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Review: Dersu Uzala

Updated on October 20, 2011


5 out of 5 stars

Akira Kurosawa's Dersu Uzala, winner of the 1975 Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film, is as heartwarming as a cartoon from Disney's golden era, but only the title character can understand the talking trees and animals.

Filmed in Russian in the Soviet Union, Dersu Uzala has the distinction of being the only film Kurosawa made outside of Japan. Released in 1975, it was made at a time when the Japanese film industry was beginning to discover that children's movies were cheaper and easier to produce, thanks to the low-cost of animation and a less discerning audience ensuring a reasonable return on the studios' investment. The studios, concerned only with profit and not the artistic merit of films, could no longer justify the bloated costs of Kurosawa's epics. This signaled the beginning of the end for the Tokyo film industry, which once rivaled Hollywood and Paris in terms of innovation and quality, and eventually changed the Japanese aesthetic to kawaii (cutesy). Kurosawa would later depend upon foreign patrons to finance his films, such as George Lucas, Francis Ford Coppola and Steven Spielberg. And in the case of Dersu Uzala, the Soviet Union.

The film is based on the 1923 travelogue, Dersu the Trapper by V.K. Arseniev, which explains why it doesn't follow a conventional story line. The story is basically broken into three parts. The first part is an account of Arseniev's exploration of the Ussuri basin in the Russian Far East. He and his men encounter a Nanai trapper named Dersu Uzala, and commission him to be their guide. At first Dersu is like a magical woodland spirit. Speaking awkward Russian, his world-view is considered quaint to the Soviets, but engenders him with a brand of common sense he needs to survive in the wilderness. Dersu saves Arseniev's life several times.

The second part of the story picks up a few years later when Arseniev is making another survey of the Ussuri basin. He runs into Dersu again by chance, and again hires him to be his guide. Dersu is growing older now, and is becoming too senile to survive on his own in the wilderness. Here he relies on Arseniev to save him. Where Dersu came off as the stereotypical "noble savage" in the first part, he now seems more fallible and human.

The third and final part is a fish-out-of-water story, as Dersu, believing the wilderness has grown hostile to him, moves to the city to live with Arseniev's family.

While something of an oddball in Kurosawa's catalog, the film still has the director's distinctive style. Kurosawa uses his characteristic long takes, in which he leaves the camera stationary and allows the acting to dictate where the viewers' eyes should look.

Dersu Uzala is not just beautiful for its cinematography, but also for its touching human relationships. Arseniev and Dersu come from two different worlds, and they will never be able to fully understand each other. However, they find friendship in each other despite their differences.

Unfortunately the U.S.S.R. allowed 20 minutes to be cut out of this 141-minute epic for the Italian release without consulting Kurosawa, which turned off the director from ever making a film again outside of Japan.

While certainly not Kurosawa's best film, this sweet, but unusual tale is worthy of the director's better-known classics.


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