Entertainment

02.12.14

Japan’s Beloved Deaf Composer is Neither Deaf Nor a Composer

Turns out, ‘Japan’s Beethoven,’ who ‘wrote’ music for the Olympics, is a complete fraud—and his scandal threatens to derail his country’s figure-skating hopes.

When Daisuke Takahashi takes to the ice Thursday at the Sochi Winter Olympics, he’ll begin his quest to again make history for his country, as he did four years ago, when he became the first Japanese to medal in an Olympic male figure skating event by taking home the bronze. That same year, he became the first Japanese man to win a title at the World Championships, and in 2012 he took the gold at the Grand Prix Final in Sochi—again, he is the first man from his country to ever accomplish the feat. He’ll be hoping for an unprecedented Olympic gold on Friday after the free skating performance, but first he’ll have to start his campaign with a strong short program on Thursday’s primetime competitions (Thursday morning in America).

How fitting that the national hero will be skating to a piece of music written by Mamoru Samuragochi, a composer who’s cherished as the Beethoven of Japan. The comparison is not grotesque, since Samuragochi is, like Beethoven, deaf.

Samuragochi was born in 1963 in Hiroshima. According to his autobiography, he started playing piano at age 4 and had mastered Beethoven by age 10. He disliked academic compositional regimens such as the Suzuki method, so he never attended university or conservatory, instead becoming an autodidact. He suffered from migraines, and when he was 24 he found that he suffered from a degenerative illness that left him with a severe audio disability, and he lost his hearing by 35. That year, however, he overcame his handicap and made his first breakthrough scoring the video game Resident Evil: Dual Shock Ver., and found further success with the game Onimusha: Warlords in 2001. Time magazine called him a “digital-age Beethoven.” He told the magazine: “I listen to myself. If you trust your inner sense of sound, you create something that is truer. It is like communicating from the heart. Losing my hearing was a gift from God.”

By 2003, he had sprung into higher stratospheres, and completed his first symphony, an intense and ambitious work subtitled “Hiroshima,” which commemorated the victims of the 1945 atomic bombing of his home city. In 2013, he shot to stardom thanks to a documentary called Melody of the Soul: The Composer Who Lost His Hearing, which was aired on Japan’s NHK network. The film chronicles Samuragochi’s visit to the Tohoku region, where he met survivors of the 2011 tsunami. In one scene, he plays with a girl who lost her mother in the disaster, and he vows to overcome his illness and compose a requiem for her. Viewers were moved to tears, and sales of his CDs skyrocketed, while the Hiroshima symphony (180,000 copies sold) became something of a national anthem—it was known as “the symphony of hope.” Japan adores classical music, and Samuragochi became the country’s darling musical genius.

What an inspirational tale it would make, when Samuragochi’s lyrical Sonatina for Violin manages to swell to a crash of cymbals just as Takahashi lands his last triple-axel. And with that final flourish, a nation will stand proud as it turns its eyes and ears to two of its best, as it continues to recover from one of the worst natural disasters in history.

If only the story were so perfect.

As it turns out, Japan’s deaf composer isn’t really a composer. He isn’t even deaf.

“He told me that if I didn’t write songs for him, he’d commit suicide.”

Last week, under the threat of being exposed by a tabloid interview, and through a statement by his lawyer, Samuragochi confessed that he did not compose much of his work—not the “Hiroshima” symphony, not the Sonatina, not even Resident Evil or Onimusha. Instead, ever since the 1990s, he’s paid someone else to write his compositions. “Samuragochi is deeply sorry as he has betrayed fans and disappointed others,” the statement read.

The next day, the newspaper story was published, at which point Takashi Niigaki, a part-time lecturer in composition at the renowned Toho Gakuen School of Music, came forward, and he detailed the process in a long press conference. He revealed that 18 years ago Samuragochi came to him and asked him to ghostwrite, which isn’t unusual in the commercial film and video-game world. But Samuragochi received sole credit, and such an arrangement would be a complete no-no in the symphonic realm. That’s not to mention that, according to Niigaki, the celebrated Beethoven of Japan cannot even write musical scores at all. What’s more, he paid Niigaki only seven million yen, or about $70,000, for composing more than 20 pieces over the years, while The Wall Street Journal pointed out that according to Samuragochi’s Nippon Columbia label, works attributed to him have brought in some $6 million of revenue.

And then there was the bit about Samuragochi’s hearing—the source of all the Beethoven comparisons.

“I’ve never felt he was deaf ever since we met,” Niigaki said. “We carry on normal conversations,” and Samuragochi listened to the scores and gave feedback. “At first he acted to me also as if he had suffered hearing loss, but he stopped doing so eventually,” Niigaki said.

Over the years, Niigaki said he grew increasingly concerned and wanted to come clean, but Samuragochi begged him not to. “He told me that if I didn’t write songs for him, he’d commit suicide,” Niigaki told reporters. “But I could not bear the thought of skater Takahashi being seen by the world as a co-conspirator in our crime.”

Samuragochi responded Wednesday with a written statement of contrition, saying that he was “deeply ashamed” and apologized to Niigaki. He also admitted that he kinda, sorta faked his deafness, that he has regained some of his hearing, but insisted that he did in fact suffer from a hearing disorder.

“The truth is that I became deaf and joined a sign-language group and subsequently got a certificate designating me as having a Level 2 hearing disorder,” Samuragochi said. “My hearing condition, in fact, has gotten better recently. Since about three years ago, my hearing has improved such that I can hear words if they are spoken clearly and slowly next to my ears, although they sound muffled and distorted.”

The backlash has been swift and furious. The mayor of Hiroshima has threatened to strip him of an award. Nippon Columbia vowed to stop selling “his” music. Niigaki, however, said he didn’t want to press charges, and wouldn’t go after royalties.

All of which left Daisuke Takahashi in a bit of a shock. “I wasn’t sure whether I could still use this music or not,” he said. “I didn’t know the background when I chose it; I just liked the music.”

It’s too late to change routines—some skaters swap their music or choreography for old ones weeks before competition, but picking up a new program days before is impossible. So rest assured that you’ll be able to hear Samuragochi’s, or Niigaki’s, Sonatina when Takahashi appears in the rink—with the composer’s name(s) removed entirely, that is. (You can watch Takahashi skate to the same music in the clip below.)

Video screenshot

The scandal shouldn’t be able to break the concentration of one of Japan’s best figure skaters, but Takahashi has his work cut out for him regardless, if he’s to hope for gold. Canada’s Patrick Chan and Spain’s Javier Fernandez stand in the way, but the saving grace might be that the top-ranked skater in the world is Takahashi’s young protégé, his 19-year-old compatriot Yuzuru Hanyu. Japan might yet be proud.

All the dishonor and distraction behind Samuragochi’s downfall ought to warn us against our propensity for mythmaking. Beethoven, of course, was no stranger to megalomania, and he even loved to brag to his friends about his vanity. He claimed that he once walked right through the whole Austrian imperial family, and was delighted that princes and empresses took off their hats and saluted, and made a lane for him. All the while they ignored Beethoven’s friend, who had stood aside to bow his head—the companion was Goethe. But for all his self-absorption, the Japanese Beethoven ought to have learned from his German counterpart in another manner. It was Beethoven who once fired his housekeeper for telling a lie. “Anyone who tells a lie has not a pure heart,” the composer is said to have exclaimed. “How can she make pure soup?”