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The Voice of Godzilla: The Movie Music of Akira Ifukube
A look at the enduring legacy of the king of kaiju composers.
By Randall D. Larson
September 30, 2000
There were two sounds emanating from Japan in 1954 which have had an indelible effect on science fiction ever since. One was the roar of Gojirabetter known as Godzilla to American audiences. The other was the music that accompanied the majority of his early films, scored by respected Japanese composer, Akira Ifukube. The omnipresent musicthe sprightly, rhythmic cadence of the martial music that accompanied the impotent army in their attempts to confront and destroy the monster; the savage, cavernous percussivity of Godzilla's music; and the passionate, sorrowful requiem that represents the grief of the Japanese people in the wake of the monster's attacksresounded in 1954 and gave the giant monster's first incarnation a tremendous power.
Ifukube's trilogy of thematic material recurred again in KING KONG VS GODZILLA (1962), GODZILLA VS THE THING (1964), MONSTER ZERO (1965), DESTROY ALL MONSTERS (1968), GODZILLA VS GIGAN (1972) and REVENGE OF MECHA-GODZILLA (1977), and found its way into several of the new spate of Godzilla films in the 1990s. His music also accompanied the rampages of such other venerable Toho monsters as Ghidrah, Varan, Yog, and others. Outside the genre, Ifukube scored such notable films as HARP OF BURMA, Kenji Misumi's BUDDHA, Kurosawa's A QUIET DUEL, and numerous entries in the popular Zato Ichi series of blind samurai movies.
Akira Ifukube has maintained a notably symphonic style in his prolific array of film scores, utilizing traditional Japanese styles and voicings for many of his adventure and dramatic films, while embodying his music for science fiction and horror films with more Westernized elements. Since the late 1940s until his retirement from film composition in 1979, Ifukube scored more than two hundred Japanese films, providing a broad arrangement of music for a diverse number of films.
Akira Ifukube was born in Hokkaido in 1914 and studied there at its University, where he met Fumio Hayakasa, who would gain respect as a film composer in the late '40s (RASHOMON, SEVEN SAMURAI). During his youth, Ifukube was raised in the country, where he was exposed to much traditional folk music from various regions in Japan, all of which contributed to his later style of composition. After graduation, Ifukube established himself as a composer of concert music (his Symphony was performed in Europe), until the late 1940s when Hayakasa invited him to Tokyo to join him at Toho Studios, writing the music for motion pictures.
When Ifukube started scoring films in 1948, movie music was not taken very seriously in Japan, and as a result he learned much of the skill of composing for cinema from opera music. Ifukube considers film music to be a utilitarian music that has little is any connection to 'pure music.' He once described movie music as having three functions: suggesting locations and periods, exciting feelings and moods, and establishing the rhythm of the montage. In an interview with T. Kaiyama for Toho's Works of Ifukube
record album in 1978, Ifukube said, 'Music has to sacrifice itself for other things. I do not like any scene in which drama, color and music are equally balanced. A scene can be just beautiful, dramatic, or full of music, but it should not be a mixture of all three. In other words, each scene should not contain each element to the same degree. The life of a movie is in its camera work and its drama. Music is only to support the above.'
By 1950 Ifukube was firmly established as a major film composer. In 1954 he accepted the assignment to score the film that would link him irretrievably to monster film music in the minds of many: GODZILLA, Toho Studio's low-budget premiere entry into the giant-monster cycle of the 1950s. 'I really don't know why the film company chose me as the composer of GODZILLA,' Ifukube told interviewer Wolfgang Breyer in 1991. 'I guess because GODZILLA is big and I like big things and at that time I composed for and conducted a big symphony orchestra.'
As the composer's first foray into music for this genre, it was an assignment he enjoyed. 'I'm a country boy and a megalomaniac,' he told Kaiyama. 'Some musician advised me not to work on GODZILLA, saying that once an actor plays a part in a ghost movie, he cannot go back to play an artistic role. But I don't mind it, because I felt I wouldn't be spoiled by writing more direct music.' While Ifukube did typecast himself as a monster composer, he all the same managed to continue to score serious films and dramas; although he gained little fame for his film scoring outside of Japan, he is among the most respected of Japanese film composers within his own country.
