Akira Ifukube Interview I

by David Milner

Translation by Yoshihiko Shibata

Akira Ifukube

(Conducted in December 1992)

Akira Ifukube, one of Japan's most highly regarded classical composers, scored GODZILLA - KING OF THE MONSTERS (1954), TERROR OF MECHAGODZILLA (1975), GODZILLA VS. MOTHRA (1992), and many other science fiction films. He also scored numerous dramas and period movies.

David Milner: I was very sorry to hear about the recent death of Shinichi Sekizawa. How well did you know him? (Mr. Sekizawa wrote the screenplays for MOTHRA (1961), GODZILLA VS. MONSTER ZERO (1965), GODZILLA VS. GIGAN (1972), and many of the other science fiction films that have been produced by the Toho Company Ltd.)

Akira Ifukube: We never met. BUDDHA (1961) is the only movie on which I worked with a screenwriter.

DM: How did you become interested in music?

AI: I was born in a very small village in Hokkaido. My father was the mayor. The population of the village was half Japanese and half Ainu. So, I was raised with the folk songs of both the Japanese and the Ainu. (The Ainu are Japan's equivalent of the American Indian.)

I began my music career as a performer in the student orchestra at school. Then, while I was in college, I became a concert master. I performed many European classical pieces, but I really liked only Igor Stravinsky's and Manuel de Falla's music. That was because their music was very different. It is what made me decide to become a composer.

The Ainu, with their improvisational style of both composing music and dancing, greatly influenced me. I became very different from the other music students, who had been raised with European pieces, because of this. They had been taught that composition is very difficult, but to me, it seemed relatively easy because of the freedom allowed for by the improvisational style of the Ainu.

DM: Do you think that perhaps it was easier for you to write music not only because of your Ainu influence, but also because you were gifted with a talent for music?

AI: I really don't know how to answer that question.

DM: You mentioned Stravinsky and de Falla. Do you especially like the music of any other classical composers?

AI: Modest Musorgsky, Johann Sebastian Bach, Maurice Ravel, and Robert de Visee. He was a lute player who would perform lullabies while Louis XIV of France went to sleep. Sergei Prokofiev, too.

DM: Not Ludwig van Beethoven or Wolgang Amadeus Mozart?

AI: I have performed their music, and it certainly is great, but I can't really relate to it. It culturally is just too different.

DM: Is there any contemporary music that you especially like?

AI: I don't pay much attention to popular music.

DM: Kitaro has become popular in the United States. What do you think of his music?

AI: Kitaro's harmony is European, but his melodies are Asian. This combination is what makes his music popular in the United States. Kitaro is very well known in Japan, but he is not as popular here.

DM: You have said that your favorite of your film scores is the one you wrote for GODZILLA - KING OF THE MONSTERS. Which of your other scores do you especially like?

AI: Unlike American film score composers, Japanese film score composers are given only three or four days in which to write the music for a movie. Because of this, I have almost always been very frustrated while writing a score. I therefore can't select any of my scores as favorites.

DM: Are you especially unhappy with the way any of your scores turned out?

AI: Several, but I can't say which ones. I am unhappy with them not because the music is bad, but instead because the movies are not well suited for my kind of music.

DM: I have heard that you scored GODZILLA - KING OF THE MONSTERS without seeing any footage from the film. Is this true?

AI: The relationship between Eiji Tsuburaya and myself was a very unique one. (Mr. Tsuburaya directed the special effects for not only the first seven Godzilla movies, but also RODAN (1956), MOTHRA, KING KONG ESCAPES (1967), and many of Toho's other science fiction films.)

Back in the late 1940s, Mr. Tsuburaya was purged by the General Headquarters of the United States occupation forces because he had worked on war movies. Mr. Tsuburaya therefore could no longer work on films. One day, while I was living in Kyoto, I was drinking sake with a friend of mine who was an actor, and a man came to visit the actor. The actor knew that the man had no money because he was unemployed, so he gave him some sake. I met the man several more times, and I always gave him some sake when I did.

Shortly after I was commissioned by Toho to score GODZILLA - KING OF THE MONSTERS, I was introduced to the person who was going to direct the special effects for the movie, and it turned out to be the man to whom I'd given sake a number of times. Mr. Tsuburaya, who would never show his rushes to anyone, must have felt indebted. He would allow me to see the rushes. That continued until the day he died.

DM: Your early film scores are all written for small orchestras. Did the studios force you to use small orchestras?

AI: The size of the orchestras was mandated by the studios. In the age of silent movies, the orchestra would have to fit into a pit in front of the screen. So, a small orchestra was what seemed to be appropriate to people in the film industry. In addition, the recording studios that we used were pretty small, so there were physical limitations on the size of the orchestras.

DM: Would you have written your early scores differently if you had been able to use larger orchestras?

AI: Yes. Absolutely.

DM: Your marches all have relatively simple melodies. However, many of them are in complex time signatures. How did you develop this style of writing marches?

AI: It was not a conscious decision. It is simply the way I write music. I do, however, consciously try to keep my music from sounding too European.

DM: Do you compose and orchestrate at the same time?

