We don't think it is a stretch to say that few people these days have heard of Akira Ifukube. Even among those who have, most probably know him for his work on Godzilla. But Ifukube is a composer worth knowing. In his life, he amassed a library of work so vast that it would take an actual library to house it all.
John Williams looks like a slacker by comparison. And that's sayin' something.
Ifukube was born on Hokkaido in an area heavily populated with the Ainu, an aboriginal people of the Japanese Islands. He studied forestry and taught himself music as a hobby, composing classical pieces by the age of 19. He began a career at Hokkaido Municipal Forest before being drafted during World War II to compose marching hymns for the Japanese military. After the war, he began writing and teaching music fulltime.
What a career it would be. His unique sound drew inspiration from the Ainu people's music and dance, which is highly improvisational and uses short, repetitive motifs. With that inspiration, he wrote orchestral pieces, ballets, and piano solos; he composed scores for more than 200 feature films; and his work was performed abroad in Europe and the United States for decades. (Source).
Clearly Ifukube has more going for himself than "that guy who composed the theme for Godzilla." Although, with that said, we do like us that "Godzilla theme."
Go Go Godzilla
Let's start our discussion of the movie's sound with the "Godzilla theme." The piece opens with heavy brass and one heck of cymbal crash. The sound conveys the weight and dominance of Godzilla, while foreshadowing the horror the creature represents. This isn't music you play when you want to unwind with a nice Chablis after a hard day's work.
As the theme picks up, we realize it's an ostinato march with the beat following the rhythm of footsteps. The tempo picks up as it goes, but the sound remains solid and weighty, reminiscent of Godzilla's rampage across Tokyo, which also builds in destruction and intensity as it goes. All in all, it's the perfect musical accompaniment to the King of the Monsters, and we're happy to see it return time and again in other Godzilla films.
Another piece we want to consider is the "Prayer for Peace." This composition's sound is mournful, but since it's sung by a girls' choir, it isn't heavy like Godzilla's theme. Instead, it's light, almost airy, to present a sense of the hallowed and uplifted, which is fitting for its message of spiritual hope in the face of earthly disaster.
What's most interesting about the composition, though, is where it's used in the story. The composition makes its first, and most striking, appearance after Godzilla's attack on Tokyo. It's played over scenes of a devastated and burned landscape that once was the country's capital, and it fits so perfectly here. However, listen closely and you'll hear the composition return at the film's finale, playing over the death of Godzilla. It's an interesting choice.
This last point shows Ifukube's use of music to enhance the images on the screen, but also his ability to join in the conversation of the story with sound. Even as the humans cheer the death of their adversary, the soundtrack suggests that we, the audience, should feel sympathy for the creature. It asks us to consider Godzilla a victim of the nuclear bomb as much as the people it killed.
Now, don't you think Akira Ifukube deserves to be known for more than just the Godzilla theme (amazing as that track is)? To get you started, you can check out a website dedicated to him here, and here's a link to "Japanese Rhapsody."
Just 'cause it's great.