Dersu Uzala Review
There is a distinct divide between the films that make up the early part of the career of Akira Kurosawa and those of his latter period. The turning point is easy to identify as being around the time of the making of Dersu Uzala, but the reasons for the change in the director’s themes and the nature of it must necessarily be somewhat speculative. Two significant factors however undoubtedly come into play. The first was Kurosawa’s attempted suicide in 1971, the other was the necessity for the director to look overseas for funding of his films. His only film made outside Japan, Dersu Uzala was made in Russia and largely financed by Mosfilm, and it marks a radical change in Kurosawa’s approach to filmmaking, an approach that would simultaneously mar and elevate his subsequent films.
In many respects, Dersu Uzala is however still recognisably a film by the master of Japanese cinema. Visually it is splendid and full of characteristics that are recognisably those of Akira Kurosawa, using the power of natural elements to express and develop personality and underline significant moments in the development of the narrative. What is different in this film however, is both the scale to which they are used and how they are employed. In Dersu Uzala, nature takes precedence over the human element to the extent that it practically subsumes the individual, telling us that “Man is too small faced with the vastness of nature”. This element is evident not only in Dersu Uzala, but also in all Kurosawa’s late films, which all have some designs towards an epic quality. It’s almost as if, having failed in his suicide attempt, Kurosawa no longer has any sense of self in the latter part of his career, wishing to annihilate any sense of ego through the forces of nature, through war and through nuclear self-destruction.
While one or other of these elements strongly characterise the tone of Kurosawa’s later films, it in no way hampers films like Kagemusha or Ran - rather, it enhances the intensity of their dark, overstated moods, making them two of Kurosawa’s bleakest, most pessimistic films. When applied to real people seeking to adjust themselves to these powers greater than oneself and treating them with due respect and reverence, all the finesse of previous Kurosawa characterisation disappears to be replaced by over-sentimentality and kitsch, as in Dreams and Rhapsody In August, reaching its peak Kurosawa’s final film, the overbearing and almost excruciating Madadayo. It’s also there in Dersu Uzala. Based on his own notebooks and stories of his explorations, the film chronicles the adventures of Vladimir Arseniev (Yuri Solomin), a captain in the Russian army. While working on a topographical analysis of the Ussuri region in 1902, Arseniev meets a native hunter Dersu Uzala (Maksim Munzuk), a wise old man who not only guides him through the inhospitable and treacherous terrain, but he also teaches him and his troops basic humanitarian values, a respect for nature, its majesty and power and man’s place in this world.
Filmed on 70mm film stock in inhospitable Siberian conditions over two years, the temperature often dropping to -40º C, Kurosawa, ever the master of controlling and depicting extreme weather conditions, certainly convinces with the sheer majesty of the photography and one or two adventures encountered by the explorers in this wild region. The scene at frozen Lake Khanka, where Dersu and the Captain have to build a shelter of marsh-grass is magnificently filmed by Kurosawa, who fully captures the sense of urgency, danger and makes the scene the lynchpin of the film that it needs to be, one that legitimises the subsequent bond that develops between the two men. In both these men we have the typical Kurosawa characters, expressing the dichotomy that exists between civilised man and his relationship with nature. But while there is certainly more sympathy for the closer bond with nature enjoyed by the hunter, Kurosawa doesn’t necessarily present Dersu’s way of living in any idealised way and the conclusions are consequently as pessimistic as any of Kurosawa’s late films – whether it’s from the dangers of civilised man’s own devising, or the awesome power of nature itself, man is always subject to forces greater than himself.
Dersu Uzala is released in the UK by Artificial Eye. A port of the edition released by the Russian Film Council – Ruscico - the film is split over a 2-disc set, both discs are dual-layer disc in PAL format and not region encoded.
Having had to endure the very poor quality Region 1 Kino edition of the film for years, I was optimistic that the Russian Film Council might be able to derive a print from the high quality 70mm elements that exist for this spectacularly photographed film. Although this edition is, unlike the Kino, at least anamorphic, the print used is still very poor quality indeed. The aspect ratio is about 2.20:1. There are few troublesome marks or scratches on the print itself, but the transfer seems to be derived from some low-quality degraded analogue master, exhibiting instead softness, ghosting, discolouration and noise reduction. Scenes with mist or fog are inevitably something of a mess. Colours look reasonably strong in some scenes, but far below the saturation level you would imagine Kurosawa intended, and more often tinted with a greenish-brown haze. However, they are subject to extremes of fluctuation, almost bleaching out in some scenes. This kind of fluctuation affects the entire film. The image is also very soft, lacking fine detail and almost looking blurred in wide shots, which Kurosawa of course uses frequently. It’s particularly blurred down the left-hand side of the frame throughout. A few skips and jumps in the frame can also be detected occasionally. Really, this is a poor way to see such a striking film, but there doesn’t seem to be any better options out there at the moment.
Ruscico unfortunately have a habit of remixing the audio tracks for their films and not including the original mix. How much that is the case here I can’t say, as the original 70mm film would have come with a 6 track audio mix. The Dolby Digital 5.1 mix does feel as if it has been manipulated to some degree with, in a film that is filmed almost entirely outdoors, the constant twitter of birds on the rear surrounds. The extreme weather conditions are well distributed however, with booming thunder and driving winds. The quality is mostly adequate, but a bit lacking in the dynamic on voices. An English 5.1 dub is also included, made at the time of the film’s original US release. The quality is similar, but inevitably the film doesn’t work in English, coming across as very dry and lifeless.
English subtitles are provided and are optional. They are in a white font and are quite clear, appearing to translate the film reasonably thoroughly.
Ruscico releases are generally quite abundant in extra features, but not so much here. They have however clearly made an effort to gather whatever materials were available. Disc 1 includes archive news footage of the actual Vladimir Arsenyev (0:59) and a short black-and-white feature on Making The Film (4:49), showing Kurosawa and his crew working on location and at the film’s opening at the 1975 Moscow Film Festival. A Photo Gallery shows 12 stills as thumbnails and as full-screen (4:3) images, nearly all of them consisting of Kurosawa making the film.
Disc 2 contains an interview with the actor who plays Arseniev Yuri Solomin is speaking. Divided into three sections, he talks about Arseniev (3:53), about Akira Kurosawa (9:04) and about the making of the film (6:55). In the interview, Solomin expresses his admiration for the director’s abilities and his qualities as a human being, remaining friends with Kurosawa until his death and finding inspiration in him to direct himself. Filmographies are provided for cast and crew, containing the usual Ruscico trailers scattered among them, mostly badly dubbed into English.
Besides the obvious fact that it was made in Russia with Russian actors Dersu Uzala is one of Kurosawa’s most unusual films, coming at a particularly important turning point in his life and his film career and marking a distinct change in perspective between his early films and the darker, more pessimistic work that characterises late Kurosawa. It suffers from the same flaws as many of those later films, but also has just as much to admire in its tale of friendship, comradeship and man’s need to respect and live in closer harmony with himself and with nature. Unfortunately, with Artificial Eye’s port of the Ruscico edition, we still don’t seem to have a DVD edition of the film that does justice to the epic qualities of the story and its cinematography.
Last updated: 20/06/2018 00:34:11