AI: There are two types of composers. Like Stravinsky, some always are aware of the instrument that will be playing a given melody. However, other composers do work out the orchestration only after they have finished composing.

I'm like Stravinsky. I always write music with specific instruments in mind.

DM: Many composers feel that doing the orchestration afterward is more difficult. Do you feel this way?

AI: Yes. Doing the orchestration afterward is much more difficult. The same melody can make a very different impression when played on different instruments.

DM: I have heard that you created the roar and the footfalls of Godzilla. Is this true?

AI: One of Toho's electrical engineers made a simplistic amplifying device some time before production on GODZILLA - KING OF THE MONSTERS got underway. It was just a box that had several coils connected to an amplifier and a speaker in it. When you struck it, the coils would vibrate, and a loud, shocking sound would be created. I accidentally stepped on the device while I was conducting the score for a movie that was produced shortly before GODZILLA - KING OF THE MONSTERS was made. I said, "What the heck is that?" when I heard the noise that was produced. When I was asked to create Godzilla's footfalls, I decided to use the device.

For the roar of Godzilla, I took out the lowest string of a contrabass and then ran a glove that had resin on it across the string. The different kinds of roars were created by playing the recording of the sound that I'd made at different speeds.

Toho's sound engineers previously had tried to use the roars of many different animals for Godzilla's roar. They went to a zoo and recorded the roars of many different mammals, but no matter how the sounds were manipulated, they seemed too much like the roars of each of the animals. The sound engineers also tried to alter the call of a night heron bird, but that also was not successful.

DM: The scene in GODZILLA VS. GHIDRAH (1991) that features a number of tanks approaching the spaceship from the future is very similar to the one in DESTROY ALL MONSTERS (1968) that features a number of tanks approaching the Kilaak base. In addition, the scene that features a number of F-15s attacking Ghidrah is similar to the one in RODAN that features a number of F-86s attacking Rodan. The music that is heard during these two scenes in GODZILLA VS. GHIDRAH is the same as the music heard during the similar ones in the earlier films. Was your intention to remind the members of the audience of the scenes in the earlier movies?

AI: I'm amazed that you remember those scenes so well!

At first, the Japanese Self Defense Force said that it could not cooperate with Toho in the production of GODZILLA VS. GHIDRAH because of the possibility of classified information being revealed. However, an officer of the JSDF came to see the rushes of the film, and he agreed to allow footage of F-15s to be used. The the length of the sequence in which the F-15s attack Ghidrah then was changed. I therefore had to change the piece that I'd written for the sequence. The score was going to be recorded the following day, however, and I had no time in which to compose a new piece of music. So, I looked through the motion picture library, and found that the theme I'd written for RODAN would fit. That's why I used it.

I used the theme from DESTROY ALL MONSTERS for the sequence in which the tanks approach the spaceship from the future for the same reason.

By the way, the scenes in GODZILLA VS. MOTHRA that feature the glowing title and NASA officials detecting a meteor approaching Earth were both added at the last moment. So, I had to modify my original score for the movie to accommodate those changes.

DM: Speaking of GODZILLA VS. MOTHRA, I very much like your new arrangement of SONG OF MOTHRA, but why did you increase the tempo of the piece?

AI: Takao Okawara set the length of the sequence into which I had to fit that piece, and it forced me to speed up the piece a little bit. (Mr. Okawara directed GODZILLA VS. MOTHRA. He also directed SUPER GIRL REIKO (1991).)

DM: What do you think of the scores to GODZILLA 1985 (1984) and GODZILLA VS. BIOLLANTE (1989)?

AI: I don't know much about the score for GODZILLA 1985. However, my impression of GODZILLA VS. BIOLLANTE is a negative one, both in terms of the direction and the music. For example, the music that is heard while the scenes that take place in Saradia are shown is just ridiculous. The composer used European music instead of some modern Arabic music. (The score for GODZILLA VS. BIOLLANTE was composed by Koichi Sugiyama.)

By the way, during the production of GODZILLA VS. BIOLLANTE, Toho asked for permission to use some of my music in the film. I said that I would allow its use as long as it was not turned into popular music. Toho agreed to that, but just before GODZILLA VS. BIOLLANTE was completed, a Toho representative came to me and said, "Well, your music was turned into popular music." By that time, it was too late to do anything about the situation.

After GODZILLA VS. BIOLLANTE was released, my daughter came to me and said, "No matter how much you try to escape from Godzilla movies, Toho always uses your name and your melodies, so why don't you just score the next Godzilla film yourself?" That is why I agreed to work on GODZILLA VS. GHIDRAH.

DM: What do you think of the work of John Williams?

AI: I have some of his recordings. I don't see many movies, but some people have told me that his music is similar to mine.

DM: TriStar Pictures is planning to produce a Godzilla film in the United States. How would you feel about the studio using your music in the movie?

AI: It is hard for me to imagine that my music would be used in the film. I don't think that American audiences would accept the tonal character of my music.

DM: One last question - should Beethoven have included vocals in his Ninth Symphony or not?

AI: He should have called the piece a symphonic cantata instead of a symphony.

Akira Ifukube Interview I © 1998 David Milner