be alone, but also suffers deep loneliness. It was really a terrific performance. And I agree with Coco that AK was well ahead of his time in depicting the complexity of humankinds relationship with nature, almost all other films of this type that I can think of fall into the trap of a sort of dippy romanticisation of nature.

    I also agree totally with Coco that this is yet another film that directly contradicts the simplistic notion of AK as a ‘western’ style film maker. It really is a notion that should have been put to bed long ago, I find myself wincing every time I see it written (which is nearly every time I read something about AK).

    My negative feeling about the film is about something I keep intending to do a post about – the acting! Not the major parts, but for me, some of the actors in the minor parts reminded me of the extras in an amateur night stage performance of a Gilbert & Sullivan musical. And who on earth was responsible for those fake beards? Hard to think this is from the same director that forced Mifune to wear a beard for two years for making Red Beard!

    Both films have a coda presenting a mood that is resigned to loss. It seems to be that Kurosawa is urging us to believe that it is memory that keeps life from being utterly bleak and nihilistic.

    This is a lovely insight, coco. I think the same idea can be applied to the ending of Madadayo, a film that Dersu kept reminding me of.



    Thanks for the wonderful analysis, Coco!

    I am hoping to catch up with everything sometime soon (I still haven’t even got around to watching Dersu this month). Work and travel keep interfering, though.



    it is also a matter of dignity when he choses to live by himself



    And who on earth was responsible for those fake beards?

    the beards were real. I know this from director’s assistant, Vasiliev



    I am pleased to know that the beards were real. Thank you for that information. And, I agree that choosing to live with dignity on your own terms is both heroic and for those who care about the well-being of a person, it can be heartbreaking.



    Just, I came across Yuri Torptsov’s pages, and his post about Dersu Uzala. remember, Yuri is from that region:

    The Deleted Scene. 2009


    My mother told me this story. In 1974 she and my father witnessed the filming of “Dersu Uzala” in the vicinity of our village in Far Eastern Russia. They saw the film’s director Akira Kurosawa, the film crew, and a cage with a live tiger from the window of their car as they passed by. At the time I was a newborn sleeping in my mother’s arms.

    My father died a year and a half later. I never got to know him. My memories of him are made of stories told to me by other people. I have been imagining this particular story being played in a slow motion as if it was a scene from the Kurosawa’s movie. I could see my father driving, my mother holding me in her arms, and our car passing by the film location. I even imagined Kurosawa wearing his dark signature glasses throwing a quick glance our way.

    Filming of “Dersu Uzala” has become the single most important event in the collective history of our village. Some people still have photos of Kurosawa directing the film for which he received an Oscar. I developed a strong personal attachment to that movie which for me speaks of home and in some ways links me to my father.

    In 2008 I returned to Russia to the place where Kurosawa filmed his movie. I photographed the location wondering how it looked back in 1974 when due to some extraordinary circumstances the main actors of my personal history found themselves there.



    I should very very much like to see Herzog’s “Happy People: A Year in the Taiga” and compare to Dersu Uzala! I should love Yuri’s take on it!!!!!



    Coco, anything from Hertzog is worth seeing, but that film looks particularly interesting!

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