Monday, May 13, 2013

Memories of Akira Ifukube’s 99th Birthday Concert

AKIRAIFUKUBE.ORG and Rapsodie Japonaise correspondent Brett Homenick recently attended a concert to commemorate the 99th anniversary of Akira Ifukube's birth. Here his his report from the event as well as some photos. Thanks Brett!

On May 2, 2013, the Suginami Koukaidou in Tokyo hosted Akira Ifukube’s 99th Birthday Concert. Starting at 7:00 p.m., the concert lasted two hours and paid tribute to one of Japan’s greatest composers.

Brett in front of the concert hall

Before the festivities kicked off, I was able to meet one of my favorite Japanese composers, Mr. Riichiro Manabe. Manabe-sensei was a participant in this concert and continues to ensure that Ifukube’s music is heard by generations to come. I was surprised at how much English Manabe-sensei spoke. After talking for quite some time, I came away with a new admiration for the man himself. Hopefully an interview with Manabe-sensei will become possible down the line.

Godzilla vs. the Smog Monster director Yoshimitsu Banno was also on hand for the concert. Although he wasn’t involved in an official capacity, he came to enjoy the music. But he also came to reunite with his Smog Monster composer, Manabe-sensei. The two had not seen one another since Smog Monster was completed in 1971! Suffice it to say, the Godzilla fans who were lucky enough to witness the reunion are sure to remember it for years to come.

Two kaiju eiga legends: Riichiro Manabe and Yoshimitsu Banno

During the First Stage of the concert, the proceedings commenced with a performance of “Marche Triomphale for Piano Solo” (1943/2008), arranged by Satoshi Imai. Pianist Megumi Ikeda delivered a fantastic performance, setting the stage for what would become a memorable night for any Ifukube aficionado.
Next was “Lauda Concertata for Piano and Marimba” (1976/1979), arranged by Hirohiko Nagase. Ms. Ikeda returned to the piano, and Mizuki Aita skillfully performed the marimba. The third part of the first stage saw Makoto Inoue emcee the Film Score Selection (music engraving by Sohei Kano), which featured tracks from such kaiju eiga classics as Dogora the Space Monster (1964) and Yog Monster from Space (1970). The Film Score Selection was immediately followed by “Symphonic Fantasia No. 1 for Piano Solo” (1983/2010), arranged by Motoji Yssimal. The tireless Megumi Ikeda once again performed on the piano, effectively capturing the spirit of Symphonic Fantasia.

Brett with the pianist Megumi Ikeda

Afterward, the concert broke for 10 minutes. When the lights went back down, the Second Stage of the concert commenced. In the biggest surprise of the night, Riichiro Manabe’s “Reminiscence for Vibraphone” (2013), arranged by Yoichi Kiyomichi, was performed. I was quite surprised to learn that Manabe-sensei was still composing new music, and, as a longtime fan of his, it was quite a treat to listen to this new composition. Mizuki Aita did the piece justice on vibraphone. Following that, “Trois Esquisses pour Piano 1. Air 2. Feu 3. Eau et Terre” (1967) by Masayuki Nagatomi was performed, again by the night’s MVP, Ikeda-san.

Next on tap was “Metamorfosi Rapsodiana No. 2 per Marimba Percussioni e Piano” (2013) by Shigeyuki Imai. With Ikeda-san on piano and percussion by Mizuki Aita and Harue Tomioka, it went off without a hitch. That was followed by “Homage to Ritmica Ostinata for Three Players” (1961/2013), arranged by Kazunori Yoshihara and Makoto Inoue. The three players were Ikeda-san, Mizuki Aita on the marimba, and Shingo Tomoda on the drums. “Homage to Dance of Amenouzume” (from Little Prince and Eight-Headed Dragon) (1963/2013), arranged by Kazunori Yoshihara and Makoto Inoue, ended the concert. Ikeda-san was on piano, Mizuki Aita was again on the marimba, Harue Tomioka took the vibraphone, and drums were performed by Shingo Tomoda.

