Akira Ifukube

By Randall D. Larson
Originally published in CinemaScore #15, 1986/1987
Text reproduced by kind permission of the editor and publisher Randall D. Larson

Akira IfukubeFilm music in Japan has tended to follow one of two, or perhaps three, directions. Much music is derived from historical Japanese musical traditions, particularly in older films and, of course, historical dramas. But there has been an increasing tendency to adapt Western musical influences, and often composers find themselves alternating between the two modes from film to film, as Masaru Sato did with his scores for THRONE OF BLOOD (very traditional Japanese music, based on Noh Theatre) and SUBMERSION OF JAPAN (Western jazz/pop). Perhaps most musically interesting has been a merging of the two, as ably demonstrated by respected composer Toru Takemitsu in his classical works and many film scores, such as that for Kurosawa’s RAN.

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 music. Since the late 1940’s until his retirement from film composition in 1979, Ifukube scored more than two hundred Japanese films, providing a broad arrangement of musics for a diverse number of films. Best known outside Japan (and in some cases scorned for) his music for Toho’s Godzilla and similar monster films, Ifukube has in fact scored many more pictures of different kinds, but most of them are not exported outside of Japan.

Akira Ifukube was born in Hokkaido in 1914 and studied there at its University, where he met Fumio Hayakasa, another composer who would gain respect as a film composer in the late 40’s. Ifukube and Hayasaka performed together at Hokkaido, Ifukube on violin and Hayasaka accompanying on piano. During his youth, Ifukube was raised up in the country and was exposed to much traditional folk music from various regions in Japan, all of which contributed to his later style of composition. “The reason for my paganish air is probably due to my upbringing,” Ifukube said. “I was born in Kushiro (Hokkaido) but I was brought up in the middle of Tokatsu Plain. There was a school for Ainu and another for Japanese. I heard more Ainu songs than Japanese when I was small. Since Japanese came from all parts of Japan, I heard folk songs of difference localities.”

After graduation, Ifukube established himself as a composer of concert music (his Symphony was performed in Europe), until the late 1940’s when Hayakasa invited him to Tokyo to join him at Toho Studios, writing the music for motion pictures. Ifukube accepted and, at the same time, started to teach music at Gei-Dai University.

Ifkube’s first film score was for Senkichi Taniguchi’s TO THE END OF SILVER MOUNTAINS. “The movie was originally named THE THREE VILLAINS OF THE MOUNTAIN HUT,” Ifukube later recalled. “I thought that was a terrible name! I told them I was too ashamed to work on such a movie. So they changed the name.” *

This wasn’t the first disagreement Ifukube would have with the filmmakers on END OF SNOW-CAPPED MOUNTAINS. “Everything went smoothly at the beginning,” Ifukube explained. “But, there was a beautiful scene at the top of a mountain in which Setsuko Wakayama and Akitake Kono were skiing. I wrote a solo for a woodwind instrument because I wanted a little sound of wind added to the music. But Mr. Taniguchi was dead against my idea and wanted me to write something similar to the ‘Skater’s Waltz.’ We kept on arguing until next morning. Finally I said I will drop the whole thing if my idea is not accepted.” In the end it was decided to follow the opinion of the composer, an indication of Ifukube’s stature even on his first film assignment. “The reason I thought about the woodwind was because if you used a horn, for instance, it might give the feeling of nature’s vastness, but it won’t give the feeling of love between a boy and a girl. Mr. Taniguchi later said he was interested in my idea. However, people started to think I was easy to get into fights with directors!” Despite this initial friction, Irukube and Taniguchi went on to collaborate on several other films over the years.

When Ifukube started in film music 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 which has little is any connection to “pure music.” He once described movie music as having four functions: suggesting locations and periods, exciting feelings and moods, and useful in the rhythm of the montage. This has given rise to some criticism from Japanese critics, such as Kuniharu Akiyama, who feels Ifukube is cool and nihilistic about movie music.

