Fake (Japan, 2016) [Aperture 2018]

Mamoru Samuragochi was a widely acclaimed composer in Japan, with an 18-year career creating music for orchestras, film and video games. He was also deaf, earning him the nickname ‘Japan’s Beethoven’. Then, in 2014, a college professor named Takashi Niigaki stepped onto the public stage with a staggering confession: he was the real composer behind Samuragochi’s music, having ghost-composed his works for the entire 18 years. What was more, claimed Niigaki, Samuragochi was not even deaf. It became a major news story in Japan, catapulting Niigaki to fame while decimating Samuragochi’s reputation and career.

The disgraced Samuragochi, effectively living in hiding with his wife in a small apartment, is the subject of Fake – a new documentary feature by filmmaker Tatsuya Mori. Intimately shot over the course of 16 months, it is almost entirely shot within the confines of Samuragochi’s dimly lit home. The action is regularly punctuated by the roar of commuter trains rushing past outside.

Given the set-up of the documentary, one question understandably dominates: is Samuragochi telling the truth? He claims that, while unable to qualify for a disability pension, he is severely hearing-impaired. He also claims that he wrote his own music, simply relying on Niigaki for technical notation and some arrangements. Why, then, has the Japanese news media eviscerated him with some vigour? There is no asking Niigaki, who remains an elusive and uncooperative figure unwilling to appear on camera. As director Mori is certainly intent on finding out, but he takes the long way around: building trust and establishing rapport until Samuragochi is comfortably answering some of the harder questions. In the meantime, it is up to the viewer to become increasingly doubtful and paranoid. Is Samuragochi really deaf? Does he have musical talent? Is his wife in on some kind of scam? Is she really performing sign language, or just making it up? Questions pile upon questions, as the film lists from one possibility to another. It soon becomes riveting stuff.

Along the way the film touches on numerous fascinating social issues and phenomena. It is appalling to watch the way Japanese television producers insinuate themselves with Samuragochi in the hopes of attracting them onto their prime-time specials – only to wind up using Niigaki in his place. For his own part Niigaki seems an odious figure, exploiting every opportunity to establish an entertainment career off the back of the controversy. Whatever the truth winds up to be, it is clear Samuragochi was demonised in the press to suit a more engaging narrative for viewers and readers.

A particularly interesting sequence mid-film sees Samuragochi meeting with a deaf disability activist to discuss his own hearing loss and how it was disregarded and even distorted by the press. Just as some scenes in the film showcase the casual brutality of Japan’s entertainment industry, this sequence shows off the lack of sophistication in which Japan discusses and treats disability – a lack all too familiar to viewers in many countries around the world.

Mori shoots the film simply and in an almost casual manner. His focus is on his subject, and what he says and does. It rapidly feels like a piece of detective fiction, with the viewer invited to judge every pause, sigh and facial tic. This is Mori’s first feature documentary in 15 years, having taken a lengthy break to focus on writing. He has chosen an excellent subject matter for his return, and his careful and patient treatment of Samuragochi transforms Fake into a work that genuinely transcends its initial limited focus. With luck, it won’t be another 15 years before his next film.

Fake is showing on June 30 at The Cinema Museum, London as part of the Aperture: Asia & Pacific Film Festival.