Overall, the concert was a big success. The music was performed expertly, and the audience was very appreciative of the music. The highlight for me was meeting Manabe-sensei in the flesh and getting the chance to thank him for all the entertainment he provided me throughout the years. I sincerely hope that the Ifukube’s centennial concert next year will be as successful. If it is, it will most certainly be worthy of the composer’s legacy!

Special thanks to: Koichi Nishi, Masahiro Abe, Kumi Saito, Masayuki Suzuki, Masaru Hayakawa and many others for all their help!

Monday, December 31, 2012

Happy New Year!

In Asia, and for that matter in Japan, the New Year is the most important holiday for many. It is a common practice in Japan to send cards to friends, family and colleagues to wish them happiness in the new year to come.

Akira Ifukube enjoyed sending New Year cards and, being the consummate artist, he didn't settle for mass produced greeting cards from the local stationary shop. He would hand write his own with a calligraphy brush and use ancient-style kanji as opposed to modern script. Here is an example of one of his cards:

Also note Ifukube's hanko, or name stamp, in red also using ancient-style characters.
On behalf of AKIRAIFUKUBE.ORG and this blog, have a happy, healthy and prosperous 2013!

Friday, May 4, 2012

The Seven Samurai and...Jean Sibelius?

Jean Sibelius

Of course, the main focus of this blog is Akira Ifukube. However, every so often, I may feel the desire to go slightly off topic and take a look at something that may not be 100% Ifukube-centric; having said that, there will always be a connection to Ifukube in one way or another.

Thus, the following post is concerned not with Akira Ifukube, for the most part, but with another towering figure in the world of Japanese composers, Fumio Hayasaka.

Born in 1914, the same year as Ifukube, Hayasaka spent a substantial part of his youth in Sapporo, Hokkaido. Ifukube, then a university student, met Hayasaka and quickly became close friends with him; they had a mutual love for music and both aspired to be composers.

Fumio Hayasaka and Akira Ifukube in 1948

In 1939, Hayasaka moved to Tokyo to begin a celebrated career as a composer of film music. Perhaps his most famous score is for Akira Kurosawa's undeniable 1954 classic, The Seven Samurai. (Of course, that same year, Ifukube would score and equally iconic film, Gojira.)

Now, I was doing some reading up on Hayasaka this past week and noticed a few Internet forums where it was asserted that Hayasaka created the main theme of the Seven Samurai by "lifting" one of the principal themes from an orchestral work by the Finnish composer Jean Sibelius (1865-1957). The work in question is En Saga (the title is Swedish and means The Tale) (1892). This discussion was of particular interest to me because, without doubt, Sibelius is one of my favorite composers, as is Hayasaka and, honestly, I had never made much of a connection between the two.

I was a little perplexed at first because I though "There is nothing in that film's music that sounds like Sibelius." And then, after giving it a bit more thought, I exclaimed to myself "Wait a minute...maybe these crazy forum people are on to something!"  

First of all, I will assume many, if not most of you reading these words are not necessarily familiar with Sibelius and En Saga for that matter. I urge all of you to hear this work in its entirety at some point; it's a wild, mysterious work and wholly evocative of a world of ancient myth.

I reference you to the following YouTube video of the acclaimed Sir Thomas Beecham conducting the London Philharmonic in a performance from the late 1930s. (Yes, I could have found a more recent and hi-fi recording of this work on YouTube, but Beecham was one of the foremost Sibelius conductors of his time...or indeed of any time...and quality is quality, no matter how old it is.) The part I want you to listen for is the theme starting at 5:10 in the video. (And like I said, don't be afraid to listen to the rest!)

Now, let's hear the main theme from Hayasaka's Seven Samurai score as sampled from the original 1954 soundtrack recording, also courtesy of YouTube. The theme can be heard right at the beginning of the video:

Pretty similar themes, if I may say so myself! And to think, people have been chatting about this for some time on the Internet and this Sibelius and Hayasaka fan only makes this connection now, and not on my own. For shame!

