Home > Uncategorized > Gojidämmerung: A Tribute to Ifukube Akira

Gojidämmerung: A Tribute to Ifukube Akira

On 29 July, a film entitled Shin Gojira was released in Japan. To those in the know, last year’s announcement of this movie was exciting news, as its central “performer” had taken a decade-plus hiatus from film… that is, from work at the Japan-based studio Toho. For Legendary Pictures, he emerged in a U.S. film two years ago, under his Americanized name: Godzilla.

To some degree, this posting acts as a trip down memory lane, describing how I became a fan of the Toho films featuring Gojira / Godzilla and a rogue’s gallery of other daikaiju (giant monsters). I partially attribute my fandom to the work of Ifukube Akira (1914-2006), whose scores for various daikaiju movies lent extra emotional dimensions, ranging between profound power and pathos, to the sight of grown-ups lumbering around in rubber suits while knocking down miniature sets. However, like the Godzilla movies (or at least the better ones), both are than they have typically received.

Ifukube also created a number of non-film scores, and he cited some “legit” (that is, non-film) composers as influences. However, in keeping with the spirit of this blog’s primary interest in “unlikely” musical similarities, I consider possible connections between Ifukube’s music and that of other “legit” composers I subsequently came to place in my personal Parthenon of favourites.

The Different Faces of Godzilla

Godzilla has undergone subtle changes in appearance over the past 60 years, increasing in size to remain competitive with the increasing heights of Japan’s skyscrapers. Nonetheless, he has always been an oversized bipedal dinosaur with prominent dorsal plates, which glow prior to the discharge of radioactive flame, and acts as a virtually invincible embodiment of nuclear destruction. The U.S. atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945 occurred less than a decade prior to Godzilla’s first cinematic appearance in 1954, itself inspired specifically by the story of the Japanese fishing boat Lucky Dragon #5 unwittingly getting too close to a U.S. nuclear bomb test. For this reason, the film possesses a level of somberness that might surprise novices.

I suspect the more common association of Godzilla with “cheesiness” and “cheap” special effects comes from his increasing popularity with kids and evolution into a straight-up hero, at least in the later “Showa” era movies (1954-1975). Topped with lower budgets and recycled footage, the movies can indeed reach unbelievable levels of inane silliness.

Initial Impressions of Godzilla

Although I was vaguely aware of Godzilla as a kid, between the late 1970s Hanna Barbera animated series and an awesome Godzilla Battles Ghid… er… the Tricephalon Monster playset I got in 1980, I didn’t become a true fan until late 1984.

It was on a Saturday night in November of that year when my mother called me out to the living room, telling me that King Kong versus Godzilla (1962 J / 1963 US) was on WFFT 55, an independent channel out of Fort Wayne, Indiana. (I suspect the kids from Stranger Things also tuned in to the same station for the occasional old school horror fix.) Years before, I had seen a reproduction of the poster while flipping through the 1977 edition of The Filmgoer’s Companion (page 401), and felt hopped up at the opportunity to finally see it. At least to my 11-year-old mind, the movie didn’t disappoint. Even for a kid weaned on something as sleek as Star Wars, it was one of the most awesome things I had ever seen! Certainly with the conceit of two of the most iconic oversized monsters battling it out, it’s little wonder that Legendary Pictures plans a re-match for mid-2020… preceded by next year’s Kong of Skull Island, with its apparent (and wholly appropriate) nods to Apocalypse Now, Alien, and, of course, Heart of Darkness.

A recent re-watching of King Kong versus Godzilla, however, made me realize that the movie wasn’t that great. Points came off for the usage of brownface, some dodgy rear-projection, and Kong’s rather dopey and haggard look. Nonetheless, Godzilla himself remains a terrifying presence, his features looking especially angular and reptilian as he rampaged between the Arctic Ocean and mainland Japan.

