[Originally published in Movietone News 57, February 1978]
Dersu Uzala is about a man who’s getting old and can’t live as he always has, who’s facing life’s end. As a forebodingly “late” film by an aging director, it might also be about Kurosawa himself. Kurosawa was born in 1910, which happens to be the first date we see, superimposed over an iridescent, lacelike pattern of autumn trees, in Dersu Uzala. The matched dates may or may not be coincidental, but the interwoven allusions to different kinds of birthâ€”of a man, a film, a memory, and even of a portentous little eddy of civilization that rustles into life in the next image of the movieâ€”are all very much part of this undespairingly contemplative tale of friendship whose enclosing images are that of birthplace and gravesite. There is an old man in the filmâ€”the Chinese whose wife was stolen by his brother some twenty years agoâ€”who we think must be nearing the end of his life, but who manages to see things that we don’t and perhaps can’t see. “He’s far from here,” Dersu (Maxim Munzuk) says when Arseniev (Yuri Solomin) suggests inviting the old man over to enjoy the warmth of their fire; “he sees his house, his garden all in blossom.” This is more than just memory, though. Seeing what “isn’t there” is a way to talk about vision in terms of creating metaphors, and that becomes one of Kurosawa’s recurring motifs.