A Countless Number of Small Items:

King Kong vs Godzilla and Akira Ifukube Pt. 2

When Akira Ifukube moved to Sapporo it was 1940, and World War Two was underway. This probably wasn’t on Ifukube’s mind as he took a job in Hokkaido Imperial University’s Experimental Wood Laboratory. 1940 was also considered the 2600th anniversary of the founding of the Empire of Japan. The Japanese government commissioned Japan’s best known composers, as well as some European composers. Low on the list, but on the list nonetheless, was Ifukube. The government assigned him his topic – the history of the militarization of Japan. Instead of writing an original piece he decided to compose a new arrangement of the Etenraku, a sort of traditional Japanese court music. Akira Ifukube was committed to writing the most epic version of the Etenraku possible. His take on the traditional music would take an unprecedented six hundred performers. Six hundred performers Ifukube wanted to conduct himself, which certainly made for a dramatic conductorial debut.

The Etenraku was designed to include dancers. Ifukube was introduced to a dance troupe run by Ai Yûzaki, an artistic woman who would marry Ifukube in 1941. The performance of the Etenraku was a rousing success. The concert was performed outdoors at night, with Akira Ifukube conducting with a reflective silver baton. Fifty thousand people attended the performance, bearing witness to the composer’s conductorial debut.

This performance put Ifukube on the Japanese wartime government’s radar. Not long after Ifukube’s wedding he was dramatically flown away (Ai thought he might be arrested) in order to train soldiers in traditional military hymns. Later Manfred Gurlitt commissioned another composition from Ifukube. This piece, dubbed the Symphony Concertante, was also inspired by war. Ifukube described it as “blending Asian indigenous vitality and machine-civilization modernism.” The piece heavily featured pounding percussion, something that Ifukube would eventually be known for.

In 1942 Ifukube got word that his older brother Isao’s experimentation with luminescent paint had cost him his life.  “On the back of the soldiers there was used IFK paint, my brother’s invention. This was important as a precaution for preventing injury to the soldiers since they are holding rifles with bayonets. The luminescence was to make sure that at close range no one would run into the person in front and actually stab them.” However the massive amount of radiation involved in the process poisoned Ifukube’s brother.

Between 1942 and 1943 Ifukube composed several military pieces, as well as a piece commemorating his brother. In 1943 the government called upon Akira Ifukube in a different capacity. Ifukube’s experience with wood had made him a candidate for a project the government was working on. Ifukube had little choice in the matter, and agreed to help develop timber reinforcements for planes. He was also commissioned by the government to commemorate the Japanese liberation of the Philippines during this time.

He was still hard at work with the Ministry of the Imperial Household, working on the plane experiments in their laboratory. “The British didn’t use any metals in the construction of this plane because they didn’t want it to be detected by radar…it was entirely constructed of wood. That’s why I didn’t go to the front, because I was involved in this research.” Ifukube’s specific role was chemical experimentation. He explored the chemicals, cements, and compression technologies used on a captured Mosquito. This all meant a lot of x-rays were used, and used without the proper protection.

Akira Ifukube was then commissioned to compose a piece about the Manchurian people. This meant he got to visit Manchukuo. It was an important experience for Ifukube. He was especially struck by some of the Buddhist temples he visited: “I visited temples in Rehe and saw numerous Buddha statues embedded all over the wall. Even though each statue was humble, seeing all of them together on the wall impressed me greatly. I felt overwhelmed with an Asian feeling I got from their vast quantity and thought they were really remarkable.” He naturally filtered this through a musical lens, leading to a personal epiphany: “Even if each item is small, a large quantity of small items can be impressive. A countless number of small items gives us a different kind of impact from that given by one enormous item. This philosophy is related to the ostinato technique.” However his trip was cut short when he suddenly fell ill.

He went home, and after he started to feel better he wrote a three piece tone poem based on Manchukuo.