So now, the question arises: did Hayasaka consciously copy/imitate Sibelius in this famous film score?

The answer: WHO KNOWS? I will, however, offer a personal theory.

It is possible and perhaps likely that Hayasaka was not very familiar Sibelius in his early musical life. Again, Ifukube and Hayasaka were close friends who had virtually identical musical tastes. That is, they were mostly attracted to the French impressionists (Debussy, Ravel), the Russian and Spanish nationalists (Rimsky-Korsakov, Mussorgsky, de Falla, Granados) and the Russian "modernists" (Stravinsky, Prokofiev). Hayasaka may have had more sympathy for the late-Romantics though, while Ifukube was virtually anti-Romantic. While Sibelius is hard to pigeon-hole as either a late-Romantic or an out-and-out modernist...perhaps he can be labeled as both...his music does not seem to have played a large part in the musical self-education of either Ifukube or Hayasaka.

It's possible, though, that Hayasaka had a personal affection for Sibelius and it did not manifest itself readily around Ifukube. Again, Hayasaka was much more sympathetic to a late-Romantic idiom; his piano concerto and solo piano pieces express this the best. It's conceivable that when he moved to Tokyo and was outside of Ifukube's strong influence, he was able to study music that might not have been as readily available around his friend who remained up north in Hokkaido for several more years to come.

Of course, all of this is conjecture and none of it is proof of anything. Maybe Hayasaka was more or less ignorant of Sibelius and his Seven Samurai theme, while similar to that passage in En Saga, is just coincidentally similar? I'd say, that is more than likely the case. It is tantalizing to think, however, that Hayasaka was influenced by the Sibelius and the Seven Samurai score, as Japanese as it often is, is actually part Finnish!

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Ifukube and the Ainu Influence

Anyone who is a fan of Akira Ifukube's music knows that the composer was "influenced by the music of the Ainu." While this is common knowledge, I am sure to most Ifukubians, to coin a phrase, this concept is a total abstraction; yes, we know Ifukube based much of his musical styling on Ainu aesthetics, but what does this mean? What does Ainu music really sound like? And, which pieces by the composer have the most Ainu music in them?

Answering the latter question is tricky. His concert works like Sinfonia Tapkaara (1954, revised 1979) and Eclogues after Epos among Aino Races (1956) are bursting at the seams with Ainu-influenced melodies and rhythms; after all, Sinfonia Tapkaara is based on Ainu dance music and the Eclogues are based on Ainu folk poetry.

But where in his other works do we hear Ainu-influenced music? Can it be found in any of his Godzilla/daikaiju eiga music?

Again, this is hard to answer. Although Ifukube was fond of the Ainu aesthetic, he very rarely quoted any of their music directly; in other words, no matter who or what influences Ifukube in any of his musical compositions, the music is, virtually...and uniquely, his own.  So, how can we point out concrete Ainu melodies or rhythms when the music is, really, "all Ifukube?"

A good place to begin to understand how Ainu music influenced Ifukube comes from a very unlikely place: a radio jingle.

In 1952, Ifukube was commissioned by the Hokkaido Broadcasting Company (HBC) to write a jingle to be used as a radio station identifier. Before the HBC switched to a 24-hour-a-day format, the jingle would open the station's broadcast day in the early morning at close it late at night. (Because of this, in the minds of many Hokkaido citizens old enough to remember, this familiar music is associated with the eerie atmosphere of the wee hours!)

Wanting to endow a truly regional sound to this jingle, Ifukube wrote a very short piece of music, lasting less than 30 seconds. The title of the jingle is Upopo and, of course, takes its inspiration from Ainu music. According to the website, an upopo is "a festival song sung by women who sit in a circle, beating the lid of a container called shintoko. The words are not long and are sung repeatedly in a round or a chorus."

Three shintoko. Photo by Erik Homenick.

Ifukube's Upopo, though, was really written about a decade earlier. The HBC jingle as we know it today is sourced from a military march Ifukube wrote for wind band in 1943. This piece, called Kishi Mai, was written as an hommage to Empress Jingu who, according to legend, conquered the Korean Peninsula in ancient times. The opening theme of Kishi Mai was re-orchestrated and used individually for the Upopo jingle.