And then there was that “roar,” for want of a better word. Difficult to translate into words, it’s usually rendered into the rather insufficient onomatopoeia of “skree-onk,” or something similar. To my mind, it sounds almost like a kind of terrifying organic carillon, piercing the air as a challenge or threat to any who would dare take on Godzilla. In his movie with Kong, Godzilla’s roar sounded like this. The roar took on numerous forms over the years, ranging between a slow low-pitched version in the original film and higher-pitched faster ones.

One of Four Fathers

The “roar” was developed by Ifukube Akira, whom Toho had also hired to score the first Godzilla movie. Indeed, Ifukube’s music generally aligns with the relatively grim tone of the film, removing it further from the “cheesy” and “childish” reputation that has somehow become encrusted on the series. But this does not preclude such music as the Godzilla March, a motif established in the title theme, and which would emerge in later movies as well.

According to a detailed account on a virtual museum dedicated to the composer, Ifukube was tasked with creating Godzilla’s roar after efforts to use recordings of animal sounds proved fruitless. Despite Ifukube’s initial skepticism, given that reptiles lack vocal chords, director Honda Ishirō convinced him that the roar could be a mutation brought about by nuclear tests. (Honda, along with Ifukube, producer Tanaka Tomoyuki, and special effects supervisor Tsuburaya Eiji, are considered the “four fathers” of Godzilla). Ultimately, a single string played vertically on a beaten up double bass, with leather gloves covered in pine tar, acted as the foundation for Godzilla’s iconic sound. Depending on the story,  Ifukube also employed a modified amplifier box, knotted rope, and kettledrum for Godzilla’s footfalls.

Even before he composed the score for Gojira and gave the big guy his voice, Ifukube had already established himself as a “respectable” composer, creating “proper” musical pieces for full orchestra or soloists. Much to my own personal amusement, given my boyhood enjoyment of Ifukube’s daikaiju scores and later fanboydom towards Richard Strauss (1864-1949), I came to learn that one such work was a 1948 ballet based on Oscar Wilde’s play Salome. This rendition of the story occupies a different sound world from Strauss’ opera, which, funnily enough, has bits that could readily accompany a giant monster movie. (Cultural theorists of varying sorts could have a field day with that idea.) Rather, at least according to an uncited contribution to the Wikipedia article on Ifukube, his Salome “is written in a conservative, late-romantic style reminiscent of [Nikolai] Rimsky-Korsakov, [Modeste] Mussorgsky or even [Aram] Khachaturian.” As a fan of Rimsky-Korsakov, I can certainly hear the affinities there… some echoes of Scheherazade, for sure. In keeping with the Russian theme, a radio broadcast of Igor Stravinsky’s (1882-1971) Rite of Spring supposedly inspired the adolescent Ifukube to pursue composition, which he later studied formally under pianist and composer Alexander Tcherepnin.

Other “classical” influences include Manuel de Falla (1846-1946) and Maurice Ravel (1875-1937), also near contemporaries of Stravinsky. As well, Ifukube drew inspiration from music of the Ainu, an indigenous people from his home island of Hokkaido and parts of far eastern Russia.

Linking Ifukube and Monster Motifs

Interestingly, I first heard of Hokkaido during my formative Godzilla movie-viewing experience. And yet, Universal decided to add some of its own stock music cues for the U.S. version of King Kong versus Godzilla, while eschewing most of the music created by a son of Hokkaido itself. Most memorably, I recognized the “Creature from the Black Lagoon” theme, which accompanied a giant octopus attack on Kong’s home island. Even before I knew anything about leitmotifs and the like, I found it rather weird that The Creature’s theme somehow ended up in this movie. Personally, though, it’s interesting to note that composer Hans Salter (1896-1994) was originally from Vienna, and studied under modernist Alban Berg (1885-1935). For comparison, listen to this excerpt  from the latter’s Three Pieces for Orchestra. Nonetheless, I didn’t mind the theme’s inclusion, given that I was transfixed by the build-up to the action promised by the title, and I knew nothing of Ifukube at the time. Besides, as with Ifukube, it was a prelude to the kinds of angsty and densely-orchestrated music I would end up enjoying years later.

