Akira Kurosawa’s Oscar-winning 1975 film Dersu Uzala at long last comes to Blu-Ray from the Australian label Imprint Films. This is a masterpiece from a director in transition in his life as well as his career and every bit of that emotion translates into this incredible piece of work. The Blu-Ray comes loaded with special features, including an informative commentary, interviews, and archival footage. While the source print shows its age, this disc is otherwise definitive, and is an essential piece of Akira Kurosawa’s catalog for any collector - Highly Recommended.
Akira Kurosawa’s Dersu Uzala is a film by an artist in transition. Released in 1975 and the Oscar winner of Best Foreign Language Film in 1976, Dersu Uzala is Kurosawa’s one Oscar win that wasn’t honorary, and it could be considered the beginning of the final act of Kurosawa’s career. After the box office failure of Dodes’-ka-den and his subsequent suicide attempt, Kurosawa was despondent, until Soviet Union studio Mosfilm approached him and his writing team for a joint Japanese-Soviet film production. Kurosawa, who was always fond of Russian literature, chose the true story of a friendship between a Russian surveyor captain and a native Siberian hunter-tracker. Kurosawa was given full creative control, and this was the first film that Kurosawa shot in 70mm film. The film proved to be a worldwide box office success, returning Kurosawa to world acclaim and honor. Over the years, this is a film that probably is not in the conversation as much as Kurosawa’s other films but is just as deserving of attention.
Akira Kurosawa is probably my favorite film director, and before the Imprint Blu-Ray was released, I had not seen Dersu Uzala before. I am often in awe of his films, and they are not casual viewings for me. I was waiting for a quality release before seeing it, and Imprint delivers here with a remarkable Blu-Ray loaded with special features. As for the film itself, Dersu Uzala is Kurosawa at his most humanistic and empathetic; in fact, this may be his warmest film since Ikiru, despite being set in Siberia. Later works would show Kurosawa withdrawing from that outlook, as his cynicism took over, but this has very little of that jaded worldview. This is also a big-scale film for Kurosawa, filming on location, and taking more than a year to shoot, as Kurosawa wanted to realistically photograph the changing of the seasons in the Russian Far East.
It is the friendship between Captain Vladimir Arsenyev (Yury Solomin) and hunter-tracker Dersu Uzala (Maxim Munzuk) that is the main thrust of the story; while Arsenyev’s fellow soldiers at first do not give Dersu much consideration, Dersu proves time and again of his use, saving the men several times, and saving Arsenyev’s life when he and Dersu get stranded in the Russian tundra. Arsenyev and Dersu become close, and the film charts the life of their friendship and companionship.
Dersu Uzala is a beautiful, emotional saga that blends the epic and the intimate together in the manner that Kurosawa does so well. Dersu knows only his life on the tundra, and his knowledge and respect for nature is a constant, and Captain Arsenyev comes to admire and revere Dersu. But over the years, Dersu’s skills atrophy with age, and once Dersu is taken out of his element, he has difficulty coping with civilization, which tests his and Arsenyev’s friendship.
Visually, the film is stunning, and the camerawork feels like it comes from nature itself – the colors are lush, and vibrant, even in the cold snowbanks of the countryside, and the sunrises and sunsets seem to burn with a fierce light. You can feel Kurosawa’s love of nature and harmony in the cinematography; it’s as if the camera is a dispassionate observer of these people as they attempt to traverse the vast expanse of the Russian Far East.
Dersu Uzala was Akira Kurosawa’s first film since Dodes’-ka-den five years earlier, but he directs the film with the confidence and the skills that he’s always had. Akira Kurosawa would not direct again for another five years, having difficulty securing funds and producers for his meticulous, perfectionist style, and Dersu Uzala feels like a forgotten film in Kurosawa’s catalog. But it is just as alive, and as vibrant, as his best work, and I’m very happy that Imprint has released what is probably the definitive release of this film on Blu-Ray.
Vital Disc Stats: The Blu-ray
Imprint Films brings Dersu Uzala to Blu-Ray as a single-disc, region-free standard Blu-Ray, with a sturdy slipcase outside the Blu-Ray keepcase. Spine Number for this release is #158. At startup, the disc goes to an opening menu featuring the disc cover art and the standard play, special feature, and audio and subtitle options.
Akira Kurosawa did not butt heads often with the Russian film producers, but in one particular incident, Kurosawa lost the battle. Kurosawa, in shooting in 70mm, wanted to use Fujifilm or Kodak for his cinematography needs, but the Russian film agency insisted in using their homeland brand of 70mm film stock. Sadly, it was an inferior stock, and Dersu Uzala shows its age a little bit, with some bits of faded color, soft resolution, and flickering. That said, this is probably the best this film will ever look, and even through the defects in the stock, Kurosawa and cinematographers Asakazu Nakai, Yuri Gantman, and Fyodor Dobronravov give everything an appropriate scale and glow.
The Blu-Ray video is in 1080p, and unlikely to be improved upon, due to the weathering of the source print, but the vistas, wide scope shots, and the colors are vibrant and bright. Unless a complete and cost-prohibitive remastering of the original film happens, this is the best the film has ever looked. There is no detail about the restoration in the set, other than the discussion in the special features.
The sound is in lossless HD DTS 5.1 Surround Sound, with original Russian language and English dub options. The sound mix is mostly center, as this is an older film, and the dialogue is easily heard and understood. The score, by Isaak Shvarts, is strong and powerful, with only a little film hiss to distract. Again, this is likely the best the film will look and sound from the source material, unless a new master shows up down the road.
If finally having the film on Blu-ray wasn't enough, Imprint has loaded this disc with an incredible array of informative bonus features to absorb.
While Criterion has released special editions of most of Akira Kurosawa’s films, Imprint Films has done fans of the director a huge service with this release. This was a major period of Kurosawa’s life – his return to filmmaking after his attempted suicide and his struggles with depression, his first 70mm film, and his first and only production outside of Japan. This makes Dersu Uzala particularly important in Kurosawa’s filmography. It also helps that the film is a beautiful, devastating masterpiece, a mediation on the power of nature, and a friendship that spans the years. For anyone who is a fan of Akira Kurosawa, this is a must-see, and it fills a space in his filmography that is essential to understand. Although the picture has shown its age, the special features and the quality of the film itself more than make up for it. Highly Recommended