(Continued from Akira Kurosawa and the Kremlin - Part 1: Rise and Fall)
The homeland of the literature that had inspired and influenced so much of Akira Kurosawa's life had now come to know Akira Kurosawa in kind.
Mosfilm, The Soviet Union’s largest film production company, had decided they wanted to enlist a Japanese director for a film based on a Russian novel that would promote Siberia (Kurosawa authority Donald Richie has suggested that this was part of a larger Soviet plan to court Japanese investment in the region). Who could possibly have been better than the most famous Japanese director of all, and one who was well known to have an abiding love of Russian literature? Kurosawa had suddenly gained a chance to return to filmmaking from a most unexpected source, and soon the formerly domesticized director was on an Aeroflot plane headed for Mosfilm headquarters in Moscow.
But what Russian novel should he choose? Kurosawa had read so many. Kurosawa’s future Russian co-director, Vladimir Nikolaevich Vasiliev, explained:
When it was decided that we’d be having Kurosawa direct a film for us, the first book he suggested to us was Taras Bulba by Gogol. This was a cossack story, and since Sergei Bondarchuk, director of War and Peace, was already preparing to film a version of it, it was out of the competition. The next book Kurosawa put forward was Dersu Uzala. Since this had been filmed two times before in the USSR, the Soviet side wasn’t so sure, but it was all decided when Kurosawa insisted by saying “I’d absolutely like to go with this.""
Dersu Uzala is the 1923 memoir of the exploration of the Russian Far East by Vladimir Arsenyev, who was assisted on many expeditions by the eponymous Nanai tribesman. In fact, Kurosawa had first read the book decades earlier, and had even hoped to film a version of it in the late 30s before scrapping the idea (unlike The Idiot and The Lower Depths, he had decided it needed its true Russian setting). The fact that the director had pulled such an obscure (by non-Russian standards) yet so appropriate Russian novel from his back catalogue of Russian literature was surprising, and impressed his Soviet counterparts. Vasiliev’s interpreter and moderator during an interview, Masahiro Ikeda, had this to say:
“It seems that the Soviet side was quite surprised when Kurosawa suggested Dersu Uzala. While Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy's works were also listed as candidates, what truly surprised them was how much Russian literature Kurosawa had read. They had heard that he had read even War and Peace itself about ten times. Even if some other Japanese film director from around 1975 had been called upon by the Soviet Union, it’s highly doubtful that anyone else would have said they wanted to film Dersu Uzala.”
(JP) Link: Interview with Russian Dersu Uzala Co-director Vladimir Nikolaevich Vasiliev
A Soviet Classic
It was decided. In Moscow, the following pledge was made regarding the movie at Mosfilm studios: “Dersu Uzala is a Soviet film. However, the creative opinions of Kurosawa will be respected 100%.”
Some time later, Kurosawa was back in Russia, flying over the Siberian Taiga on the way to the distant Primorsky Krai and the town of Arsenyev (named after the author of Dersu Uzala). With him on this journey (ironically taking him thousands of miles away from Moscow but not terribly far away from Hokkaido) were but four close Japanese associates and an entire Russian crew. As he looked out the window and down towards the never-ending sea of trees, he was heard to say, “You know...Chekhov said that the beauty of the Taiga lies in its vastness. But how do you show that in a film?”
Over the next two grueling years, Kurosawa did everything he could to show the power, the beauty, and the terror of that Siberian landscape. He and his crew endured blistering heat in the summer and negative 30 degree winters, endless swarms of mosquitoes and ticks that would emerge from the swampland, and struggled to work their way through linguistic differences and beguiling Soviet filming requirements (such as sub-par film stock and strictly enforced daily shooting quotas). They grew close to their Russian counterparts, developing lasting friendships through the intense effort of creating a film in such an extreme environment. The result is a film that is often called one of Kurosawa’s most visually stunning.
Kurosawa's Post-Soviet Career
Kurosawa returned to his home country utterly exhausted from his undertaking in Siberia. Meanwhile, Dersu Uzala released in Japan to a fairly good box office but middling reviews. Around the world, the film fared much better. Dersu Uzala sold 20.4 million tickets in the Soviet Union, raked in $1.2 million at the North American box office, and was awarded two major honors: the Golden Prize at the 9th Moscow International Film Festival, and an Oscar for Best Foreign Film at the 1976 Academy Awards. Neither Kurosawa nor Mosfilm expected this win, leading it to be accepted live by an unrelated Soviet director who happened to be present. Kurosawa later returned to Moscow, where a party was held in his honor, and he was finally able to see the Academy Award he had won. According to co-director Vasilev, it had been passed immediately on to the KGB after the Academy Awards, and no-one involved in filming had even laid eyes on it for the following six months.
Kurosawa intended to make a second film in Russia, to be entitled Mask of the Red Death, and even wanted to use the star of Dersu Uzala again, but it slipped through the cracks after he returned to Japan. Here Kurosawa’s direct interaction with Russia and his recreation of narratives from that nation halted - but the connection gained from those stories, stories he had read clutching books borrowed from his older brother as he walked to school, remained.
Dersu Uzala did not save Kurosawa’s domestic career in Japan - it instead started a trend of his films being financed from and watched in large part from foreign sources. However, this offer from the Soviet Union may have saved Kurosawa himself, allowing him to return to the creative work that gave him so much life. As Kurosawa himself said,
“Take me, subtract movies, and you’ll get zero.”
Kurosawa directed four more films in his lifetime, and least two of which are often considered masterpieces. And Kurosawa’s Oscar statuette for Dersu Uzala remains at Mosfilm, where it sits in a glass case in the executive boardroom. The connection between Kurosawa and Russia lasts to this day.
Kurosawa, Akira. Something Like an Autobiography. Vintage Books, 1983. Print.
Nogami, Teruyo. Waiting on the Weather: Making Movies with Akira Kurosawa. Stone Bridge Press, Inc., 2006. Print.
Richie, Donald. The Films of Akira Kurosawa. University of California Press, 1998. Print.
Vasiliev, Vladimir Nikolaevich. Interview by Yuichiro Nishimura. “黒澤明と『デルス・ウザーラ』,” Wochikochi, 2011-02-01, http://www.wochikochi.jp/topstory/2011/02/kurosawa.php. Accessed 25 October. 2018.
小林信彦, “国際性」と「国民性」が同居.” Akira Kurosawa, Toshiro Mifune. https://star-director.info/category9/entry204.html
Galbraith IV, Stuart. The Emperor and the Wolf. Faber & Faber, 2003. Print.
Noah Oskow is a professional Japanese translator and interpreter who holds a BA in East Asian Languages and Cultures. He has lived, studied and worked in Japan for nearly seven years, including two years studying at Sophia University in Tokyo and four years teaching English on the JET Program in rural Fukushima Prefecture. His experiences with language learning and historical and cultural studies as well as his extensive experience in world travel have lead to appearances at speaking events and popular podcasts. Noah is currently working on his Masters Degree in Global Studies at Leipzig University in Germany.