It took quite a few Godzilla movies before Ifukube’s contributions to the series started to register. In fact, the next one I saw on WFFT-55 had no Ifukube at all. Instead, Gojira tai Hedorah (1971), released in the U.S. the following year as Godzilla versus the Smog Monster, opted for a far out mod score by Manabe Riichiro (1924-2015). Probably to make the movie more “hip” and up-to-date (much to producer Tanaka’s annoyance, which he targeted at director Banno Yoshimitsu), right down to the nascent environmental consciousness emerging around that time. Admittedly, the main theme (“Give Back the Sun!”), which appears several times throughout the movie, is quite catchy, along with some lounge music possessing vaguely Hendrixian stylings. However, in contrast to the motifs employed by Ifukube, the theme for Godzilla makes him sound like he’s blitzed or stoned, and then suddenly rallies to emerge from another one of his drunken stupors. “All right, I’ll do stuff that makes the damned kids happy.” (Hooray!) Also apt for the 1970s zeitgeist, I suppose.

A few months later, I saw my third Godzilla movie, purchased from Movies Unlimited for the princely sum of $39.95 plus shipping. In Ghidrah: The Three-Headed Monster (1964 J / 1965 US), Godzilla battles a triple-domed lightning-breathing dragon from outer space, with the help of oversized pteranadon Rodan and a larval descendant of the original Mothra. Unlike the aforementioned late show broadcasts, I had the advantage of being able to re-watch this one, which did a much better job of keeping Ifukube’s music. This was followed by another WFFT-55 broadcast. Destroy All Monsters (1968 J / 1969 US) features an all-star daikaiju cast wreaking havoc under alien control. Evoking the space-faring future of 1999, this one only used Ifukube’s music. I recognized motifs I had heard in Ghidrah, but which seemed to sound slower. Motif recognition continued with another $39.95 Movies Unlimited purchase: Mothra versus Godzilla (1964), typically considered one of the best Godzilla movies overall beyond the original.

By this time (around the middle of 1985), the themes associated with the various monsters had begun to seep into my head, even if I didn’t always make connections with specific monsters, and wouldn’t encounter the term “leitmotif” for another few years. I just found them memorable and exciting, nonetheless, and all of them were created by Ifukube. However, Koseki Yuji (1909-1989) wrote the score for Mothra’s original 1961 outing, including the songs used by the twin shobijin (fairies) to summon their guardian for rescue from an unscrupulous showman. Still, along with reworking some of the music by Koseki (who probably heard Strauss’ Josephslegende at least once), Ifukube created new themes for Mothra (and the shobijin) in her confrontation with Godzilla, including this sorrowful motif.

From videotapes, whether homemade recordings or deliveries from Movies Unlimited (including the U.S. cut of the original), I would audio tape favourite moments, usually accompanied by Ifukube’s score or whatever U.S.-imposed substitute, for later listening pleasure. In October 1985, when my parents and I took a trip to Knoxville, Tennessee, to visit my freshly-PhD’d oldest brother and future sister-law, I tried to suss out some of my favourite Godzilla movie themes from the keyboard in their apartment.

Putting Away “Childish Things” (and Failing)

Mind, this was all a few years before I re-discovered classical music, more or less on my own. As well, I was mostly successful at stuffing away my interest in giant monsters wreaking havoc on Japan… or at least I had learned how to pass as someone who didn’t nerd out over Godzilla. After all, it was a different time, when “nerdiness” was still looked down upon, especially in small rural towns. Still, as an undergrad at university, I did display a 6-inch Godzilla figure from years before as an obligatory desk tchotchke. In the meanwhile, beyond Godzilla 1985 (the “up-to-date” title slapped on the brief U.S. theatrical release of Big G’s return), Toho had brought back their hot property, this time as a more antiheroic force. However, subsequent films of the “Heisei” era (1984-1995) basically received no theatrical release in the U.S., possibly for political reasons. The same held true for Godzilla’s “last” movie, and all others in-between.