“That might come from the idea that I consider film not an art but something utilitarian,” Ifukube responded. “From the time of Greek tragedy, there was something in drama that could not coexist without music. When music starts to create its own world, visual and dramatic elements get pushed away. I think film music must have its own microcosm. The perfect sound will have no room for visual and dramatic phases. 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. A musical can be weak dramatically. An opera might have a very simple story. The life of a movie is in its camera work and its drama. Music is only to support the above. That’s how I feel.”

Ifukube continued to score dramas and adventure films, including Akira Kurosawa’s A QUIET DUEL (he had become acquainted with the noted director while scoring several films for director Senkichi Taniguchi which Kurosawa had scripted). Ifukube established and maintained regular collaborations with directors such as Kon Ichikawa, Hideo Sakikawa, Hiroshi Inagaki, Daisuke Ito and Kenji Misumi. By 1950 he was firmly established as a major film composer along with his friend from Hokkaido, Fumio Hayasaka (the latter became Kurosawa’s regular composer from 1948 until his untimely death in 1955). In 1954 he accepted the assignment to score the film which would link him irretrevably to horror film music in the minds of many. The film was GODZILLA, Toho Studio’s low-budget premiere entry into the giant-monster cycle of the 1950’s.

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 said. “I get happy when I see big things. 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 and, although he gained little fame for his film scoring outside of Japan, is among the most respected of Japanese film composers within his own country.

Ifukube’s music for GODZILLA was indeed “direct” music – much moreso than his drama, historical or adventure scores, which tended to be more restrained and melodic. GODZILLA – and, remarkably so, every monster score he would write over the next twenty-five years ÄÄ was rooted in same three musical elements. The first is heard in the main title of GODZILLA: a stirring march (used as a ‘Battle Theme’) for fast moving brass (or strings, elsewhere) over militaristic drum beats represents the machinations of the humans as they either try in vain to defend themselves against the giant beasts or launch a triumphal victory. Secondly, there is the ‘Horror Theme,’ often played by low, rumbling growls from the woodwinds and brass with much percussion added. This motif refers to the monstrous aspects of the creatures, usually opening with three or four heavily accented, ascending notes, pausing and followed by a series of descending notes. Finally, there is 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.) The Requiem 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.

This trio of motifs was established in GODZILLA and repeated in Ifukube’s further work in the genre with few new motifs created to supplement them. It is remarkable, and not without criticism, that 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.

The Horror motif became the main themes for RODAN, KING KONG VS GODZILLA and MAJIN THE HIDEOUS IDOL, the latter film (Daiei Studio’s samurai version of the golem legend) given a strong, oppressive atmosphere of doom through the groaning, warbled music. The March became the primary theme for THE MYSTERIANS and BATTLE IN OUTER SPACE, Toho’s two outer space spectaculars, DOGORA THE SPACE MONSTER and others. A particularly fine version of the Requiem is used as the main theme in KING KONG ESCAPES to create a poignant paen for the great ape, giving the film a remarkably moving, emotional feeling — all the more amazing considering the hilarity of the bounding, cross-eyed, clown-in-suit Kong.

While the Toho monster films started out seriously enough, by the mid-60’s they had degenerated into silly juvenilia with endlessly reworked sequels and “Meets”, and Ifukube’s music gradually became forced and self-derivative, with fewer new variations in his trio of staple themes. All the same, even laughable turkeys like KING KONG ESCAPES, gained a degree of futile respectability through Ifukube’s music (as well as the consistently top-notch miniature effects work).

When Ifukube was hired to compose the music to the first GODZILLA film, he did so without the benefit of seeing any of the film’s footage. He was told little about the title character, only that it would be “one of the biggest things ever on the screen.” As Ed Godzizewski wrote in ‘The Making of GODZILLA’ [Japanese Fantasy Film Journal #13, p. 21], “Ifukube took his copy of the script and authored a powerful composition for the picture. Audience’s seldom forget the ominous, pounding march heard during [Godzilla’s] rampage through Tokyo, conjuring up an atmosphere of death.”