Ifukube's music for GODZILLA was indeed 'direct' musicmuch more than his drama, historical or adventure scores, which tended to be more restrained and melodic. With 1954's GODZILLA, Ifukube introduced the trilogy of musical elements that would define much of Japanese monster music over the succeeding quarter century. The stirring Godzilla March was used as battle music; repeated, fast moving brass or string patterns over militaristic drum beats represented the machinations of the humans as they either try in vain to defend themselves against the giant beasts or launch a triumphal victory. The true Monster Music, often played by low, rumbling growls from the woodwinds and brass with much percussion added, refers to the monstrous aspects of Godzilla, usually opening with three or four heavily accented, ascending notes, pausing and followed by a series of descending notes. Finally, the Requiem, an intensely sorrowful and beautiful motif which denotes the emotions of the human characters (or, occasionally, the monsters themselves, as in KING KONG ESCAPES), is characterized by a slow rhythm and a slight, ultra-sad melody, the final note of which descends dramatically below the previous note, giving it a very powerful emotional grip.
When Ifukube was hired to compose the music to the first GODZILLA film, he did so without the benefit of seeing any of the footage. He was told little about the title character, only that it would be 'one of the biggest things ever on the screen.' The composer based his musical impressions purely on reading a copy of the script. In Breyer's interview, published in Soundtrack
magazine in 1994, Ifukube said, 'I only saw the model of Godzilla and I read the script. In Japan, in most cases a composer has only one week's time to compose film music after the film is finished. I didn't have enough time, so I composed my Godzilla music before I saw the film.'
Ifukube added that he came up with the idea of using a march theme as a leitmotif for the monster from the sound of the monster's name, not unlike the kind of inspiration that resulted in James Bernard's thunderous 'DRAC-u-la' theme from HORROR OF DRACULA. 'The sound of Go-Ji-Ra resembled the musical scale Do Si La but I decided to use the minor mode key,' Ifukube said. 'I just thought it was good and striking. When GODZILLA first appears on the screen they needed strong musicjust his horrifying face would not be enough.'
Ifukube was also involved with the creation of Godzilla's famous roar. Director Ishiro Honda was highly involved in the process. 'It was his idea to accomplish Godzilla's famous roar musically,' the composer told Wolfgang Breyer. 'I loosened the strings of a double-bass and pulled them with resin-coated leather gloves; then we slowed the speed and tried other things, and that gave us Godzilla's roar.' For the sound of Godzilla's footsteps, Ifukube and Honda used an echo machine to emphasize and amplify the monster's huge footfalls.
GODZILLA was not the first time Ifukube had chosen musical means to create a sound effect. Two year's earlier in CHILDREN OF HIROSHIMA, Ifukube had produced the sound of an atomic bomb explosion by a microphone inside a piano, hitting all the keys with coins while the pedals were down. 'I understand people overseas wondered how it was done!' said Ifukube.
The trio of motifs established in GODZILLA were repeated in Ifukube's subsequent work in the genre, supplemented with a few new motifs and newly developed arrangements. It is remarkablenot beyond criticismthat Ifukube managed to score more than 20 genre films utilizing the same three thematic pieces in all of them, yet it is to his credit that, despite this repetition, most of these scores worked quite well and linked the monster movies with a similar musical atmosphere. Also, many of the GODZILLA sequels were scored with recycled music lifted intact from earlier films first film. 'For the sequels, Mr. Honda used my recorded music quite a lot because it saved us time,' Ifukube told Breyer. 'I always felt a shortage of time to compose musicespecially in the film business. Therefore I am not very satisfied with my film music, but I am glad I got into movies and I learned a great deal about orchestration.' To further compound the situation, reediting and addition of new scenes for American releases of the films often distorted, reorganized, or completely replaced Ifukube's music when the films were shown to Western audiences.
One of Ifukube's best scores, 1962's KING KONG VS. GODZILLA, was almost completely replaced for the film's US release with a new score by Peter Zinner, who also edited the U.S. version, that was far inferior to Ifukube's vibrantly savage music. In Ifukube's score, the Godzilla march was put to especially good use to enliven the scene where the immobile Kong is transported by helicopters to the waiting ship. Orchestrated for strings and woodwinds with organ added midway through, the music breathes life into the miniature models and gives the scene an enhanced exhilaration. Earlier, the March is counter-pointed against the frenzied chant of the Skull Islandersa bizarre meeting of Max Steiner and Akira Ifukube!as deep, throbbing horn chords behind the chorus creates an effectively ominous and claustrophobic mood. (This is the one snippet the remains in the American release.) During the climactic battle scene, the march is orchestrated in the manner of the horror motif, providing a neat fusion of the two musical elements.
