Akira Kurosawa: Dersu Uzala (1975) - Can't Stop the Movies
Can't Stop the Movies
14Dec/120

Akira Kurosawa: Dersu Uzala (1975)

1Kyle Commentary Banner

It was incredibly difficult for me to sustain interest in Dersu Uzala—not because it's a “bad” movie, but because for nearly the first half it takes the approach of presenting a fairly basic character and regarding him with a sense of wonder that the film never justifies.  Justifies may be the wrong word—effectively conveys? The title character is certainly impressive by any modern standards, having lived (like so many cultures throughout history) off of a respectful, deeply intuitive relationship with the natural world. The fact that people used to live like Dersu out of basic necessity and we now see them in a sort of mythical capacity is interesting sociologically, but the film never digs any deeper than this, relying only on obligatory scenes establishing the character's philosophy and outlook in wholly expected ways. In one scene early on, he points to the sun and moon and tells another character they are “very big fellows” and that if the sun dies one day we will all die. Yes, Dersu, that is correct.

But such observances are so ham-fisted and obvious that rather than creating an interesting and engaging character, he comes off as a quaint version of an archetype we've seen way too many times before. The scene doesn't convey Dersu in a new light, illustrating a deeper understanding of the world or demonstrating a unique philosophy for the characters to consider—it just shows that he has a more traditionally mythic view of the world as an intersection of living things. It's a convention I suppose to take characters that at first seem primitive by contemporary standards and gradually reveal them to have a deep and poignant understanding of the world that our advanced society has overlooked, humbling our pride over our modern ways—it's like a version of Spike Lee's Magical Negro that isn't
always as offensive, but can be.

Here Akira Kurosawa eschews this convention after the basic introduction in favor of a portrait of friendship between the two main character's: the guide/mountain man of the title and a Russian explorer. I wish he'd have gotten to this sooner. At almost 2 ½ hours long, we get a full hour of introduction, with Dersu and the Russian captain getting to know each other primarily through the former's constant small surprises, leading eventually to a pivotal scene where the two are lost in a storm and he saves them through ingenuity and a clear understanding of his surroundings.

I think Kurosawa's presentation of Dersu as a kind of exotic other is done with love and not for a manipulation of the audience like so many contemporary films, but that doesn't make him more interesting. In the second half of the story we get some scenes of legitimate dramatic power, as Dersu realizes he is losing his sight (a horrible thing for one who survives by hunting) and goes to live with the captain in his city. This seems like the focal point of Kurosawa's ideas here, as we start to see how a character who was so peerless and in his element in the forests of the first 2/3 of the movie is reduced to incompetence and confusion by the laws and systems of modern society. There's a tragedy here that Kurosawa is at home with: the crushing and degenerative effects of “advanced” society on what is seen early on as a more pure, natural lifestyle.

I became more invested in the characters here as the film went on, but the developments of the later acts are hampered and delayed by the misguided opening. Dersu can be an interesting, humorous character without being saddled with clichés. I only wish we'd have gotten a closer, more developed look at his relationship with the captain (standing in as a solid metaphor for the relationship between modern society and nature), rather than half a movie that seemed like obligatory setup and half a movie that seemed too rushed.

One last note, and I'm curious what you have to say here: the transfer on the versions we watched is terrible. Here's a movie in which nature and the characters' surroundings play a major role, filled with vast, wide shots of undeveloped Russian frontier, and it all looked mostly terrible on my version. Am I missing something because the impact of these scenes and the cinematography in general was unfairly underwhelming?

2
AndrewCommentaryBanner

This is going to be a short one this week, because I’m not going to put many screencaps up due to how agonizing this print was to look at and we agree almost 100% on the quality of the film itself.You’d think that the film that won Kurosawa his second Oscar would be challenging like Dode’ka-den or pure entertainment like Yojimbo.  But Dersu Uzala, as you rightly put it, is a fairly conventional story that mostly takes place in a wilderness so gorgeous it’s a massive shame no one bothered to restore the print properly.  It’s sad how Kurosawa’s attempts at lifting the clichés late in the film just make it feel more like a reverse of his previous societal commentary.In fact, he’s practically come full circle, starting off with the Sugata era with the stronger youth, to the Drunken Angel period where everyone is corrupt, and now with Dersu Uzala (but I feel starting with High and Low) his respect has been maximized.  The old ways are better now, but then Kurosawa was 65 by the time Dersu Uzala was released.  That’s just long enough to find some solace in the “good ol’ days”, especially after his long creative exile from Japan after Red Beard.

The only point I really diverge from your analysis is to build on it from your final question.  I’m having some of the same troubles looking at Dersu Uzala as I did with The Idiot, but for reasons due to restoration and available prints instead of studio pressure.  Watching Dersu Uzala was painful because of how bad both of the two prints we tried to watch were (word of warning, the one available on Amazon Prime is badly dubbed.)  It’s long overdue for a restoration that might restore some of the beauty that is clearly there but dulled somewhat because of the grainy presentation.

So judging it is a bit difficult but not to the extent that The Idiot was.  That film was restored as best as possible so the end product is still not entirely a Kurosawa film but there are long enough sequences to understand the tone and film he was trying to make.  So there’s enough information to make a decent judgment, but who knows how that extra footage might have changed the film?  Sure, another hour or two of the characters staring might not be riveting but at least it would be his.

Dersu Uzala gets off a little easier.  Yes, our prints were horrible, but we at least get the full film as Kurosawa mostly intended.  A restored print would be worth another watch just so we can get a complete feel for the visuals Kurosawa was trying for, but I don’t believe it would help our appreciation of the story at all.  The whole concept of a noble outsider with rugged ways is a well too-often returned to and rarely has anything interesting done with it.  Moreso, one of Kurosawa’s foreign predecessors, Jean Renoir, already took the piss out of the myth with one his early films Boudu Saved from Drowning.  Granted, that film was more of a satirical jab at the class system, but at least it didn’t cater to the idea that anyone outside of the normal societal reach is a mythic saint.

Kurosawa doesn’t go too far into that territory, but just enough to deflect my interest.  It doesn’t change that the film deserves a definitive print though.  If they can restore the film that gave us endless insane laughter they can at least show the world the beautiful photography that has to be lurking in those frames.

Next week: the shadow puppetry of Kagemusha.

Posted by Andrew

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