I only learned of these newer Godzilla films later in the decade. This occurred when the U.S.-made “GINO” (Godzilla in Name Only) came out in 1998, and merchandise related to the real deal began to appear. Ifukube lent his talents to four Heisei era efforts between 1991 and 1995, including the “last” one (which actually was Ifukube’s last, at least for an original score). He brought back motifs for old friends and (as was mostly the case in this later series) foes, including the big three: Ghidrah (now “Ghidorah”), Rodan, and Mothra. Ifukube also created new motifs for such creatures as Battra and Destoroyah. As for Mechagodzilla, its role as a defender of humankind (or at least Japan) received a heroic martial theme for Godzilla versus Mechagodzilla 2 (1993)… although the flesh-and-blood original remains more sympathetic overall, as his destructive path has some “relatable” intentions. This theme contrasts with the earlier one Ifukube assigned to Godzilla’s robotic double, when it was a tool of malevolent aliens in Terror of Mechagodzilla (1975 J / 1977 US). This earlier “final” Godzilla movie (at least for the Showa era) tried to re-introduce the kind of pathos that had been lacking from the more recent primarily kiddie-oriented flicks. This is topped with Godzilla retiring to the sea, accompanied by a resolution that almost seems to evoke Strauss at his most wistful. Indeed, the end of a hero’s life.

Expanding Tastes and Musical Connections

So I’ve regaled you with a rundown of the history of the movies featuring Godzilla and “friends” (at least from the Showa and Heisei eras), primarily through the music of Ifukube, with copious samples of themes from the movies, as well as my own personal experiences. And that’s without bringing in the two “Frankenstein” features from Toho! Frankenstein Conquers the World (1965 J / 1966 US) and War of the Gargantuans (1966 J / 1970 US) have their own compellingly tragic motifs by Ifukube, with plots focusing on oversized humanoid mutants. Plus there’s an assortment of other features from Toho that showcase Ifukube scores. But before the words get stuck in my throat,  I need to wrap up the history lesson and trip down memory lane, and focus more closely on what compelled me to write this posting (besides some degree of fanboyism) in the first place. Mainly, as hinted a few times already, the similarities between music for daikaiju films and the classical music I tend to enjoy, at least beyond the stated influences in Ifukube.

The emergence of YouTube has provided an opportunity to revisit the music from Ifukube’s daikaiju movies, along with different interpretations of them. Some of my favourites come from Ifukube 100: A Legacy of Monster Music, which was part of the 2014 GFest in Chicago. Through a Kickstarter fundraiser effort, conductor John DeSentis and producer Chris Oglio raised money for a concert featuring suites representing most of Ifukube’s Godzilla movie scores. As demonstrated in the clips below, divided between the Showa and Heisei era movies, the attendees expressed enthusiasm for the musicians’ efforts, breathing new life into music that is rarely recorded or performed live.

Along with affording users the opportunity to listen closely to such rarities alone, without the other sounds and visuals, YouTube enables Ifukube fans to post and share their thoughts. Not surprisingly, one can find the dodgy hyperbole in comparing Ifukube with other traditionally “great” names in the classical canon. Although citing Ifukube as the Mozart or Beethoven of Japan is problematic at several levels, whether in terms of vague attempts at legitimation or Eurocentrism, there’s room for discussion about more specific points of comparison. Obviously, one can discuss Ifukube’s cited influences, but one can bring in other examples of music that share some similarities, possibly as additional recommended listening.

Based on my own listening experiences, I’ve found affinities between some of Ifukube’s music and certain personal favourite composers. In particular, Richard Wagner (1813-1883) and Gustav Mahler (1860-1911). Although my personal pursuit of classical music began a bit after basically “giving up” daikaiju movies, flashes of the latter would emerge in my mind over the years upon hearing some of the more stereotypically “heavy” music of both… the second movement (Kraftig Bewegt) of Mahler’s First Symphony and the first few minutes of Brunnhilde’s Immolation from Wagner’s Götterdämmerung are perhaps the most memorable, their prominent brass and timpani being perhaps the most evocative for me personally. Perhaps too obviously, the appearance of fratricidal giants Fasolt and Fafner in Das Rheingold acted as another memory jogger. For what it’s worth Fafner gets turned into an oversized lizard (dragon), slain by Siegfried in the later eponymous opera in Wagner’s Ring.

