AKIRA IFUKUBE 1914-2006
The award-winning composer was the “Voice of Godzilla”
Author: Richard Pusateri
Special Thanks to Ed Godziszewski, David Milner, Steve Ryfle, Shozo Watanabe, and Shogo Tomiyama
Akira Ifukube has joined Tomoyuki Tanaka, Ishiro Honda and Eiji Tsuburaya in the next world. On February 8, 2006, Mr. Ifukube died at age 91, in Tokyo.
Born May 31, 1914 in Kushiro, Hokkaido, Mr. Ifukube grew up in a small village with a large population of Ainu, the native people of Japan. This early exposure to the pristine nature of Northern Japan and the culture of indigenous people greatly influenced his music. The “ostinato” style Mr. Ifukube later used in his film scores recapitulated the percussive, repetitive nature of Ainu folk music and dancing.
Mr. Ifukube’s early occupation was forestry but he was always interested in music. He pursued an informal musical education while played the violin. His brother, Isao, and the music of Igor Stravinsky, especially “The Rite of Spring,” inspired Mr. Ifukube to pursue the composition of classical music.
At age 21, he wrote “Japanese Rhapsody,” and it won the Tcherepnine Prize in 1935. After this break, his musical career accelerated as he received personal instruction from Alexander Tcherepnine.
After composing more symphonic music, Mr. Ifukube began the work for which he is most famous; scoring motion pictures. He began his long relationship with Toho Co. Ltd. in 1947 scoring THE END OF THE SILVER MOUNTAINS. After scoring nearly seventy Japanese films, in 1954 Mr. Ifukube burst onto the world’s movie screens in a very big way with GODZILLA.
Mr. Ifukube was an integral member of the team that created the science fiction classic GODZILLA. While Mr. Tanaka had the original idea of a giant monster raiding Tokyo, Mr. Honda made it a radioactive bastard-child of the H-Bomb and Mr. Tsuburaya animated the group’s vision, some commentators have gone so far as to say Mr. Ifukube breathed life into Godzilla and gave it a soul. Besides imprinting the monster with the immediately identifiable theme music, Mr. Ifukube gave Godzilla a unique voice.
Without question, one of Godzilla’s defining characteristics, recognized around the world, is its roar. Mr. Ifukube created the basic element of the subliminally disturbing monster’s vocalization by rubbing a rosin-coated glove against a contrabass string. The unearthly growl is animalistic, but also has a metallic grating, possibly symbolizing the monster’s origin in a technologically advanced weapon.
In the first two minutes of the movie, during the title cards, Mr. Ifukube’s exciting Godzilla theme is punctuated by the monster’s roars and the footsteps that also serve the function of ceremonial drums. The opening theme is bold and immediate, instantly signaling impending events of earth-shaking proportions. The music is relentless and punctuated by percussive accents that hint at the violence to come.
By experimenting with a handmade loudspeaker cabinet, Mr. Ifukube created the aural element of Godzilla’s footstep; a sonorous drumbeat transcending from the music to the sound effects part of the soundtrack. The explosive footsteps heard on land, or incongruously in the ocean, can be interpreted as an ominous announcement of impending doom especially during the typhoon on Odo Island. On the other hand, the drum sound could be interpreted as an attempt to dispel a malevolent spirit. At an early part of the film, the concussive sound of the footsteps are heard just before warning sirens, mirroring perhaps the sound of a B-29 air raid that would have been familiar to many Japanese viewers in 1954. Mr. Ifukube also provided an aural signature for Godzilla’s nemesis; the stridently-bowed violins that accompany the first test of the Oxygen Destroyer.
Besides giving the monster its voice and trademark footsteps, Mr. Ifukube placed the monster’s visual appearance in the context of a global disaster with the dramatic music, alternately exciting and eerie. Mr. Ifukube’s themes brought feelings of panic or paralyzing fear to the original movie’s scenes. The music brought many other emotions; awe for Godzilla’s commanding majesty or dread in anticipation of the inevitable violence.
The percussive, dissonant music accompanying scenes of Godzilla making landfall or raiding Tokyo convey a sense of an inexorable force. The tense music for Godzilla’s approach to the TV camera crew in the tower conveys an alarmingly heightened sense of danger and impending doom. The music for scenes of destruction after the Tokyo raids emotionally conveys sadness and loss.
The monster’s themes, the military marches and the dirge-like requiems composed by Mr. Ifukube have been described by music historian Randall Larson as symbolizing the daikaiju (giant monster) movie genre. The rousing military marches typified by the “Frigate Theme” became a staple of action scenes containing the military units deployed against Godzilla. The viewers’ empathy for the now-victimized monster is enhanced by the requiem.