August of 1945 was a busy time for Akira Ifukube. Of course it marked the end of the Second World War and dropping of the atomic bombs, but it was also the month Ifukube’s first daughter was born. When September came around the American occupation was beginning to seem threatening. In an attempt to avoid getting in trouble with the Americans, Ifukube and everyone he’d been working with on the airplane project decided to burn the evidence. As Ifukube walked away from this roaring blaze he collapsed to the ground and coughed up blood.

At the time medical science wasn’t advanced enough to track down the source of Ifukube’s illness – his repeated exposure to x-ray radiation.

This illness coupled with the now plangent atmosphere permeating post-war Japan almost drove Ifukube to give up on his art. However a broadcast of the piece he dedicated to his brother gave him the push he needed. He interpreted it as a message from his brother, and it inspired him to keep going.

Akira Ifukube then moved at the behest of a friend in Tokyo. His movements were restricted by the occupation, so he couldn’t move to Tokyo. He could however move to a villa some 130 kilometres north of Tokyo, and in August of 1946 Ifukube and his family did just that. A man named Toyokata Komiya contacted Ifukube, asking him to teach at the Tokyo School of Music. Komiya was actually a protégé of the world-renowned Japanese author Soseki Natsume. Despite the miserable commute it made sense for Ifukube to start putting down roots in Tokyo, so he took the job.

Akira Ifukube continued to teach in Tokyo and compose music. His second daughter was born in this period as well. He also continued to travel and explore different Japanese indigenous tribes. In fact he ended up basing a whole piece on the music of the Nivkh people. Eventually the commute got the better of the Ifukube family, and they moved to Tokyo in 1947. That same summer Akira Ifukube was contacted by the producer who would launch the kaiju genre, Tomoyuki Tanaka. Ifukube was asked to score the film Three Villains in a Mountain Lodge. Interestingly enough, neither party knew much about the other. Tanaka didn’t even know what kind of music Ifukube composed. Instead the deal was probably brokered by a mutual friend. Luckily for Ifukube, Toho was located in the exact same neighbourhood in Tokyo he lived in. Ifukube felt embarrassed by the film, until the title was changed to Snow Trail. The composer felt that sounded more respectable.

The change in pace initially caught Ifukube off-guard: “At the Imperial Forestry Bureau where I’d worked, people were extremely well-mannered and everything was at least orderly, if not efficient. Coming from a place like that to a film studio was a 180-degree change. I was very surprised. What was most surprising was that studio people worked four times more than forestry staff. Assistant directors and everyone else were working busily. In contrast, at the forestry station, though we worked hard we did things in a polite, unhurried manner. Anyway, how hard people worked at a private company was my first big surprise. Also, no one seemed to be fazed by anything. A man wearing a topknot might walk through the commissary or a man in armor might be eating curry rice. Everything surprised me at first but I eventually got used to it.”

Working on the film, which was co-written by Akira Kurosawa, could almost have been the end of Ifukube’s film career. Akira Ifukube and the film’s director, Taniguchi, got into a spirited argument over the score for one of the film’s scenes. The romantic scene, as the director envisioned it, would have an upbeat musical cue. Ifukube felt a more sombre tone would work better with the film. The two got into a heated argument. Ifukube remembers Kurosawa breaking up the debate. “(Kurosawa) said that since the composer was insisting strongly, (we) should postpone the recording for that day, so we did that and we left. The next day I suppose there was some talk that my insistence stemmed from strong conviction and that Taniguchi should give in. Anyway, we finished the recording to my ideas.”

Despite this massive faux-pas (Ifukube was actually publicly admonished by an actor at the film’s wrap party) Akira Ifukube was almost immediately hired on another film.

