Although he is one of cinema’s most famous and revered filmmakers, Akira Kurosawa essentially found himself shut out of making films in the mid-1970s. That seems almost unthinkable in hindsight of his iconic reputation, but Kurosawa had yet to find funding for what would become his latter masterpieces Ran and Kagemusha (the latter co-funded by such Western admirers as, among others, George Lucas).
Between these late-stage works and his earlier career, Kurosawa delivered 1975’s often overlooked but worthwhile Dersu Uzala. Based on the memoir of the same name (which is also the name of the native trapper who is a primary character), the film follows Russian explorer Vladimir Arsenyev on a trek with his team through the far eastern wilderness of Russia. They stumble upon the titular trapper, who teaches them how to survive in the wild.
Dersu Uzala had been on Kurosawa’s list of projects from very early in his career, but it was shelved due to significant financial and geopolitical impediments. However, Soviet Union officials contacted Kurosawa’s producers in 1972 in hopes he would adapt the memoir, and Kurosawa agreed on the condition of complete creative control. The result is a film bearing the thorough stamp of its director, almost proto-Hayao Miyazaki in its connectedness to nature and gentle contemplation of human nature, friendship and aging. That delicate nature is perhaps why it often falls out of the limelight that shines on Kurosawa’s other major hits.
Thankfully, Imprint has delivered a fantastic presentation of this Kurosawa film — now available in a standard edition after previous exclusivity in a limited edition. Special features include a brand-new audio commentary with film historian Stuart Galbraith IV, biologist Jonathan C. Slaght, Russian / USSR historian Sergey Glebov, and Barbara Boyle, the attorney for Roger Corman’s New World Pictures, which distributed the film. It is probably the most collectively qualified commentary possible for this film.
The package also includes two new video essays on the film and another on its music, as well as a host of legacy features (a short making-of documentary and an interview with lead actor Yuri Solomin). Overall, Imprint’s edition of Dersu Uzala is a great package for film lovers and Kurosawa fans, who now have one of his most overlooked works available in a terrific set.