Briefly, it is important to point out why Ifukube would use the first theme of Kishi Mai for Upopo. Ifukube believed that his martial music written during the war years would not be performed after the end of hostilities. Thus, he used themes rather freely from such works in his later, post-war compositions. Ironically, Kishi Mai would be recorded and commercially available on a CD produced in 2005.

Recordings of Ifukube's Upopo jingle and of a genuine upopo are available on YouTube. You can compare the two here:

In the Ainu upopo video, we are actually hearing different types of this song performed back-to-back, albeit without the shintoko accompaniment. Immediately one can discern rhythmic similarities between the "authentic" upopo and the jingle version. By the time we hear the third upopo (starting at about 2:53) we can even begin to note very tangible melodic similarities along with the rhythmic.

Though similar, both videos also demonstrate how original Ifukube was when sourcing folk materials and using them as a starting point for his own original musical expression. These two videos, then, when listened to side-by-side, very aptly illustrate how Ifukube could be influenced by pre-existing music but still produce a piece that is, ultimately, "all Ifukube."

The HBC ceased using the Upopo jingle in 2002, much to the dismay of its listeners. The weird tune was as familiar to them as the NBC jingle is to people in the United States, for example, and its absence on the air continues to be felt by the nostalgic radio listeners in Japan's northernmost island.

Saturday, July 30, 2011

Garden of the Godzillas

Akira Ifukube's home

Who needs garden gnomes to accent the yard? Wouldn't a garden Godzilla be much more fun?

I'd prefer a garden Godzilla, personally, but then again, so would Akira Ifukube!

Ifukube lived in the Oyamadai neighborhood of Tokyo. Known as a rather affluent area, many of the homes here are uncommonly large and even allow for relatively spacious backyards.

Ifukube's backyard

Notice anything?

Ifukube's backyard was a virtual oasis of open, natural space in an otherwise very congested and built up suburban neighborhood. The yard included many plants and beautiful old trees as well a small pond complete with footbridges. One easily notices all of this at a first glance but, if you look more closely, the face of a familiar friend seems to emerge furtively from the surrounding foliage. Indeed...Gojira desu yo! It's Godzilla!

Ifukube acknowledged his firm ties to the King of the Monsters by including two effigies of the famous kaiju in his backyard. In the image above we see a large Godzilla "bust" to the left and, if you look even more closely, a Godzilla figurine stands ready to attack on the right.

This vignette seems to be an hommage to Godzilla's first appearance in Gojira (1954), no?

Yes, it seems similar enough to me!

The Godzilla figurine

Both the head and the figure portray, by the way, Godzilla in his original 1954 design. It is not surprising that Ifukube chose this image of the monster to adorn his yard as he considered his musical score for Gojira (1954) to be his best. Obviously, there is special affection here!

These twin Godzillas, I think, speak of the composer's lighthearted and playful side, which was perhaps not always at the fore when taking on the role of a "serious" composer. The figures also represent a sincere recognition of the monster who put the Ifukube's name on the map like never before. What a perfect way to say arigato to the big guy, then, by making him a permanent resident at the composer's home!

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Akira Ifukube on Friends Around the World

Akira Ifukube comes to shortwave radio!

Yours truly, the webmaster of AKIRAIFUKUBE.ORG and of this blog, will be featured on NHK Radio Japan's English language international shortwave service on Sunday, August 14 (Japan time) and Saturday, August 13 (United States time).

I will be discussing my love and fascination for the music of Akira Ifukube on Radio Japan's Friends Around the World program, hosted by Kay Fujimoto and Mick Corliss. Hopefully the hosts will be able to slip in some musical highlights of the composer's work as well!

Hosts of Friends Around the World, Kay Fujimoto and Mick Corliss

I am fortunate to own a shortwave radio...after all, DXing (this means long distance listening in radio enthusiast speak) has been a part of my life since my middle school years. But I realize most people do not own such equipment, and I am happy to say it will still be very easy for you to hear the broadcast by other, more common means.