Ifukube continued to work on films after this, and also composed a large number of ballets. At one point Ifukube actually collaborated with Akira Kurosawa on The Quiet Duel. What seemed like a great collaboration in theory suffered in reality. Akira Ifukube thought Kurosawa’s story was inane and illogical and frequently shared these opinions with the director. Ifukube felt he couldn’t work on a project he didn’t respect. The two parted ways agreeing to never work together again. Ifukube continued to do his own work as well as work for film, including yet another personal piece inspired by a different Japanese indigenous people. He filled the remainder of the forties with these projects, film scores, and with teaching.

Doing better than ever before the Ifukube family moved to a new, spacious house in a prestigious neighbourhood as the new decade arrived. The house even had a private room where Akira Ifukube could compose. He would live in this house the rest of his life. He also used another room to store his collection of traditional and obscure instruments. By 1952 Ifukube had written fourteen film scores. He decided to leave his teaching position to focus on scores; however before he left he published a massive textbook on composing orchestral music. It had been a labor of love for Ifukube, and is still studied in Japan to this day.

In 1953 Akira Ifukube was given the unique opportunity of working with famed director Josef von Sternberg. ”That was really a fantastic experience. He was such a gentleman. Anatahan was actually his last film – he did it for himself, and as an insult to everyone else – especially Hollywood. This film was his swan song – he was such a pictorial stylist. I discussed a lot of things with him and at the beginning it was rather difficult for me as a Japanese to understand his foreign mentality and all its fine nuances. I tried to work hard with him and I played all the different themes on the piano for him. The whole movie was full of music except only five minutes. So I had to compose a lot of music – actually one reel a day, so I completed my work in ten days.” Ifukube was asked to use more traditional instrumentation than he normally would. The director was fixated on capturing the mystical history behind some of the instruments. To this end he insisted on strange things, like making sure the koto player was blind (a common Japanese fairy tale trope).

Ifukube then went on to compose another ballet, this one driven by Buddhist texts. It was sung in Pali, a sacred language for Buddhism.

In mid June of 1954, a Toho rep came to talk to Ifukube about a secret project only signified by the letter G.

Akira Ifukube’s work on Godzilla would become incredibly iconic and come to define aspects of the character.

Initially Ifukube found it hard to get into the appropriate mindset for the score, until Eiji Tsuburaya captured the composer’s imagination with footage of a rampaging Godzilla. Ifukube then delved fully into the task at hand, taking the pulpy film as seriously as anything else he’d worked on. In fact not only was Akira Ifukube working sedulously on composing the film’s score he was also helping the sound designers out. When they came to him with their problematic attempts at designing a roar for Godzilla, Ifukube at first thought that Godzilla, being a lizard of sorts, shouldn’t have a roar at all. Honda, who wanted the menace that comes with a roar, humoured Ifukube, explaining that the newly developed reptilian vocal chords were the results of radiation. Suitably convinced, Akira Ifukube knew he could do better than the sampled animal roars that were being experimented with. Ifukube explored Toho’s supply of instruments and came across a decrepit contrabass. The old instrument was crumbling so badly it was missing a back. It was, however, still the lowest-pitched symphony instrument.

Copyright Erik Homenick

Ifukube, perhaps struck by some grand afflatus, knew the instrument needed to be played in an unconventional manner. First he loosened the strings from the instrument’s pegs. While doing this he realized the strings could be rubbed lengthwise as opposed to across the instrument with a bow. This generated an unusual wailing sound. Akira Ifukube got his assistant to “play” the instrument in this way. His assistant wore gloves coated in pine tar, then grabbed all the strings at once as if he was choking them. The resulting sound was alien and violent. “To explain (the contrabass technique) theoretically,” Ifukube said, “the vibration of the strings were combined with the noise produced by the friction.” The sound crew took the sound, played it back at different speeds, and added some echo and recorded animal noises. The iconic roar was born.

Godzilla’s roar is of almost immeasurable import to the character. Even when marketing the 2014 Godzilla film the newly altered roar was one of the key initial marketing releases.

