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Mamuro Samuragouchi: Songs of Silence

4 minute read
Tim Larimer/Yokohama

Back when video-game plots were as simplistic as spaceships firing death rays at large, attacking asteroids, or Pac-Man gobbling up rows of bright dots, nobody paid much attention to the background music. Some robotic beeps, mechanical chimes and a singsong jingle sufficed. But today’s games lead players through complex dramas in intricately detailed fantasy worlds. Buzzing or chirping won’t do anymore.

Just listen to the score for Capcom’s Onimusha, released for Sony’s PlayStation 2 last year. Composer Mamoru Samuragoch, 37, created a rich, textured symphony that elevates a game with a mundane plot–a samurai must rescue a princess from a bunch of demons–into a story of epic proportions. To record it, Samuragoch browbeat the producers into employing a 200-piece orchestra, including musicians playing such traditional instruments as a Japanese flute and taiko drums. The result is both haunting and inspirational, reminiscent of majestic scores for films like Lawrence of Arabia. “In the 20th century, film became the palette for composers, the way opera was before,” Samuragoch says. “Today we have video games.”

Perhaps the most dramatic aspect of the Onimusha score is the fact that the composer can barely hear it himself. At 24, he was found to have a severe hearing disability, and today he is completely deaf in his left ear and can hear only slightly with the help of a hearing aid in his right. His condition has brought him a certain celebrity, which he fears may detract from an honest critique of his work. He understands the inspirational appeal of the story of a digital-age Beethoven, a deaf composer who overcomes the loss of the sense most vital to his work. “I used to be able to hide it, to do my work without people noticing it,” he says.

Born in Hiroshima, Samuragoch was so precocious that, at age 5, as his mother tells him, he was creating compositions for the marimba. Samuragoch himself remembers composing his own music at age 10. Although he studied piano as a child, he didn’t have much formal training and taught himself to compose. He is a traditionalist, a student and an admirer of such Western composers as Beethoven and Mozart, and he is dismissive of modern, atonal music. “I like harmony,” he says. “Sometimes I think I was born at the wrong time.”

With his flowing auburn hair and a predilection for wearing black, Samuragoch fashions himself as an outsider in Japan, where conformity rules. The country is now getting better at assimilating people with physical disabilities like deafness into mainstream society. But Samuragoch struggled in obscurity for many years. Instead of composing music for TV dramas that he considered unwatchable, he supported himself by working part time as a video-store clerk and a street sweeper. He finally broke through with the chance to compose the score for a TV film, Cosmos, and then for a video game, Bio Hazard.

At first, Samuragoch retained some hearing, though he was plagued by chronic headaches and a persistent ringing in his ears. Then, in 1999, while composing the score for Onimusha, he lost his hearing completely. “We were six weeks away from performing the symphony for a press event, and I still had three movements to write,” he says. “I had the music written in my head, just not on paper yet.” Producers at Capcom sent him early versions of the video in the hospital. Because he couldn’t hear the dialogue, the producers added subtitles timed exactly to the characters’ voices so that Samuragoch could compose the score around the dialogue.

Today Samuragoch works in a tiny, dark room in his Yokohama apartment. “The saddest thing for me is not to be able to hear an orchestra perform my work,” he says. “But then I think, I am composing not for myself but to make other people happy.” As he turns up the volume on an MD player for a visitor, tears fill his eyes as he strains to hear the rhythmic beat of the taiko drums: percussive noises are the only ones he can detect anymore.

Curiously, Samuragoch believes his hearing loss has made him a better composer. “I am not distracted,” he says. “I listen to myself. If you trust your inner sense of sound, you create something that is truer. It is like communicating from the heart. Losing my hearing was a gift from God.”

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