Postcard from Japan: Mamoru Samuragoch

  • Share
  • Read Later

Five girls in blue-plaid jumpers, white shirts and white knee socks sit around a circle, frenetically manipulating their hands and fingers, practicing over and over the rudimentary vocabulary of sign language. In the middle of them is Mamoru Samuragoch, the 37-year-old composer who wrote the symphonic score for the popular video game "Onimusha."

Samuragoch comes to the Shinohara Middle School in Yokohama once a month, to teach the students how to sign and to help direct the school band. The long-haired musical prodigy is a reluctant poster boy. He knows how compelling his tale is, the story of a composer who loses his hearing while putting the finishing touches on the breakthrough work of his young career. He understands how his story — deaf genius overcomes handicap to write music — could inspire young people with similar disabilities. "I really didnit want people to think of me as the deaf composer" he says. "But then I realized I have a responsibility to help."

So he comes to this school, dressed in black leather, his shoulder-length auburn hair flowing, to teach five giggly schoolgirls how to sign the words to a pop song they are going to perform at a school assembly.

"Good-bye," they sign. "Now the rain is falling."

One of the girls clicks on a tape player. The syrupy strains of the boy band SMAP fill the room, and they girls coo along to the lyrics to the song, "Orange," a standard teenage break-up song. One of them starts to tear up.

"When they start singing to the music," Samuragoch says, "I can't hear it. So it is kind of lonely." He looks away as the girls sing, and sign, in unison.

I want to tell Samuragoch that in this case, he is lucky to be spared listening to the music of SMAP, and if I had a pair of earplugs, I'd happily join him in blissful silence. But the subject of sound, or rather, the lack of it, is one of intense sadness to Samuragoch, one that he finds a hard time talking about.

I suppose it is natural to be acutely attuned to sound when with someone who cannot hear. On this afternoon, I hear everything. The basketball bouncing against the pavement outside. The shuffle of studentsi slippers in the hallway outside. A lone trombonist practicing his scales. The papers on the classroom bulletin board flapping in the breeze that passes through the room. The spray of the soccer field sprinkler outside. A baseball bat slapping a ball.

"It is the most painful thing for me, not to be able to hear," Samuragoch says. He didn't lose his hearing until he was well into adulthood. "I know what music sounds like. And now . . . sometimes, I cannot bear it."

We go upstairs to the band room, a hot, stuffy room filled to capacity to some 75 kids. Some of them set up chairs and music stands and practice together in the hallway. The students are quietly respectful as Samuragoch plays a recording of one of his own symphonic movements. He has re-scored it for the band to play.

"Today," he tells them, "you are going to listen to music professionally. At this time, you probably listen to music only for enjoyment. To become a good musician, you have to learn to listen to other musicians." He names some composers, and tells them he can direct them to music shops where they can buy discounted CDs. "Think of yourselves as musicians. Don't listen to so much pop music. It will ruin you. Except The Doors.

"Please," he says, in a pleading tone. "Listen. Just listen."