Ifukube was also involved with the creation of Godzilla’s famous roar, which he accomplished musically. “I loosened the strings of a contrabass and pulled them with resin coated leather gloves,” Ifukube explained. “We slowed the speed and tried other things. As for the sound of Godzilla’s footsteps, we found that the echo machine Mr. Tonegawa made turned out to be perfect.” It wasn’t 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 and hitting all the keys with coins while the pedals were down. “I understand people overseas wondered how it was done!” said Ifukube.

It is not surprising that his biggest fame outside of Japan lies with these scores for the Godzilla family of horror 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 their fans recognized his prevalence among them. Not all of the fans heard Ifukube’s actual music, however, as it was a common practice to re-score foreign films when 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. While Ifukube’s original score for the Japanese film is ranked among his best compositions, according to Japanese fantasy critic Ed Godzizewski, who wrote that “with the use of muted horns, shrill woodwinds and quivering violins, Ifukube succeeded in creating an eerie, sub-strata impression. [An] example of such effect occurred when Shigeru’s amnesiac memory was jarred by witnessing the hatching of a bird’s egg. A loud, harsh chord sounded as the egg cracked open, followed by a variation of the main theme as Shigeru relives the hatching of Rodan in his mind.” 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 [aliens’] theme heard during the search for Goro in the mines. The replacement music was mostly inefective; 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 where Ifukube had provided his thrilling, brassy march to whip the action along.

In contrast to his fantasy and horror scores, Ifukube’s music for historical films are far more delicate, often utilizing choir and traditional Japanese music. In A WHISTLE OF KOTAN, he drew his score from historical folk music from older Asiatic races such as Ainu, Giriyak, Oroko and Keelin, and much of the musical atmosphere is conveyed via chorus intoning this ancient music. “Instruments alone get too loud and do not give the feeling I want,” said Ifukube. “So I go after human voices. However, I cannot go all the way to singing either. Human voices are heard through the reverberation.” THE THREE TREASURES, a samurai fantasy directed by Hiroshi Inagaki, was also drawn from traditional Japanese folk music, emphasizing chorus (singing a wordless chant over rhythmic drum pounds, as in the opening). The choir also sings an intriguing variant on Ifukube’s Horror Motif, in which a similar melody is given a unique effect by the singers. Another rich fantasy score was for the animated fairy tale, THE LITTLE PRINCE AND THE 8-HEADED DRAGON, which balanced Ifukube’s Requiem and Horror motifs with a resonant, clear trumpet theme, and a wailing female choir singing a poignant melody.

HARP OF BURMA, one of Ifukube’s most noteworthy historical scores, had to use existing music performed by Japanese harpist Mizushima. “The way he played was unique,” Ifukube said. “It did not follow the normal European rules. I purposely made it so that musicians will notice something is wrong. Actually, nobody could play that [particular] harp. So we substituted a regular harp played by the late Yoshie Abe. Nylon string was replaced with sheep string to get better sound. But they were expensive and broke easily.”

The biggest film Ifukube scored, in terms of orchestral size, was Kenji Misumi’s BUDDHA, a sweeping religious film with mystical fantasy elements in which Ifukube emphasized the bass section. “I like good foundation with contrabass in it,” said Ifukube. “I like low sound. In the case of recording for movies, there is a limit in the number of musicians. My usual number of players for the string section are 8 first violins, 6 second violins, 4 violas, 3 cellos and 2 contrabasses. When we are short of money we eliminate the first violins. This is going to sound cheap and people will notice, so I tend to lower violins and raise cellos to compensate. This tends to lower the music as well.”

The low-ness of sound in much of Ifukube’s work also coincides with his preference in using the requiem, the sorrowful melody which figured so often in his monster scores as well as in other films, such as SANDAKAN 8, and leant such a profoundly haunting, dirge-like atmosphere to much of his music. One Japanese reviewer told Ifukube that his music “seems to be related to peace preceded by destruction or death, followed by birth. It is some sort of requiem.”