Radio Japan will beam its signal to North America (via a relay station in Sackville, Canada) at 5:00 UTC (that's 10:00 pm Pacific Standard Time) on 6110 KHz. Assuming you will not be able to hear the shortwave broadcast, you can alternatively "tune in" to Radio Japan's live feed via their website. And if you happen to miss the live broadcast, you will be able to access an archive of the show (available for one week after it first airs) at your convenience.

For more information and to hear past editions of Friends Around the World, please click here to visit NHK World's website.

See you on the air!

The famous "3-egg" logo of Nihon Hoso Kyokai (NHK), Japan's national public broadcaster

Saturday, July 16, 2011

Settling the Score with Gojira

Gojira, 1954

When Akira Ifukube was asked by Toho to score its giant monster film Gojira in 1954, the studio picked the right man for the job. Ifukube favored a grandiose orchestral sound replete with driving rhythms and barbaric percussion. Being a self-described "megalomaniac" who had a "paganish air" in his compositions, Ifukube was very readily attracted to the idea of writing music for a giant monster movie. And much to the composer's delight Gojira was about a gargantuan dinosaur-like creature; since childhood, Ifukube had a deep fascination with the natural world and particularly liked snakes and other reptiles.

Many agree that the film would not have been such a grand success without Ifukube's darkly exciting music. The soundtrack is popular and, if you would like to enjoy it outside of the context of the film, it is easy to find on compact disc. But as well known as the music is, actual fragments of the original handwritten score have been rarely seen by the public. Having been able to examine it myself, some interesting and unexpected details of the score come to light: the music's instrumentation, how Ifukube wrote the title and how he notated the special sound effects he created.


In the early days of the Japanese film industry, the studios only provided small orchestras to record soundtracks. Ifukube explains this in a 1992 interview with David Milner:

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. 

Despite the practice of using smaller-than-average orchestras for film work, Ifukube's Gojira music requires a surprisingly wide array of instruments.

Ifukube would normally specify his needed instrumentation for any work on the fist page of the score in Italian by writing Distrubuzione dell'Orchestra (Lay-out of the orchestra in English.) He would then list the various instruments needed, again in Italian, and how many of each was necessary. The Gojira score does not have an instrumentation page. Why there is no such page is not certain, but perhaps it is because the composer was not sure how many of each instrument would be available to him by Toho's house orchestra.

The instruments for the various sections of the score simply appear on the staff when the score requires them. The instrumentation of Gojira includes: flutes, a piccolo, oboes, clarinets, a bass clarinet, bassoons, a contra bassoon, horns, trumpets (in B-flat and in C), trombones, a tuba, a piano, timpani, tam-tam (also known as a gong), mokugyo (a percussion instrument used in Buddhist ceremonies, heard during the exorcism scene on Odo Island), snare drum, cymbals, violins, violas, cellos, double basses, choir and even a harmonica in C and a guitar used for the opening scene on the ill-fated fishing boat.

Again, when Ifukube prescribes the needed instruments, he does not indicate how many, he simply pluralizes them. For example, tromboni is the plural of trombone in Italian.

A segment from the original Gojira manuscript showing the names of the instruments in Italian. Click to enlarge.


When writing orchestral scores in his early career, Ifukube very often used Russian for titles, Italian for the instruments and English for special notes and instructions. His habit of using Russian and English posed a unique challenge for him when writing the title Gojira in either language. 

One title, three languages. Click to enlarge.

The name Gojira is said to be a combination of the Japanese words for gorilla (gorira) and whale (kujira); it is a special name created for the monster based on the sounds of the Japanese language. Thus, transliterating this title from Japanese to Russian compelled the composer to be a little creative and replicate, as best he could, Japanese sounds with the Russian alphabet. From Japanese katakana to the Russian Cyrillic alphabet, Ifukube writes ГОЗИРА, which transliterates into Roman letters as "Gozira." When Ifukube uses the monster's name elsewhere in the score he resorts to an Anglicized version of the name based on the Russian. But because the Japanese often replace the R-sound with the L-sound when speaking foreign languages, Ifukube turns Gozira (in Russian) into Gozila (in English).

