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Samuragochi scandal shows that tin-eared classical music fans can be suckers for stories

by Philip Brasor

It’s appropriate that one factor behind the revelation that composer Mamoru Samuragochi did not write his most famous works is related to the Sochi Olympics. Samuragochi’s ghostwriter, Takashi Niigaki, decided to end the deception when he realized that figure skater Daisuke Takahashi would be using Samuragochi’s “Sonatina for Violin,” which Niigaki had in fact written, for his short program.

“If I don’t say anything,” Niigaki said during a recent press conference, “Samuragochi will gain even more kudos for being a ‘deaf genius.’ ”

Olympic coverage is more compelling when there is a story connected to it — the athlete who overcame hardship, the kid whose coach-parent died before the games. Samuragochi’s fame was fed by a similar narrative: Son of Hiroshima A-bomb victims, self-taught as a musician-composer, struck by deafness in adulthood just as his career was coming into focus.

This last story thread is looking increasingly like fiction, invented to make Samuragochi more interesting than his compositions might otherwise warrant. Though a number of critics have said, mainly in hindsight, that Samuragochi’s most famous work, the 80-minute “Hiroshima Symphony,” is basically an amateurish Mahler pastiche, it has sold more than 180,000 CDs, impressive even for an established artist.

And now that Niigaki has blown Samuragochi’s cover, many of the elements that contributed to his story sound as if they were engineered to make it more affecting. In an article he wrote for Shukan Bunshun, Norio Kamiyama describes how once Samuragochi became a public figure, he always wore black, as if in mourning, and sunglasses, because bright lights made his ears ring. He walked with a cane, and his left hand was bound with tape because he suffered from tendonitis. As for the deafness that earned him the sobriquet “the Japanese Beethoven,” it developed late in life, which meant he could speak with “normal” pronunciation but tended to use a sign-language interpreter during interviews. Last week, Samuragochi admitted his hearing “returned” three years ago.

But the most calculated part of the story involves Mikkun — Miku Okubo, the teenage violinist for whom Samuragochi “wrote” the sonatina, which went on to sell more than 100,000 CDs. While Mikkun had already been noticed by the media because of her artificial bowing arm, Samuragochi’s attentions have made her even more famous. Niigaki suggests it was he who told Samuragochi about her, since Niigaki had been her accompanist when she was a little girl and he was close to her family.

This part of the story explains Kamiyama’s involvement. He authored a children’s book about Mikkun’s life that took Samuragochi’s mentorship at face value.

“I didn’t know about his lie,” he writes. “I’m an innocent victim as well, but readers (of the book) may think I’m an accomplice.”

As if in retribution, he describes Samuragochi as a megalomaniac. When he found out Mikkun had made a TV appearance without his knowledge, he apparently upbraided her family, saying they didn’t show sufficient “appreciation” for all he’d done. The family said they never asked for Samuragochi’s help in the first place, and he reacted, Kamiyama says, “furiously.”

When Niigaki heard about the contretemps, he felt responsible and confessed Samuragochi’s lie to the family and his own part in it. Mikkun then wrote an open letter to Takahashi in Bunshun saying she was “shocked” to learn that the composition that made her famous was actually written by her former pianist.

In the end, what makes Samuragochi’s story interesting is not that he got away with his subterfuge for so long, but that the media, and in turn the public and even professional musicians, accepted the story as being proof of Samuragochi’s value as an artist. People who gripe about how many stadiums talentless idols sell out understand there is no accounting for taste, but the creative cachet Samuragochi exploited is especially prevalent in classical music. Most people don’t possess the experience or discernment to distinguish great artistry from the mediocre kind, so they need something to make their enjoyment meaningful.

Stories make an artist easy to remember, which is why record companies and management agencies play them up. There is a whole subset of overseas-based concert performers who make their livings touring Japan because one of their parents is Japanese. In the mid-1990s, Nobel Prize winner Kenzaburo Oe’s developmentally disabled son Hikari’s simple, derivative pieces became best-sellers.

The most successful Japanese musician to benefit from a dramatic back story is pianist Fujiko Hemming, the child of a Russian-Swedish father and a Japanese mother who was born in Berlin but raised in Japan, which she left when she was 28 to pursue a concert career in Europe. In middle age she was rediscovered via an “NHK Special” documentary that described her struggle with hearing loss and other medical problems. She has since become a superstar, but only in Japan. Her concerts sell out immediately, though the performances are riddled with mistakes and inconsistencies.

Serious music fans don’t think much of Hemming as an artist, which isn’t saying much. Unlike Samuragochi, she doesn’t pretend to be something she isn’t, but she attained her position the same way: through media coverage that exaggerated her accomplishments by tying them to personal difficulties.

An “NHK Special” was also chiefly responsible for Samuragochi’s fame, and though the broadcaster removed it from its website, parts of the program are still available on YouTube. The overly dramatic narration and explanation of Samuragochi’s “God-given technique” are hilarious considering the recent revelations, but that doesn’t mean the story is over. Record label Nippon Columbia recalled all of his recordings, but before they could be returned there was a run on them in record stores. People still love a story, even when it changes.