Akira Ifukube, the man who wrote music for Godzilla

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May 20, 2018, 6:02 PM EDT (Updated)

This month, SYFY WIRE is interviewing some of the best composers in TV and film to get insight on the theme songs and scores that stick in our heads long after the credits roll.

One of the greatest film composers in history, Akira Ifukube (1914-2006) is the man whose music we still associate with Godzilla and Japanese movie monsters. He scored several of the classic Godzilla movies, including the original Godzilla (1954), Mothra vs. Godzilla (1964), and Godzilla vs. Destoroyah (1995), not to mention a plethora of other wonderful Japanese sci-fi movies such as Rodan (1956), The Mysterians (1957), and The War of the Gargantuas (1966).

As part of SYFY WIRE's Conversations With Composers series and to learn more about Ifukube's genre-defining work, we spoke to Erik Homenick, webmaster of akiraifukube.org, who is writing (with the blessing of Ifukube's family) the official English language biography on the composer, which can be found on his website.

It is well known that director Ishiro Honda intended the original Godzilla (1954) to be a pacifistic movie that spoke out against war and nuclear weapons. But it seems composer Akira Ifukube had a very different interpretation of that movie and what it was about.

Both Ishiro Honda and Akira Ifukube contributed to the Imperial Japanese war effort during World War II... [But] Ifukube worked as a composer and scientist for the Japanese government [during] wartime. He received commissions from the Japanese military to write various pieces of martial music, of which his naval march Kishi Mai, written in 1943, is a good example. That same year Ifukube was more or less forced by the Ministry of the Imperial Household into conducting scientific experiments on a captured British warplane, the DeHavilland Mosquito. Although his musical and scientific endeavors during the war were the result of compulsory requests from the government, Ifukube had no qualms about fulfilling them. Unlike Honda, Ifukube was a nationalist who supported Japan's military enterprises, which included the "liberation" of countries like Burma and the Philippines from their Western colonizers.

Of course, it was the atomic bombings at Hiroshima and Nagasaki that brought the war to an abrupt close. When Ifukube saw how decisively Japan was crushed by the United States' far superior military technology, he was absolutely shocked. He could not believe that the Americans were so far ahead of Japan in terms of weaponry. This made him depressed and somewhat bitter.

Ifukube, who was born on the rural and remote northern Japanese island of Hokkaido, was different [from Honda]. A self-professed "country boy," he had an affinity for the traditions of old Japan and was once described by the musicologist Morihide Katayama as having an "antipathy to the (Western) concept of modern urban life." If Honda embraced a cautious pro-technology stance in Godzilla, Ifukube interpreted the film in quite a different way.

The composer read the film as "anti-technology" and "anti-civilization." As I alluded to earlier, Ifukube became disenfranchised with what he ended up deeming the false promises of technology after he determined that the United States was far more advanced than Japan in terms of scientific progress. This is why Ifukube felt a satisfying rush of excitement when he read the Godzilla screenplay for the first time. The titular monster is impervious to the tanks and jets that attempt (in vain) to quell his Tokyo raids. That is, Godzilla cannot be stopped by the very military technology that toppled Japan in the war. Godzilla is too powerful to be phased by any of it.

Godzilla was also for the composer an embodiment of an ancient, pre-Westernized Japan. In the film, Godzilla is a pagan god worshipped by the inhabitants of Odo Island, which is geographically — as well as figuratively — far removed from the modern Japanese mainland. The monster-god is minding his own business on the ocean floor until he is violently disturbed and provoked by modern man's nuclear tests. Consequently, he rises from the depths and attacks Japan to punish that country for having broken away from its traditional past to embrace newfangled, foreign cultural values.

For Ifukube, the character of Godzilla was a metaphor for the ancient's inevitable triumph over the modern.

Did Honda and Ifukube's differing interpretations of Godzilla impact their working relationship on the film?

Despite their divergent views on what Godzilla meant as a work of cinematic art, Honda and Ifukube got along very well during the production of that film and subsequently forged a rather strong professional bond. Certainly, Ifukube would go on to score countless other science fiction films for Honda in the years following Godzilla. Ifukube once remarked that Honda was his favorite director to work with.

I should mention briefly that Ifukube's music for Godzilla vividly reflects his interpretations of the film. With all of its pulsating rhythmic drive and pounding bombast, his music is surely demonstrative of a primitivist aesthetic. Ifukube perfectly expresses Godzilla's primal being through his aggressively gruff instrumental sounds.

In addition to writing the music for the first film, Ifukube also created Godzilla's roar and the sound of his footsteps. It's widely reported the footsteps were created by striking a kettle drum with a knotted rope. I understand this is a myth.