Ifukube's attempts to write Gojira in a foreign language had nothing to do, however, with the ultimate westernized version of the name, Godzilla, which was decided upon by the the American distribution company that bought the rights to the film in 1956.


Two of the most recognizable sound effects in all of horror/science fiction cinema are, undoubtedly, Godzilla's trademark roar and footfalls. As the stark black and white credits begin to roll at the beginning of Gojira, the very first thing the audience hears are those massively frightening footsteps followed by that supernaturally haunting, agonizing howl. After these distinctive sound effects, the equally famous and pulsating music begins...

Due to the unimaginable constraints of Japanese film production at the time, Ifukube only had a few days to write and record the score. (Ifukube was assisted in the preparation and recording of the score by his composer colleague, Sei Ikeno, who himself went on to write film music, including for the Toho sci-fi classic Secret of the Telegian in 1960.) Meanwhile, technicians from Toho were rushing to create a suitable sound for Godzilla's roar. They went to the Tokyo Zoo and recorded the calls of several animals, including birds, but nothing seemed to be satisfactory. The studio then turned to Ifukube to see if he could devise the needed effect with musical instruments.

In an interview in the BBC documentary Godzilla, King of the Monsters,  Ifukube describes how he invented the perfect sound effect for Godzilla's roar:

We used a double bass. First we fiddled with the peg box on the top of the instrument then we opened up the tail-piece [and] pulled it away to give ourselves more room to move and then we put on gloves to protect our hands. Then we played the double bass in a very unorthodox manner by scraping our hands down the strings.

Akira Ifukube demonstrates how he pulled the strings in the BBC documentary. Click to enlarge.

A double bass

After recording this several times, Ifukube manipulated the playback speed to the tape to give the already strange sound an extra-unearthly timbre. The result of this last-minute ingenuity became Godzilla's frightful scream.

Godzilla needed more than a voice, though; he also needed big and scary steps!. This was especially necessary for an early sequence in the film where Godzilla attacks Odo Island during a nighttime storm. In this scene, we do not see the monster (besides a brief look at his leg after he steps on a roof), but he is heard as he tramples through the village. Again, Ifukube was asked to provide this sound. In the David Milner interview, Ifukube explains:

One of Toho's electrical engineers made a simplistic amplifying device some time before production on Gojira 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 Gojira 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. 

Ifukube's original 1954 manuscript of the music shows that he added notation for the roar and footfalls into the score. Below is a sample from the manuscript called Title

How to notate the roars and footfalls of giant radioactive reptiles. Click to enlarge.

Ifukube, in English, describes Godzilla's roar as Song of Gozila. This has nothing to do with the Godzilla music; rather, he refers to Godzilla's call as a song, just as we may describe the song of a bird. (This is especially interesting if we consider the correlation that is made between Godzilla and bird song in the 1984 film The Return of Godzilla.) The "instrument" to create the footfalls is referenced as the Magic Box. Surely this is not the "official" name for the amplifier box Ifukube described in the Milner interview, but perhaps it reveals a bit of the composer's well known humor.

As we can see on the page, Ifukube notates the footfalls first with a baritone clef at the start of the staff. He notates 4/4 time with an accented (>) whole note showing how the "magic box" should be struck. After three bars Godzilla's roar comes in with a bass clef (a bass instrument was being used, after all). The roar is notated as a dot starting on E with wavy downward glissando. Though Godzilla's voice is notated in this way, there is no actual musical value to it; it simply describes where the sound effect is to be added. After an imposing introduction with these sound effects, the composer adds the instruments of the orchestra to the page and the music begins...with the Godzilla sounds ominously continuing on top of it.

And thus begins one of most famous scores in cinema...

Akira Ifukube and Sei Ikeno around the time of the composition of Gojira, 1954