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


  1. A fascinating and most illuminating exploration of the classic score, Erik.

  2. We're watching Gojira and Godzilla vs Destroyah at the Kaiju Double Feature Viewing Party on Facebook tonight, Sept. 10, 9 pm. I will post this interesting article on the main page so people can read it before the movies.
    Archie Waugh