Yes, the erroneous "kettledrum and knotted rope story" has been out there for a while. The footfall sound effect was actually the product of an amplifier box that, when struck, let out a thunderous electronic reverberation. Ifukube discovered this by accident. One day during the production of Godzilla, the composer was walking around the recording studio when he accidentally bumped into this box, which had been built by a certain Tonegawa-san. Ifukube was alarmed by the powerful, jarring sound it made when jostled. This was most fortuitous: Since he had been asked to create an appropriately imposing sound effect to represent Godzilla's massive foot hitting the ground, Ifukube immediately reckoned that this was just the "boom" he needed. He asked Tonegawa if he could record himself thumping the box to create the sound effect and was reluctantly given permission to do so.

As for Godzilla's roar, it is often stated that Ifukube "rubbed a leather glove coated with resin on the strings of a contrabass." This is not necessarily untrue, but I can offer some details that clarify the exact technique that Ifukube employed to create this iconic sound effect.

Ifukube used an old, beat up contrabass from Toho's own reserve of musical instruments. The instrument was in such bad shape that it was missing its back. Ifukube removed the strings from the peg box at the top of the contrabass but left them attached at the bridge toward the bottom. He then instructed his assistant, the composer Sei Ikeno, to grasp the E string, which is the instrument's lowest pitched string, with both gloved hands. With as much tension as he could muster, Ikeno slid his hands down the length of the string toward the peg box. The friction of the tar-covered gloves against the string caused an eerie wailing noise. When these recordings were handed over to Ichiro Minawa, the head sound technician for Godzilla, he experimented with the playback speed of the tape to distort the contrabass's anguished groans. On top of this, he layered various animal calls that had been recorded at Tokyo's Ueno Zoo to further endow Godzilla's roar with a terrifying strangeness.

What other myths about Ifukube's Godzilla score have you debunked?

Another common myth about the score for the first Godzilla film is that Ifukube composed the music for it in a week not having seen any of the film's footage and not knowing what Godzilla looked like. In reality, Ifukube worked on the score for at least several months. He first heard about the film in July 1954 during the early developmental stages. Although the film's special effects director Eiji Tsuburaya was not inclined to show other crewmembers rushes of his effects footage — it is widely reported that even Honda was not allowed to see rough footage of Godzilla — he did allow Ifukube to preview the monster in action. Therefore, the composer not only knew what Godzilla looked like when he was writing the score but also how he moved.

Looking at Ifukube's manuscript score for Godzilla, you can see very clearly handwritten notes that indicate how long certain musical cues should last in order to fit various scenes. Ifukube could not have made these notes had he not seen and timed these scenes himself — his timings are too precise.

Also, let us not forget that the famous "Prayer for Peace" number had to be written prior to its appearance in the film. In other words, Ifukube had to have prepared this music well in advance because it appears diegetically in the film. Simple logic dictates that he could not have composed the music for that scene after it was already filmed — what would the girls have been singing in the first place? By the way, Ifukube was personally on set to conduct the "Prayer for Peace" performance.

Which scores do you think represent Ifukube's best work in the kaiju-eiga genre?

After Godzilla, any of his scores from the 1950s could make the "best of" list that you propose. Rodan (1956) and The Mysterians (1957) both boast fantastic music. The Birth of Japan (1959) is another personal favorite of mine — though this is not a kaiju film per se. I think there is a remarkable freshness and ambitiousness to be found in Ifukube's soundtracks of the 1950s; this begins to peter out with Mothra vs. Godzilla in 1964. In the 1950s, Toho's monster films were still very new. I think Ifukube's scores from that era are as good as they are because he felt more experimental.

Take the scores for Godzilla and Rodan, for example. Although they are only two years apart, they have very different personalities. The music in Godzilla is often brooding and lugubrious whereas in Rodan we hear something quite different. Here, the music is decidedly more frenetic and action-packed.

By the mid-1960s, Ifukube's period of experimentation was more or less over. With Mothra vs. Godzilla, I feel that he had discovered his basic, all-purpose monster music recipe and stuck closely to it throughout the rest of that decade. While adhering to this recipe surely made it easier for the composer to write the scores for films such as Ghidorah, The Three Headed Monster (1964), War of the Gargantuas (1966), and Destroy All Monsters (1968) — just to name a few — the end result of this was a general lack of musical variety and creativity from picture to picture. That is not to say that the 1960s scores do not have great moments — they certainly do — it is just that they are too similar to each other too often, in my opinion.

I think that Godzilla (1954) is, pound for pound, Ifukube's best film score. It fits the grim mood of the picture so perfectly and laid the foundation for the composer's subsequent science fiction scores. It was truly groundbreaking.