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Found Footage: Missing Ozu drama resurfaces

October 20, 2013
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The idea of lost treasure is nothing new. It’s one of the enduring stories in film, from the silent adventures to the modern ones, like Indiana Jones and National Treasure.

With film, especially pre-talkies, almost everything is a lost treasure. Because films had little value after their initial run and because the nitrate film stock they were stored on was such a safety concern because of their flamability (think: the end of Inglorious Bastards), much of the work of the early masters (and even the pluggers) has been lost, either burned outright or, like in the case of Melies, melted down for shoe heels and other plastic items. They’re almost all gone forever.

Sometimes, though, they are found — in shoeboxes and barns, or vaults or dumpsters, but they are found.

There has been a string of discoveries in the last five years, ranging from lost Charlie Chaplin and John Ford in 2008, through to the Orson Welles shorts found this summer.

The latest to join the “found” list is a television drama that was written by Yasujiro Ozu.

The drama, 青春放課後 (which Google tells me translates as “Youth After School“) is a strange case: it was an NHK production in 1963, co-scripted by Ozu in the final year of his life. According to people who have seen it, the drama’s visual style is all Ozu, which makes sense since the film is also about a family trying to marry off their young (which is what basically every Ozu film is about).

It isn’t clear if the production was based off of a new script — making it Ozu’s real final work — or if it was a previously written script that NHK decided to put into production.

The drama has only just been rebroadcast in Japan on NHK’s premium channel earlier this week after laying on a shelf somewhere for 60 years, and I can’t find anything about it in either David Bordwell or Donald Ritchie’s books on Ozu, so it’s tough to glean any more information on the subject, let alone think ahead to a worldwide release. Any time you get a discovery of a long lost film though, it’s exciting.

Maybe the most famous and exciting case of found footage happened in 2010, when a seriously degraded print of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis was found in an Argentine museum. As the curators watched it, they noticed small fragments and whole scenes that they’d never seen before. The film had been cut down for time before it’s major release, but somehow this early print ended up escaping the scissors. It had become, like Orson Welles’s still lost cut of Magnificent Ambersons, a Holy Grail. It’s not every day that you find the Holy Grail, but they did and the world is a better place for that.

In the end, Youth After School will probably end up being a minor Ozu film and not a Holy Grail, but finding anything new from a master is an important discovery. Beyond that, it keeps alive the hope that one day someone will find Ambersons, or Kurosawa’s The Idiot or the Korean film Arirang.

 

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