By Roland Kelts
Throughout the nearly fifty-minute confession, images of Samuragochi flashed on the screen. With his long shiny hair, whiskery jowls, and ever-present sunglasses, he looked like an aging heavy-metal has-been from an episode of VH-1’s “Behind the Music”—past his prime, yes, but still darkly mysterious and maybe brilliant. Some clips showed him walking gingerly with a cane and a slight limp, raising his face to the sun and the wind. In others, he stood with his back to an orchestra, bowing to an applauding audience, tucking his billowy hair behind his ears.
The contrast between the two—Niigaki, the real man behind the music, and Samuragochi, the man who stood in front of it—was comical: Niigaki is slightly wall-eyed, wears librarian-sober black-framed reading glasses, and speaks in slow, dolorous cadences. He’s a dead-ringer for Japan’s enervated middle-aged salaryman plucked straight from an overstuffed subway. Samuragochi, cloaked in black, eyes inscrutable, his left hand bandaged against persistent tendonitis, real or feigned, is another kind of central-casting cliché: the brooding genius driven by passion to make art against the odds.
Samuragochi’s first taste of fame came courtesy of video games: his contributions to the soundtrack of Resident Evil in the late nineties garnered worldwide attention. But in Japan, he became better known for a composition that touches nerves. “Symphony No. 1: ‘Hiroshima’,” released in 2003, was perceived as a memorial and tribute to the suffering victims of the atomic bomb, the hibakusha, including his own parents. Born in Hiroshima, Samuragochi was given a citizen’s award by the city’s mayor, in 2008, for his artistic contribution to its spirit.
Then, in 2011, after the earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear meltdown in northern Japan, the same composition was transformed into a kind of theme song of national survival when it was used in a documentary produced by NHK, Japan’s national broadcaster. The film chronicled Samuragochi’s encounters with residents of the most devastated regions as he embraced them and offered hope and strength. Among its many now-surreal passages is one showing its subject writhing on a futon in his home, moaning at spikes of Tinnitus-like pain in his eardrums. (NHK has since pulled the film from its Web site, but there are still clips available on YouTube and the Japanese file-sharing site, niconico.)
Last summer, the Young People’s Chorus of New York City performed a passage from the symphony in Japan and was joined by Samuragochi onstage for a teary-eyed finale. At what would have been the symphony’s American premiere, in New York, in March—an encore performance by the same ensemble with two visiting choirs from Japan—the piece was hastily dropped from the program. Orchestral performances of Samuragochi’s work across Japan were cancelled, including one last month, in Tokyo. Two of my close friends had tickets and were disappointed. “We still have the music, don’t we?” one said. “Who cares who wrote it?”
Many do, apparently. As the scandal continues to unravel, it has produced numerous musings and self-chastisements in Japan and overseas. NHK issued a ten-page explanation of its failure to properly fact-check Samuragochi’s claims before broadcasting its documentary. Classical-music critics have argued that the music itself is subpar, weak imitations of Mahler and Brahms, and shouldn’t have been celebrated in the first place. Scholars have debated the value of authenticity in classical music, citing the numerous instances of ghostwriting in popular music and forgeries in painting. There has been finger-pointing in the Japanese media over who knew and why no one reported what they knew or asked questions. Some blame Samuragochi’s record company, who saw sales of his CDs skyrocket in the week after the scandal broke before withdrawing them from the shelves.
And Samuragochi himself cares. Instead of slinking away in ignominy, he held his own two-hour press conference a month after Niigaki’s. His hair cut short, sans sunglasses and cane, he arrived unnoticed by the assembled media until he sat behind the microphone. Clean-shaven and stocky, he now looked more like a former prizefighter than an aging member of Black Sabbath. He began with remorse, apologizing for deceiving the public about the source of his compositions, bowing ritually and closing his eyes. But his mood quickly turned combative. Niigaki, he said, was always asking for more money for his work. (Niigaki claimed that his total earnings over eighteen years amounted to roughly seventy thousand dollars). Niigaki had also told lies about their relationship and the degree of his deafness—which was not total, true, but was more severe than the ghostwriter claimed, and which had only recently receded. While Niigaki claimed that Samuragochi had threatened many times to commit suicide if he went public, Samuragochi said that he had only learned about the former’s discontent very recently. He ended by saying that he had hired a lawyer to sue Niigaki for defamation, though quite how one defames a fraud he left unexplained.
The story is a he-said, he-said. It’s also an archetype: a Cyrano de Bergerac in twenty-first-century Japan, where debates over historical truths and authenticity are points of friction with its rising Asian neighbors. And, in a country that typically tries to look away from dirty laundry, it’s a mesmerizing narrative: deception and twisted histories are suddenly headlines in Japan. The recent destruction of copies of “The Diary of Anne Frank” in Tokyo libraries raised concerns about rising nationalist and/or neo-Nazi pods. Accusations of plagiarism in the work of the stem-cell researcher Haruko Obokata have cast suspicions on Japan’s scientific standards. And most Japanese still feel duped by the assurances of the government and the Tokyo Electric Power Company over the safety of its nuclear-power grid.
A third person emerged in the tangled Japan Beethoven fraud narrative: Miku Okubo. She is a gifted teen-age violinist with a prosthetic arm. Samuragochi dedicated “Sonatina for Violin” (also composed by Niigaki) to Okubo, and became furious that her family failed to respect his contribution to her career last year when they failed to consult him before one of her televised concerts. Upon first learning of Samuragochi’s lies, the young Okubo wrote back that she was disgusted with him, and with adults in general, none of whom could ever be trusted. She vowed to give up the violin.
But in late March, Niigaki, the real composer behind Samuragochi’s marketed music, performed a duet with Okubo. Still pictures of the two onstage, the real composer and the real teen-age violinist, were shown on a Japanese TV program. Niigaki wears the same dowdy glasses, beneath his receding hair, but his smile is radiant. He looks at least five years younger, and gleeful. It may be a smile of liberation: he has turned from ghost to writer. But it may also be a grin of revenge.
Roland Kelts is the author of “Japanamerica: How Japanese Pop Culture Has Invaded the United States.” He divides his time between New York and Tokyo.