Akira Ifukube

“The reason my music sounds like a requiem is because of the scales,” the composer replied. “In Japanese music, the one above the ending tone is a half tone. One below is a full tone. This cannot be classed as a major key nor a minor key. I value our traditional sense of beauty. When Westerners hear my music, they think of church music of the Middle Ages; when Japanese hear it, it sounds like Japanese but its tempo is slow and sounds like a requiem. Another reason may be that I change from 3/4 to 4/4 and 5/4 frequently.”

Ifukube’s preference for strings may have much to do with the fact that he studied and played violin since his earliest days in music at the Hokkaido University. “I like melody and I like to mix sounds,” Ifukube said. “I think, generally speaking, people who started with string instruments like melodious and less mobile music. When I write music, I start my outline using string instruments. The tone quality of string gives a sense of loudness; it has expression. I think, next to human voice, the string instruments are the most important.”

If strings are Ifukube’s melodious instrument, the piano represents aggression and dissonance. He makes dominant use of both the keyboard and the piano strings themselves in many scores, especially the monster films. “The string instruments and orchestra are not always powerful enough,” he said. “Then I use brass, percussion instruments and piano to their fullest. I don’t like piano, but I use it often for movies.”

Other films made use of particular instruments as matches the specific mood Ifukube was looking for. Once again, it is in the non-horror films to which non-Japanese listeners are most unfamiliar, that best demonstrate Ifukube’s compositional range. JAPAN ARCHIPELAGO featured a remarkable score featuring solo guitar. “I wanted to express the feeling of the leading actor being overpowered by unknown forces,” Ifukube said. “I did that by having the orchestra taking over the guitar solo. Solo piano is used commonly nowadays, but it sounds a little too aristocratic. So I used a guitar.”

SHINRAN made strong use of voices, including that of Ifukube’s himself, due to a peculiar quirk. “Mr. Denjiro Okochi was supposed to sing ‘makuzugahara’ after he rose to the rank of the archbishop Shinran,” said Ifukube. “I handed him a score, but he just couldn’t understand it. The producers asked me to tape my voice for him to use as a reference. I happened to have a cold at the time, but I sang anyway accompanied by a koto. When the movie was finished, I found out that my voice was used! To my great surprise, my hoarse voice matched Mr. Okochi’s perfectly!”

THE SAGA OF ANATAHANIn 1953 Ifukuube scored THE SAGA OF ANATAHAN, directed by the American director Josef Von Sternberg, one of the composer’s rare cases of scoring a non-Japanese film. “The editing of the film was finished,” Ifukube recalled. “We played one reel a day and I made piano sketches while von Sternberg coached me. Then I went home and orchestrated the day’s work. There were eleven reels, so it took me eleven days to finish. Besides the orchestra, we had four koto, four kokyu, four stringed fiddle and an old Chinese instrument. Von Sternberg insisted on blind koto players! Later, we had people who could read music to tap on the shoulder of the koto player when the baton came down. But we still had trouble. Von Sternberg liked saying it was mystic. I didn’t understand that.”

Akira Ifukube’s approach to film scoring remains a thoughtful and calculated one, and is often characterized by a sparseness rather than an overabundance of music. “Music has to have enough time to create an image, except when a ‘bang’ is used for a surprise,” said Ifukube. “I try not to use music as bridges. It is my policy to express, not to explain. Hollywood movies often use music to introduce a new scene. French movies usually play music longer and make you feel like whistling. Hollywood movies have their music well-fitted to each scene, but when it is over, there is no melody left. I like the French style better, and it is easier to work with. I became famous for eliminating music and Mr. Isao Kimura probably copied me. When a director says ‘I need music here,’ I light a cigarette and go into deep thinking. My staff liked that.”

In 1979 Ifukube retired from film music composition after having scored LADY OGIN [LOVE AND FAITH, in USA]. He continues to teach music full time. Reflecting on his career in movies, particularly in view of his being an established composer prior to his involvement with cinema, Ifukube remarked that “In the case of pure composition, there is less of a chance to rework things. I learned a great deal about orchestration. On the other hand, it is common among movie makers to emphasize the music too much as an effect and the true spirit of music becomes lost. We get good at making something sound like a cheap scarecrow.

“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. 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.”

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