A particularly fine version of the Requiem is used as the main theme in KING KONG ESCAPES to create a poignant elegy for the great ape, giving the film a remarkably moving, emotional feelingall the more amazing considering the hilarity of the bounding, cross-eyed, clown-in-suit Kong. After the Requiem, Ifukube's horror theme is used to a great extent in ESCAPES, horns and pounded piano and whispering cymbals, the note structure strident and dynamic.
It is not surprising that his biggest fame outside of Japan lies with these scores for the Godzilla films. While few of his adventure or drama films were distributed outside of Japan, nearly all of the fantasy films achieved great popularity in America and Europe, and fans recognized his importance to them. Not all of the fans heard Ifukube's actual music, however; it was a common practice to re-score foreign films imported into the United States, so many of Ifukube's intricate musical textures were lost to American audiences, who instead heard library music randomly inserted instead.
RODAN is a prime example of this musical mismanagement. In Ifukube's original score for the Japanese film, he created an eerie, subterranean atmosphere through use of muted horns, shrill woodwinds and tremolo violins. In the film's stateside release, all that remained of Ifukube's composition were the main and end titles, and a portion of the Meganuron Theme heard during the search for Goro in the mines. The replacement music was mostly ineffective; substituting a grating, saccharine Romance Theme as Shigeru comforts Kiyo, and leaving the film's highlight scene, Rodan's attack on Sasebo City and the subsequent jet chase, completely unscored, whereas Ifukube had provided his thrilling, brassy march to whip the action along.
Ifukube retired from film music in 1978, after composing the music for the historical film LADY OGIN, but agreed to return to the recording session in 1991 for Toho's new version of GODZILLA VS. KING GHIDORAH; he also scored GODZILLA VS MOTHRA the following year. 'Because so many fans asked me to do it, I wrote the music for two new Godzilla sequels,' Ifukube told Breyer, shortly thereafter. 'The kids still like it!' Ifukube's approach to the 1990s Godzilla provided opportunities to creatively rework the style of his monster music if nearly 4 decades previous. We have the frantic march music, the savage monster music, the sorrowful requiem, but larger orchestras and modern recording techniques gave the score a fuller, richer sound, especially in some of Ifukube's more atonal monster music. GODZILLA VS. KING GHIDORAH contains some highly evocative musical effects, notably a kind of sliding piano string and cymbal rasp that emanates and reverbs like the guttural cry of a monstrous bird. Ifukube went on to score two more Godzilla films, GODZILLA VS. MECHA-GODZILLA and GODZILLA VS DESTROYER. The former inverts some of the usual conventions: humanity's latest anti-Godzilla project, Mecha-Godzilla, receives a horror theme instead of a rousing military march, emotionally urging viewers to root against it and for Godzilla. And GODZILLA VS. DESTROYER, which killed off Godzilla (at least in that story continuity), contains perhaps the finest realization of Ifukube's Requiem music, as the radioactive beast suffers an agonizing nuclear meltdown at the film's climax.
So intrinsic to the sense of Godzilla is Ifukube's score that producer Michael Schlesinger inserted cues from Ifukube's GODZILLA VS THE THING into the American release of GODZILLA 2000 and replaced segments of Takayuki Hattori's original score with Ifukube's famous Godzilla March. While the Japanese release of GODZILLA 2000 includes one cue with Ifukube's March, Schlesinger wanted to use it more extensively, also reprised it over the end titled. 'I had to fight like hell for [that],' Schesinger said of his decision to add classic Ifukube music during an online chat for Fandom.com
. 'We actually had to license those cues from Toho and pay for them. I felt it was important to have more Ifukube in the picture, and pretty much everyone else didn't understand the importance. As it turned out, it was the one new element of our version that was universally hailed.'
As it turned out, nearly 50% of Hattori's score was replaced, and not just by classic Ifukube material. In a move harkening back to the original GODZILLA imports of the '60s, British composer J. Peter Robinson (HIGHLANDER III, WES CRAVEN'S NEW NIGHTMARE) was hired to provide new cues for the US release as well, considered more suitable to the American dub than the original score.
If anything, Schlesinger's GODZILLA 2000 points to Akira Ifukube's enduring legacy as the true voice of Gojira/Godzilla. 'When people tell me that I might have written something serious if I had not gotten into the movies, I tell them it is possible, but I might have starved also,' Ifukube told Kaiyama. 'Of course, I sometimes wish I had written serious music during that time. But when I see some composers who have not had experience in movies make serious mistakes, I feel I am glad I got into movies and learned what I did.'