After GODZILLA, Mr. Ifukube created some of his most memorable music for other Toho science fiction favorites like RODAN, VARAN THE UNBELIEVABLE and THE MYSTERIANS. The VARAN score in particular, with its striking choruses, reflected the influence of ethnic music. The scores for RODAN and THE MYSTERIANS were especially eerie and filled with dread. THE MYSTERIANS had aerial combat sequences scored with some of Mr. Ifukube’s most rousing marches. In later science fiction films, Mr. Ifukube recapitulated many of the monster themes, military marches and requiems that made his 1950s scores so memorable.
In 1962, KING KONG VS GODZILLA honed the main Godzilla themes to perfection. GODZILLA VS THE THING (1964) featured the beautiful “Sacred Spring” melody that beautifully accompanied Mothra’s twin fairies, the Little Beauties pleading for consideration of nature and the Earth’s indigenous people. Later in 1964, GHIDRAH, THE THREE-HEADED MONSTER marked the introduction of King Ghidorah’s theme and perhaps the most majestic and enthralling monster battle music of the entire series.
By the mid-1960s, Mr. Ifukube had accomplished his major movie works, and the scores of MONSTER ZERO and DESTROY ALL MONSTERS sounded somewhat like reconfigurations of his earlier achievements. Perhaps that lack of originality was part of the reason he declined to work on any more Godzilla movie until 1975 and the last film of the first cycle (called the “Showa” series by fans) TERROR OF MECHAGODZILLA, which also sounded very familiar.
During this same period, other science fiction movies like KING KONG ESCAPES and the fantasy MAJIN trilogy sounded relatively fresh. Mr. Ifukube also wrote many classical works for Japanese instruments and revised his “Sinfonia Tapkaara” in 1979.
Despite the recognition and acclaim Mr. Ifukube received for his science fiction movie scores, he did not consider them his greatest achievements. He scored about twenty-five science fiction and fantasy movies, but he scored more than ten times that many other Japanese films. His scores for dramatic movies like CHILDREN OF HIROSHIMA, HARP OF BURMA (a.k.a. THE BURMESE HARP), and CHUSHINGURA are especially notable. He also composed scores for fantasies like the animated THE LITTLE PRINCE AND THE EIGHT-HEADED DRAGON. He gained more satisfaction from his symphonic works like “Bintatara.”
During the Showa Godzilla series, the tight schedule and inability to see most of the footage he was scoring, lead him to creating short, repetitive cues that were later inserted into the film after shooting and editing. In addition, he expressed dissatisfaction with the small number of musicians the budgets allowed in the orchestras, thus preventing him from bringing the compositions to life in his ideal fashion.
After the Showa series Godzilla movies ended with TERROR OF MECHAGODZILLA in 1975, Mr. Ifukube entered semi-retirement, scoring only a few films, mostly documentaries. His legacy as “The Maestro” of Japanese monster movies followed him and reportedly as a response to public demand, in 1983 Mr. Ifukube composed the “Symphonic Fantasia,” a suite of three movements based of his beloved themes from the Godzilla series and other science fiction films.
When Toho started recycling his music for movies he did not score, Mr. Ifukube (at the urging of his daughter) began scoring the 1990s series of Godzilla films (often called the “Heisei” series). Once again, he brought his magic to GODZILLA VS KING GHIDORAH (1991), GODZILLA AND MOTHRA: THE BATTLE FOR EARTH (1992) and GODZILLA VS MECHAGODZILLA II (1993). While the schedule for composing and orchestrating these movies was still tight, the orchestra was sometimes able to watch footage as they recorded the score.
Toho decided to end the “Heisei” Godzilla cycle with the monster’s death in GODZILLA VS DESTOROYAH. Mr. Ifukube felt obligated to take on the final assignment of putting to music the monster’s end. The result was a heartfelt and bittersweet farewell to the “King of the Monsters” that had been Mr. Ifukube’s inspiration and his burden.
Providing the music and sound of Godzilla may have started as an artistic challenge but over four decades it became alternately the source of Mr. Ifukube’s international acclaim and a troublesome obligation. However, for many Godzilla fans, Akira Ifukube’s work and career opened a portal to classical Japanese music and culture.