Akira Ifukube’s skill was applied to a few other key sound effects. First were Godzilla’s colossal footsteps. He created the base for this sound by knocking an amplifier with enough force that the coils inside jostled and struck one another, an effect he’d previously discovered by mistake. Again the sound crew layered some sounds on it and used it. The other base sound he had to make was the unique sound effect that would accompany the sinking of the two ships. It was created by playing a triple forte glissando on the piano and harp, played on top of a mezzo-forte tam-tam crash. He used similar tone clusters to create the sound of the activated Oxygen Destroyer. At first the player had to smash his two forearms over the lowest keys of the piano, one arm getting as many white keys as possible and the other capturing as many black keys as possible creating a dynamic and obstreperous sound. This was then combined with a sharp tremolo played on the strings.

Akira Ifukube’s unusually complex instrumentation is all over Godzilla. His primitivistic and pall-like score lends the first film an incredible amount of atmosphere. Not only that but more people than ever were listening to and paying attention to Ifukube’s work. His family even liked the film, seeing it several times, much to the composer’s joy.

Akira Ifukube would become an integral part of Toho’s team, and the Japanese film scene in general. Not only did the brilliant composer keep working on kaiju movies until 1995 but he also became the key composer for the equally massive Zatoichi franchise. Akira Ifukube’s music became an essential part of the kaiju genre’s sonic tapestry.

His work on King Kong vs Godzilla is especially suited to the subject matter. The titanic showdown at the heart of the film really merits the titanic music Akira Ifukube brings.

Copyright Erik Homenick

King Kong vs Godzilla was also an important landmark in the working relationship between Eiji Tsuburaya and Ishor? Honda. Ishor? Honda viewed the kaiju as ultimately tragic and sombre characters. They were tortured and misunderstood creatures. The director is even quoted as saying, “I don’t think a monster should ever be a comical character.” Not only was this his personal preference but he believed it was key to the monster’s appeal saying, “The public is more entertained when the great King Kong strikes fear into the hearts of the little characters.” The thing was Eiji Tsuburaya didn’t agree. He viewed his works as children’s fare, and hated the idea of making them too violent or serious. He wanted them to be upbeat and entertaining. Some of the special effects choices Eiji Tsuburaya made for King Kong vs Godzilla disagreed with Honda, who found moments of the climactic fight unpleasantly silly.

These slightly sillier choices, when combined with the terrible gorilla suit, contributed to the film’s poor American reputation. Of course a lot of that rests on the American edit, which includes a plethora of new footage shot over just three days. The American version replaces Ifukube’s fabulous score and chops in some footage from the climax of the Mysterians. The movie was a joke in America, and a large part of the film’s frankly horrible reputation came from this edit.

After all, the film may have been disliked in America but that didn’t stop it from making money. In fact it made $1.25 million in the states. More importantly though it became Toho’s most successful kaiju film yet. In fact it still holds the record for highest Japanese attendance of all the Godzilla series. It made ¥350,000,000 and was the year’s fourth highest grossing Japanese film.

Toho immediately started planning a sequel, initially a sequel known as Continuation: King Kong vs Godzilla. This plan withered in production, however now, for the first time, Toho was looking at the Godzilla character as a potential franchise anchor. They planned to pit him against another monster icon, Frankenstein. Toho wouldn’t introduce Frankenstein into their fold until later however. In the end they decided to forgo introducing outside characters for a bit. Why bother when they’d released other successful monster movies rife with monsters that could cross over into Godzilla films?

Copyright Erik Homenick



Most Information Taken from Erik Homenick’s Work at: Akiraifukube.org

Eiji Tsuburaya: Master of Monsters

Ishiro Honda.org

King Kong vs. Godzilla

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Harry Edmundson-Cornell is obsessed with comics and film and writing, and he fancies himself a bit of an artist. He's dabbled in freelance video production, writing, design, 3D modelling, and artistic commissions. He mainly uses Tumblr to keep track of what he's watching and reading and listening to. Occasionally he uses it to post original works. You can find his email and junk there too, if you want to hire him or send him hate-mail.

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