As Mahler was fond of putting marches in his symphonies, Ifukube would usually insert at least one military march in his daikaiju movie scores. In this case, it seems appropriate to consider similarities regarding the marches. They can be rousing, but there’s a hint of impotence as well. In the daikaiju movies, it emerges in the plot… the military is sent in to take care of the threat, but its efforts are basically useless. This especially comes to the fore in the grim first Godzilla film. The Japanese Self-Defense Forces mobilize to defend Tokyo, to the tune of what would become the Godzilla March. However, accompanied by a more melancholic motif, which would also appear in subsequent movies (and can be heard in some previous clips), Godzilla tears through the city, his power too great for all the conventional military means we can throw at him.

Mahler’s own marches typically end up collapsing under their own weight… a bit too enthusiastic, to the point where one senses that he was making a statement about militarism. Indeed, as Mahler aficionado Leonard Bernstein mused in the fifth of his six 1973 lectures at Harvard, the composer (who died in 1911) seemed somehow “prescient” about the large scale horrors that would come in the 20th century. This included the two world wars, genocides, and (aptly for the focus of this posting) the threat of nuclear destruction. In this light, it seems especially apt to re-imagine Godzilla’s second attack on Tokyo in the first movie, accompanied by the first five minutes of Mahler’s Third Symphony, portraying the beast’s slow and implacable path of destruction.

If you somehow recalled from earlier the music composed for Creature from the Black Lagoon, which got slapped into King Kong versus Godzilla, it isn’t much of a stretch. Alban Berg, teacher of Creature composer Salter, admired Mahler, and was part of the same circle of Viennese artists and intellectuals. In fact (and cultural theorists might want to dig into this one as well), I even hear a bit of Berg in the clip from the 1975 Mechagodzilla motif (0:43-1:08), a specific bit associated with Katsura, the cybernetic daughter of the movie’s “mad scientist” Mafune Shinji, and which appears multiple times throughout the movie. Compare this with the concluding music from Berg’s 1935 opera Lulu, where the dying Countess Geschwitz expresses her love for the titular character over her body, after both had been stabbed by Jack the Ripper. And in Katsura’s death scene, am I the only one who also hears echoes of Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde  as well? Decide for yourself. But to my mind, Ifukube’s melancholic music seems well in line with the return to relative seriousness intended for Godzilla’s would-be final movie.

Continuing the Wagner motif, in Godzilla vs Destoroyah (1995), which was ultimately Ifukube’s final score for daikaiju movies, how could one not hear the conclusion of Brunnhilde’s Immolation (referenced earlier in this section) in what is known as Godzilla’s Requiem? Even speaking extramusically, Godzilla self-immolated. However, unlike Wagner’s Valkyrie, who brought about the titular twilight of the gods (or Ragnarok) after throwing herself on the funeral pyre for her husband Siegfried, Godzilla threatened to bring about a world-destroying nuclear meltdown… a fate that he unwittingly carried within him throughout the course of the movie. However, in both cases, I suppose one could imagine both sharing a kinship, their sacrifices tied intricately to the hubris of those who hold power.

Or Is It Just Me? Not Really…

Of course, there’s little to no documented evidence of the influence of Wagner and Mahler, or other major favourites of mine, on Ifukube. The similarities I hear between the melodies that open Salome (Strauss’ opera, not Ifukube’s ballet) and Destroy All Monsters is another idiosyncratic bit… never minding that the moon features prominently in both… or that the outfits worn by the Kilaakians in DAM and by Salome in the Götz Friedrich production of the opera bear some resemblance to each other. (Thoughts, cultural theorists?)

