Photo/IllutrationBrad Pitt visits the National Museum of Emerging Science and Innovation in Tokyo’s Koto Ward on Sept. 12 with Mamoru Mohri, right, and Naoko Yamazaki. (Captured from the National Museum of Emerging Science and Innovation’s website)

  • Photo/Illustraion
  • Photo/Illustraion

A star-struck former astronaut, a woolly mammoth and Hollywood actor Brad Pitt were involved in a real-life drama that may have ended with a possible embezzlement of Russian property.

The incident revolves around a now-missing single strand of hair. And it all started with concerns expressed by Mamoru Mohri, himself a celebrity in Japan for completing two NASA space shuttle missions.

NEVER TAKE ‘NO’ AS AN ANSWER

In summer this year, Mohri, 71, director of the National Museum of Emerging Science and Innovation in Tokyo’s bayside Daiba district, was troubled about attendance figures for a special exhibition called “The Mammoth.”

The exhibition, which opened on June 7, featured mammoth remains unearthed in recent years from the permafrost in the Republic of Sakha of the Russian Federation.

Although the species died out about 4,000 years ago, the remains were so well-preserved that plans were quickly hatched to clone the extinct beast.

One of the prime exhibits was the world premiere of a “nose of a woolly mammoth” from about 33,000 years ago, in addition to the famous head of a frozen Yukagir Mammoth.

The exhibition in Tokyo was made possible through cooperation with the Sakha Republic.

Mohri, the first Japanese to travel in space on the Space Shuttle Endeavour, urged museum staff to heighten efforts to increase the number of visitors, multiple sources said.

Just by chance, staff members learned, Pitt would be holding a news conference at the museum on Sept. 12 to promote the sci-fi movie “Ad Astra” ahead of its release in Japan.

All the pieces seemed to fall in place. Pitt plays an astronaut in the movie. Mohri was an astronaut. And the Hollywood heartthrob would be right at their doorstep.

Thinking that they could not hope for a better “walking billboard” for the struggling mammoth exhibition, the staff members asked Pitt to tour the exhibits.

But Pitt’s side rejected the offer, saying his arrival in Japan was delayed because of a typhoon and his schedule would be too tight.

“Don’t you dare ask him that,” the museum staff were warned.

But Mohri refused to give up.

“By any means possible, can we come up with an idea to make (Pitt) interested in the mammoth exhibition?” sources quoted Mohri as saying at an internal meeting.

NIGHT AT THE MUSEUM

On the night before the news conference and after the museum had closed, Mohri, with a manager of the museum’s secretarial division, entered the exhibition hall.

Mohri stopped in front of an interactive exhibit that allows visitors to put their hand in a box and touch the “real hair of a woolly mammoth.”

He stuck his hand in and drew a strand of the primeval animal’s hair.

His game plan was to show Pitt the hair either before or after the news conference. And he had his lines prepared: “This is a mammoth hair. In fact, we have a real mammoth here. Don’t you want to see it?”

Mohri was also heard saying, “Only I can pull off something like that,” according to the sources.

When the big day came, Mohri attended the news conference, brought the mammoth hair enclosed in a transparent bag, and delivered his lines to Pitt.

Mission accomplished.

After the news conference, Pitt, through a back door, entered the exhibition hall full of mammoth remains.

Mohri was delighted that the “prop” he chose worked on one of the biggest Hollywood box-office stars.

“It went successfully, just like I told you it would,” he said, according to sources.

The museum’s official Twitter account quickly posted a picture of Pitt having a pleasant chat with Mohri, along with a message saying that the actor saw the mammoth exhibition under Mohri’s guidance.

The tweet with a hashtag promoting the exhibition received enthusiastic replies. One wrote Pitt’s nickname in Japan, “Burapi,” with an exclamation mark, and added, “So cool! I want to go see the mammoth exhibition.”

HAIR TODAY, GONE TOMORROW

The precise promotional effects of using the Oscar-nominated actor remain unknown. But the number of visitors to the special exhibition topped 200,000 on Sept. 27. The exhibition had received its 100,000th visitor on Aug. 9, two months after its opening.

However, Mohri’s success does not have a fairy-tale ending.

The mammoth hair that he removed from the exhibited box has not been returned, even after the exhibition closed on Nov. 4.

Mohri said he entrusted the hair to the manager of the secretarial division who accompanied him on the night before Pitt’s news conference.

The manager was heard casually saying to people, “I might put it up for auction,” sources said.

The traveling mammoth exhibition has been held at the Fukuoka City Science Museum in Fukuoka since Nov. 23--minus a strand of hair from the box.

“It must be some kind of mistake,” Mohri said in an interview with The Asahi Shimbun. “If that’s the case, then I will correct the mistake, say ‘sorry’ and return (the hair).”

In the interview, Mohri admitted he took the hair from the exhibit and showed it to Pitt.

But he insisted he had returned the hair “through” the manager.

“I returned it immediately after I showed it to Brad Pitt,” Mohri said.

A museum official reiterated Mohri’s explanation, and said, “The hair was not taken but was borrowed.”

The official told The Asahi Shimbun that the museum as of Dec. 23 had planned to have that strand join the other mammoth hairs on display in Fukuoka.

The official said the museum bears custodial responsibility of the hair while the special exhibition is on tour.

The National Museum of Emerging Science and Innovation was established in 2001 and has been operated by the Japan Science and Technology Agency. Mohri was appointed the museum’s first director.

Kensaku Iuchi, a former chief of the Special Investigation Department of the Tokyo District Public Prosecutors Office, said the hair loss drama should not be taken lightly.

“What Mohri and the manager did could be considered embezzlement,” he said. “Thinking that ‘a single hair is OK’ is wrong. It’s essentially no different from seizing a (mammoth) nose or tusk.”

The hair, like many other exhibited items, is the property of the Republic of Sakha.

“They didn’t seem to do it out of malice, but the action itself was imprudent,” Iuchi said. “They seriously lacked a sense of ethics as scientists, and their management was all too sloppy.”