Mamoru Samuragochi: The conman of the opera
How Japan’s ‘deaf’ composer fooled the world.May 18, 2015
On February 6, 2014, the eve of the opening ceremony of the Sochi Winter Olympics, Takashi Niigaki, a thin Japanese music teacher wearing an ill-fitting suit and with thick-lensed glasses balancing on his nose, stood behind a clutch of microphones, preparing to deliver an announcement to a crowded press conference.
Visibly shaking and clearly terrified at the prospect of speaking to the Japanese press, Niigaki cleared his throat and composed himself just enough to come out with a shocking revelation: Mamoru Samuragochi, a man who was considered a genius and national treasure in Japan after apparently overcoming his complete deafness to become the country's most beloved composer, was, in fact, a fraud.
The announcement sent shockwaves throughout Japan. A man hailed as "the Japanese Beethoven", who had sold hundreds of thousands of records, becoming a huge celebrity and making a fortune in the process over almost two decades, couldn't compose to save his life, and wasn't even deaf. The real brains behind the music was the weedy schoolteacher Niigaki - it had been one big con from the start. Niigaki confessed that he had written more than 20 pieces credited to Samuragochi during the past 18 years, and had been paid a grand total of around $60,000 for his entire body of work - a fraction of what the famous Samuragochi had earnt. But as shocking as this announcement was, it didn't explain why Niigaki helped take part in the con, and why, after 18 long years, he decided enough was enough, and exposed it.
To unpick this tangled web of lies and deceit that Samuragochi and Niigaki spun so intricately, the best place to start is back where the whole thing began: a coffee shop in the upscale central Tokyo district of Shibuya on a warm summer's afternoon in 1996.
It was on that day that Samuragochi first met with Niigaki after the pair had been introduced by mutual friends. He explained to Niigaki that he had landed a role to compose the score for a small-time film and he needed help with the orchestration. For Niigaki, who composed his own music as well as teaching at Toho Gakuen School of Music, this was an ideal chance to get some of his work out there, so he gladly accepted the job. However, it soon became clear that the job was much more than just orchestration. In fact, while Samuragochi had produced a few tapes that Niigaki described in an interview with New Republic as "rudimentary at best", the bulk of the work - the actual composing - was not done, and Niigaki was expected to rework it completely.
But Niigaki was a very quiet an unassuming man and preferred to do more work rather than face any conflict, so he diligently composed the score almost from scratch, and sent back the tapes to Samuragochi, who gladly accepted them, sending them on to the film producers and taking the credit.
Despite feeling slightly put out by his experience, the next time Niigaki picked up the phone to Samuragochi, he found himself agreeing to help out on another project. This time it was for gaming giant Capcom, to produce the score for their popular video game Resident Evil - a huge deal in a country that places such cultural importance on its ties with the video gaming industry.
Again the 'help' turned out to be pretty much the whole job, and again Samuragochi took the full credit for the piece, which was a huge success, and catapulted him into the public consciousness. With this one big hit, Niigaki realised that there was no going back, and, almost bullied into giving his help initially, the submissive man saw no option but to carry on helping the now-famous Samuragochi. Over the following years, the showman Samuragochi constructed narratives that were more and more bizarre - the main one being that he suffered from a condition that was turning him deaf - that tugged on the heartstrings of the Japanese public and propelled him into becoming an even bigger star.
Samuragochi's stock rose to never-before-seen levels for a composer in Japan, after a 70-minute symphony he had got Niigaki to compose in 2003 had been chosen to be performed at a 2008 G8 ceremony by the Hiroshima Symphony Orchestra. Originally called Celebration of Today, but renamed to Hiroshima in honour of the bomb survivors - another marketing masterstroke from Samuragochi - the symphony, which everyone thought had been composed by a deaf man, captured the public's imagination.
The arrangement became an uneasy marriage of convenience. Niigaki had the platform to get his music out into the world without the public spectacle, while Samuragochi could feed his giant ego with the acclaim of the country. However, it could only last so long, and when Niigaki found out that one of Japan's most popular athletes, figure skater Daisuke Takahashi, had chosen Samuragochi's Sonatina for Violin (which Niigaki, obviously wrote) for his performance at the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics, that was the straw that broke the camel's back. The thought of a cherished sports star performing in front of the world to a piece of music that was founded on a lie was too much for Niigaki, and he called a press conference to blow the whole fiasco wide open.
After the announcement, Samuragochi's CDs were removed from the shelves and the 'composer' was left disgraced. He did eventually come out and speak to the press, half-admitting and half-denying the accusations, claiming that he did indeed have hearing problems, but they didn't necessarily mean he couldn't hear at all.
Funnily enough, the music this farcical episode revolves around has actually endured through the controversy, and now, even more than when the myth of Samuragochi was at its height, the Japanese public are embracing it. The only difference? This time it's a certain weedy schoolteacher who is getting all the credit.