Everybody loves a good scandal, and they don’t come much riper than the tale of Mamoru Samuragochi. The public unmasking of “Japan’s Beethoven” — a celebrated “deaf” composer who turned out to be neither completely deaf nor the main author of his work — was one of the biggest domestic news stories of 2014.
On the eve of the Sochi Olympics, where figure skater Daisuke Takahashi was due to perform to Samuragochi’s “Sonatina for Violin,” a part-time music lecturer named Takashi Niigaki stepped forward to reveal that he had been ghostwriting for the “deaf genius” for the past 18 years. Samuragochi, he said, couldn’t even read the musical scores that bore his name. Oh, and he could hear perfectly well too.
The revelation prompted humiliating public apologies from Samuragochi, his record label and NHK, which had broadcast a laudatory documentary about him the previous year. Niigaki parlayed his newfound notoriety into minor celebrity status, while his former employer vanished from view.
Two years on, Samuragochi is back in the public eye, courtesy of a documentary by filmmaker and author Tatsuya Mori. Shot over the course of 16 months, “Fake” inducts viewers into the claustrophobic world of a disgraced celebrity in hiding. Much of the film’s action happens behind drawn curtains in a dimly lit apartment, where Samuragochi spends the days brooding, comforted by his unflappable wife, Kaori, and a laconic gray cat.
Mori first visited the apartment with an editor who’d been bugging him to write a book about the story, and says he found the location instantly appealing.
“When you open the window, there are trains going by right outside,” he recalls. “I thought the whole setting was very photogenic. It didn’t feel right for a book — I wanted to film it instead.” He pitched the documentary on the spot.
Coming from a more prolific filmmaker, this might not have been so surprising. But it’s been 15 years since Mori’s last feature, “A2,” the sequel to his 1998 documentary about the Aum Shinrikyo cult, “A.” Though he co-directed “311,” a controversial film released in the immediate aftermath of the 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake, these days he’s better known for writing about documentaries than making them.
“You can’t make a living as a documentary filmmaker in Japan,” he says. “There are lots of people who manage it in America, like Michael Moore and (Frederick) Wiseman, but in Japan it’s impossible. I’ve had three children in the past 15 years, and I need to put them all through school — which I can do if I write books instead.”
Mori’s 2005 book “Dokyumentari wa Uso o tsuku” (“Documentaries Lie”), later adapted into a show for TV Tokyo, gives a clear indication of where he stands on the integrity of nonfiction filmmaking. He visibly brightens when I mention Shohei Imamura, whose 1967 film “A Man Vanishes” was a landmark of documentary disingenuousness.
“I think documentaries and journalism are different,” he says. “In journalism, if I was going to interview Samuragochi, then I’d also include the other side, by talking to ‘anti’ people like Niigaki and (nonfiction writer Norio) Koyama. That’s just a natural part of the process, but with a documentary I don’t feel it’s necessary.”
Media literacy — the ability to think critically about messages disseminated in the news — is a recurrent theme in Mori’s writing, and it’s a skill that he believes is badly lacking in Japan.
“Journalists always have some kind of bias, and people should be aware of that,” he says. “Instead, everyone thinks something is true just because it’s written in the Asahi Shimbun, or that NHK would never get its facts wrong — then, when that turns out not to be the case, they get angry.”
Mori isn’t inclined to be so binary himself. In making a film about Samuragochi, he says, “I didn’t care about finding out what was true or what was false.” Rather, he sought to reveal the subtleties that the mainstream media had bulldozed through in its reporting on the story.
Although the public persona that Samuragochi cultivated was undoubtedly a sham, Mori makes clear that it wasn’t entirely fabricated either. His deafness is genuine, if only partial; more surprisingly — and the film’s distributors made me promise not to reveal too much here — “Fake” provides some evidence of his musical talents, too.
The documentary is unlikely to rehabilitate its subject, but it may make viewers feel more sympathetic to his plight — assuming, that is, that they watch it in the first place. During the film, Samuragochi is approached by Fuji TV to do a sit-down interview in which he can give his side of story. But when the interview was broadcast in a primetime slot at the end of 2014, it was virtually ignored.
“I was surprised about that — there was barely a ripple,” says Mori. “You’ll get attention if you bash Samuragochi, but if you’re not doing that, people won’t be interested.”
This doesn’t exactly bode well for the prospects of a documentary about Japan’s bogus Beethoven, does it?
“I think this film is probably going to get ignored because of that — it’s scary,” Mori concedes. “All the way through filming, my producer was telling me: ‘No-one even remembers this guy anymore. This film is going to flop.’ “
“Fake” opens on June 4 at cinemas in Tokyo and Yokohama, with further screenings planned nationwide.