The Mystery of George Masa details the life of Masahara Izuka, (AKA George Masa) a Japanese immigrant who came to the Southern Appalachian Mountains of North Carolina in 1915, where he focused his camera and his passions on preserving the beauty of the wilderness he discovered. Eighteen years after his arrival, his death left behind thousands of photographs and an impressive legacy that included a role in the founding of two great national treasures, The Great Smoky Mountains National Park and the Appalachian Trail. However, throughout his life in America he was secretive about his past, with no one knowing the details of his life experience and his inner passions.
Told through rare interviews with living acquaintances, notable historians, artists, and a vast collection of Masa’s letters, journals and photographs, director Paul Bonesteel weaves a complex story of Masa’s personal journey while paralleling the movement toward a wider appreciation and conservation of the natural world. Since it’s release, The Mystery of George Masa has encouraged a modern rediscovery of Masa’s artistry and achievements.
When and where George Masa first arrived in America is unclear, however, his first known employment was at the famous Grove Park Inn of Asheville, North Carolina in 1915. Not your typical mountain inn, it was a luxurious hideaway frequented by the era’s rich and elite, including John D. Rockefeller and F. Scott Fitzgerald.
While Masa became a fascination of the inn’s clientele he was equally entranced by the scenic beauty surrounding the area. He discovered a world filled with stunning landscapes, wild terrain and an array of local characters, taking thousands of photos that would later memorialize him the “Ansel Adams of the Appalachian Mountains."
He befriended noted writer and outdoorsman Horace Kephart, with whom he camped and explored the Smokies extensively. Later Masa would become a founding member of an influential hiking group called the Carolina Mountain Club, with many details of Masa’s life recorded by members of the group in their journals, letters and photo albums. Led by Masa, the club assisted in the development of the southern portion of the Appalachian Trail, with Masa himself personally responsible for scouting and marking the entire North Carolina portion of the AT.
While in the woods, he was seldom without his peculiar bicycle wheel odometer, and of course, his camera. Adorned with his signature red bandana on his head, he’d spend weeks measuring, mapping and photographing. Masa became known for spending long days spent on cold ridges, waiting for the perfect light or cloud configuration.
In the city, his success turned to business setbacks and frustrations, brought on by the Great Depression and its effect on Asheville. However, despite bankruptcies and the tragic death of his closest friend, Kephart, Masa’s poignant letters during this time expressed a perseverance and optimism that sustained him and many of his friends.
In 1933, at the age of fifty-four, Masa died of the flu, financially broke and with no known relatives. Only a year later, after more than a dozen years of effort, the Great Smoky Mountains National Park became a reality.
Much of the photographic work Masa left behind in his studio was lost or squandered by the effects of neglect and time. The film draws together a vast catalog of research, history, imagery, anecdotes and biographical facts that had previously been unknown to create a sketch of a man who clearly preferred to express himself with his camera.
Years after his death, a group of his closest friends lobbied successfully to pay tribute to their friend with the naming of “Masa Knob,” a peak in the national park he worked so hard to create. But, even so, before the release of The Mystery of George Masa, he was seldom mentioned or appreciated for his conservation efforts and photographic work.
THE FILM’S HISTORY
The Mystery of George Masa was originally released in 2003, with festival and theatrical screenings and broadcast on PBS stations across the United States. In 2009, the story of George Masa and Horace Kephart found its way into Ken Burns’ film: The National Parks: America’s Best Idea. In support of the Burns’ film and in celebration of the 75th anniversary of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park a one hour version of the film was released to the PBS system that year as well.
This is the original feature length film with a total run time of 87 minutes. Also included is an interview with director, Paul Bonesteel, and behind the scenes footage of the making of the film.
If interested in further researching Masa’s story or sharing information about his elusive background, please visit the blog for content, forums and contact information at georgemasa.blogspot.com