A selective list of Akira Ifukube’s science fiction and fantasy film scores:
THE MYSTERIANS (1957)
VARAN THE UNBELIEVABLE (1958)
THE THREE TREASURES (1959)
BATTLE IN OUTER SPACE (1959)
KING KONG VS GODZILLA (1962)
GODZILLA VS THE THING (1964)
GHIDRAH, THE THREE-HEADED MONSTER (1964)
DOGORA THE SPACE MONSTER (1964)
FRANKENSTEIN CONQUERS THE WORLD (1965)
MONSTER ZERO (1965)
THE WAR OF THE GARGANTUAS (1966)
KING KONG ESCAPES (1967)
DESTROY ALL MONSTERS (1968)
LATITUDE ZERO (1969)
YOG, MONSTER FROM SPACE (1970)
BIRTH OF THE JAPANESE ISLANDS (1970)
GODZILLA VS GIGAN (1972)
TERROR OF MECHAGODZILLA (1975)
GODZILLA VS KING GHIDORAH (1991)
GODZILLA AND MOTHRA: THE BATTLE FOR EARTH (1992)
GODZILLA VS MECHAGODZILLA II (1993)
GODZILLA VS DESTOROYAH (1995)
NOTE: Some of Mr. Ifukube’s music has recently become available from western labels. The original motion picture soundtracks for GODZILLA: 50th ANNIVERSARY EDITION and KING KONG VS GODZILLA have been released by La-La Land Records, and the classic music label Naxos has a handful of Ifukube cds, including AKIRA IFUKUBE: SINFONIA TAPKAARA/RITMICA OSTINATA/SYMPHONIC FANTASIA NO. 1. All are highly recommended.
SHOGO TOMIYAMA: REMEMBERING AKIRA IFUKUBE
The President of Toho Pictures offers a dedication to his friend and colleague
Author: Shogo Tomiyama
Intro: Keith Aiken
Translation: Oki Miyano
A SciFi JAPAN EXCLUSIVE
Since 1989, Shogo Tomiyama has been directly involved with the making of each Godzilla film. Chosen as associate producer on GODZILLA VS BIOLLANTE by Godzilla co-creator Tomoyuki Tanaka, Tomiyama eventually became executive producer of the series. In 2004, he was promoted to President of Toho Pictures.
As the associate producer of GODZILLA VS KING GHIDORAH (1991), Tomiyama was thrilled to have Akira Ifukube return to score the film after 16 years away from the series. The two became good friends and would work together on three more Godzilla movies that included Ifukube’s final film soundtrack, GODZILLA VS DESTOROYAH (1995). Most of Tomiyama’s later Godzilla films would include at least one of Ifukube’s themes as a tribute to the maestro’s undeniable impact on the character and the franchise.
Mr. Tomiyama has graciously accepted SciFi Japan’s request for his thoughts on the passing of Mr Ifukube. The following is a direct translation of his words…
“On the morning of February 9, I was surprised to hear the theme music of Godzilla playing on television. It was used as the introduction to a news announcement of Mr. Ifukube’s death.
He was truly one of the creators of Godzilla. Mr Tsuburaya, Mr Honda, and Producer Tanaka had passed on, but it almost felt as if Mr Ifukube would live forever. Even at his 89th birthday concert two years ago, he didn’t need a wheelchair or any assistance handling the schedule of festivities. He spent the entire evening laughing and having pleasant conversations with his many guests.
Mr Ifukube had a strong and consistent attitude about film music, and I learned so much from him. He firmly believed that a composer should use the opening and ending themes of a film to express his message of its true meaning. He was very persuasive, and I came to truly believe in this concept as well. However, when we talked about music he would often steer the conversations to other topics like natural history studies or folktales or animals from foreign countries. It was at these moments that I most enjoyed talking with him because it would reveal his immense knowledge on a variety of topics. The conversation would flow, and I would often lose track of time as we talked at length about so many things.
He had a strong appearance, and I always thought no one could compare to him in a tuxedo. Compared to his immense presence, his wife (who passed away a few years ago) seemed tiny… almost as if she were young girl of nobility. She was always very beautiful in her western-style outfits.
Mr Ifukube’s workroom at his home in Oyamadai was heavily decorated with antiques, pottery, and crafts from all over the world. The light coming in from the window would reflect lazily off of these items for a most mysterious atmosphere. It created the feelings of some faraway land, and when I was there I would sometimes forget that I was in Japan. Whenever I would dine with Mr and Mrs Ifukube in their home, it was like I was the guest of a celebrated master sorcerer from the west. I would enjoy their hospitality as they offered exotic food and drink and would tell secret stories. It always seemed to me a period of unending twilight, so the time we passed in that room is almost like a fantasy.
Not many people know that Mr Ifukube was a descendent of a long line of priests from the Ube Shrine in Tottori. The shrine’s history goes back 1400 years; one theory is that the shrine was created by the Ifukube family. From the time before the end of the Yamato Imperial Court to the present day, the blood of his ancestors is connected to that place, generation after generation. This gave Mr Ifukube a true sense of the history and myth behind ancient Japan, and he took the essence of all that tradition and instilled it into Godzilla.
With Mr Ifukube’s passing, Godzilla is now alone. But even now, the music he created for Godzilla touches the hearts of many children, and I think that is the very meaning of ‘eternity’.
I dedicate a prayer for Mr Ifukube. Now he has joined with the billions of spirits, and I hope that he will look down from Heaven and continue to protect the earth and Godzilla.