Dersu Uzala (1975): Kurosawa’s Gloriously Shot, Oscar-Winning Epic (Japanese-Soviet)

Filmed in Russia, Dersu Uzala, a Japanese-Russian production, was directed by Akira Kurosawa and won the 1975 Best Foreign Language Film Oscar.

Grade: A- (**** 1/2 out of *****)

Dersu Uzala
(Дерсу Узала)
(デルス·ウザーラ)
Uzala1.jpg

Original film poster

A tale of culture collision and male friendship, Dersu Uzala centers on a simple but gentle gold-hunter who teaches a Russian explorer how to survive the brutal conditions of Siberia.

This was Kurosawa’s first and only non-Japanese film, and his first and only shot in 70mm.

The film is based on the 1923 memoir Dersu Uzala (named after the native trapper) by Russian explorer Vladimir Arsenyev, about his exploration of the Sikhote-Alin region of the Russian Far East over the course of multiple expeditions in the early 20th century.

Last Sequence:

The last chapter of the saga is particularly poignant. Captain Arsenyev takes Dersu with him to the city of Khabarovsk. Dersu then realizes that he is not permitted to chop wood or to build a hut and fireplace in the city park, nor is he allowed to shoot within the city limits. Despite his love for Arsenyev and family, Dersu feels out of place in the city and opts to return to his former living in the hills. As a parting gift, Arsenyev gives him a rifle.

Some while later, Arsenyev receives a telegram informing him that a body has been found, with no identification save Arsenyev’s calling card.  Arsenyev finds that it is indeed Dersu, and the speculation is that he was killed by a man who wanted his new rifle. Arsenyev finds Dersu’s walking stick, and plants it in beside the grave.

Shot almost entirely outdoors in the Russian Far East wilderness, the film explores the theme of a native who is fully integrated into his environment, leading a doomed life style, which would inevitably be destroyed by the advance of modern civilization.

It is also about the growth of respect and deep friendship between two men of profoundly different backgrounds, and about the difficulty of coping with the loss of strength that comes with old age.

The film won the Prix FIPRESCI at the Moscow Film Fest, and other awards.

Commercial Appeal

One of Kurosawa’s most commercial films, it sold 20.4 million tickets in the Soviet Union, and also found audiences in the U.S., earning $1.2 million.

About Kurosawa

Akira Kurosawa, originally a painter, entered the film business at age 26 to support his parents after both his brothers died. He is widely acclaimed as one of the greatest directors of our age. His films include Rashomon 91950), Ikiru (1952), Seven Samurai (1954), Throne of Blood (1957), and Ran (1985).

He had been nominated for the Oscar several times and his film Rashomon won the 1950 Best Foreign Language Oscar.

Oscar Alert

Oscar Nominations: 1

Best Foreign Language Film

Oscar Award: 1

Oscar Context:

“Rashomon” won a 1951 Honorary Oscar as an Outstanding Foreign Film, a few years before a distinct, competitive category of foreign language films was established.

Credits:

Directed by Akira Kurosawa
Produced by Yoichi Matsue, Nikolai Sizov
Screenplay by Akira Kurosawa, Yuri Nagibin, based on Dersu Uzala by Vladimir Arsenyev
Music by Isaak Shvarts
Cinematography Asakazu Nakai
Yuri Gantman
Fyodor Dobronravov
Edited by Valentina Stepanova

Production companies: Daiei Film, Mosfilm

Distributed by Mosfilm (USSR)
Daiei Film (Japan)

Release date: July 1975 (USSR); August 2, 1975 (Japan)

Running time: 144 minutes
Language Russian
Budget $4 million