One thing I can say is that I was once taken to task in a YouTube comments section, after saying that a theme from a Godzilla movie reminded me of something by Wagner. My opponent indignantly stated that Ifukube “didn’t like Wagner.” Of course, I didn’t say he was inspired by Wagner… rather, I just thought the specific pieces (I believe from Götterdämmerung and the Godzilla “Requiem” from his last Heisei era appearance) sounded just enough alike for me to say so.

Certainly, in writing this posting, I’ve had doubts as to whether I should share the thoughts described in the last section… the very motivation driving this entire piece. After all, it goes against the straightforward story about influences, and suggests some degree of connection with late Romantic and early modern Austro-German composers. And this is all just, like, my opinion, man. As well, daikaiju movies somehow seem to be the last “nerdy” cultural product to remain beyond the pale of broader acceptance, while other Japanese forms like anime and manga have acquired some degree of cultural cache. (And I’ve yet to see a “Godzilla Go” app.)

Still, I’m not alone in finding such affinities. In a 2004 review from Slate, critic David Edelstein reviewed the 50th anniversary arthouse re-release of the original Gojira. He mentions the music a couple of times, comparing sections of Ifukube’s score with the same two composers (Wagner and Mahler) featured prominently in the previous section. Oddly enough, his comparisons differ from the ones I posit, but that makes my point even more compelling to consider.

The reptile’s head, with its cruel beady eyes, appears—to the heraldic low horns and drum rolls of Akira Ifukube’s stunning overture, which segues into a mournful march reminiscent of the first movement of Mahler’s Fifth Symphony, and then into the film’s most famous musical phrase, the sawing, three-note string motif…

And, at the conclusion of the review:

The deep-sea final sequence is underlit and hazy, the music deeper and slower, invoking Wagner’s Götterdämmerung; and you can only just make out the blurred monster as it contemplates the divers, seeming to await its own demise. Gojira is no masterpiece, but it has the power of a masterpiece: It’s the most emotionally authentic fake monster movie ever made.

It’s quite telling that Edelstein doesn’t mention Ifukube’s actual influences, and the musical similarities he perceives are basically akin to my own. Perhaps, then, at least contrary to the kvetching of my nemesis in the YouTube comments section, there are musical conventions that indirectly connect Ifukube with the likes of Wagner, as well as Mahler and other composers of the same Austro-German tradition… including the ones who fled the real horrors of Nazism and applied similar ideas to horror films.

Indeed, even though I can’t access it currently, and the original paper remains untranslated, a talk given a few years ago seems promising, whether for musical or extramusical reasons. As part of the 2013 symposium Richard Wagner und das Kino der Dekadenz (likely timed to coincide with the composer’s bicentenary), Jörg Buttgereit and Marcus Stiglegger wrapped up the day with the talk “Monströses Pathos. Wagnerianische Monsterfilmsoundtracks von Akira Ifukube”. There are enough cognates to guess at the topic, and they relate to things I’ve noticed in reflecting on Ifukube’s daikaiju soundtracks. There is a kind of “Wagnerian” aspect to them, along with a sense of pathos, which one can readily hear in some of the clips provided throughout this posting.

As well, SUNY Genesco visiting professor of music Brooke McCorkle completed a 2015 dissertation at the University of Pennsylvania, with a focus on Wagner within Japanese sociocultural contexts. Although I can’t currently access her full dissertation, either, McCorkle’s faculty page indicates a keen interest not only in Wagner, but also in music from Japanese films, including Ifukube’s daikaiju scores. Of course, this doesn’t demonstrate a specific connection between the two, but it makes me think about prospects for considering more formally how they might connect.

Certainly, these hints at prospective connections between Wagner and Ifukube, and perhaps even other composers of the Austro-German tradition, show great promise for future research. At least in an intersubjective sense, consideration of potential points of similarity could have implications for music recommendation, too, whether within systems-based or more personal senses. Especially now that Gojira has returned to work for Toho after over a decade’s respite, and Legendary is developing its own Godzilla sequels on the other side of the Pacific. Of course, Ifukube is no longer with us, but (for me at least) one cannot deny his role in making Gojira and numerous other monsters truly legendary.

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