Thus, so-called "ethnic" composers were not in high demand which led Ifukube to hesitate on becoming a professional musician. Consequently, he studied forestry at Hokkaido Imperial University where he completed a thesis on the acoustics of wood. After his graduation and up until the Second World War, he lived as a forestry officer and researcher in the remote coastal forests of Akkeshi in eastern Hokkaido, making musical studies a sideline. During this period, Ifukube, living in a hut, would compose only at night by the light of an oil lamp.
During his student days in the early 1930s, Ifukube's interest in music had become mainly a hobby. Despite this, he remained active in his personal musical studies and had corresponded with several international musicians such as the American pianist George Copeland, Fabien Sevitzky (a Russian conductor active in the U.S.) and the Spanish composer Ernesto Halffter.
However, a substantial musical turning-point came when Ifukube befriended fellow musicians Fumio Hayasaka and Atsushi Miura. All three being interested in the newest musical trends of the day, they established the Shin ongaku renmei (New Music League). This group sought to introduce modern western compositions into Japan as well as promote Japanese nationalistic music. Consequently, on September 30 ,1934, the Shin ongaku renmei held the Festival de musique contemporaine, a large-scale contemporary music festival in Sapporo where Ifukube and his colleagues performed various chamber works of Stravinsky, Ravel, Milhaud, De Falla, Ferroud, Nin, Gruenberg, Satie, Casella and Schulhoff . (Years later, Hayasaka composed for several Akira Kurosawa films and became a mentor to Toru Takemitsu. Miura became a music critic who played a key role in introducing Anglo-American music to Japan.)a
Despite these activities, what particularly determined Ifukube's reputation as a composer was the Tcherepnin Award in 1936. This award was promoted by Alexander Tcherepnin, a noted Russian composer, to invite contributions of orchestral works from Japanese composers. At this competition which was held in Paris, Ifukube submitted his Japanese Rhapsody and, competing against many professional composers (including Yoritsune Matsudaira), unanimously took the first prize. (Matsudaira took the second prize for his Pastoral.)
Subsequently, Tcherepnin visited Japan later in 1936 and taught composition to Ifukube for a short period at the luxurious New Grand Hotel in Yokohama's famous Bluff district.
Although Ifukube had garnered some international fame as a composer due to the Tcherepnin Award, he returned to the isolated life as a forestry officer in the mountains of Akkeshi. During this time Ifukube discovered a previously unknown type of cherry tree (Prunus sargentii f. Ifkubei). The discovery was first officially recognized by Hokkaido Imperial University.
The year 1940 marked another musical turning-point for Ifukube. By chance, he heard Concertino for Piano and Orchestra by Jean Françaix broadcast on the radio and thought "The world is advancing rapidly. If I continue a life in the mountains, it is unlikely that I will progress as a musician." That year Ifukube decided to return Sapporo. Upon returning to Hokkaido's capital city, Ifukube gained employment at his alma mater, Hokkaido Imperial University. There, Ifukube worked as a scientist at the university's Department of Experimental Agriculture.
Ifukube remained a "sunday composer" and began writting several ballets during this time. On July 7,1940, Ifukube personally conducted the premiere public performance of his first ballet, Etenraku. This performance was held in Sapporo to commemorate the 2600th anniversary of the founding of Japan. One of the dancers in the ballet was a young woman by the name of Ai Yûzaki who was a student of the the famed Japanese dancer Takaya Eguchi. Ifukube and Yûzaki eventually fell in love and, in 1941, the two were married.
Their marriage lasted 59 years until Ai's death in 2000 at the age of 82. During their marriage, the Ifukubes had three children, two daughters and a son.
Since the 1930s, the Japanese Empire had already been involed in an on-going war with China. Japan was also on a mission to colonize much of Asia and took over areas such as Manchuria, Burma and the Philippines. On December 7, 1941, the Japanese military attacked the American naval base of Pearl Harbor which officially thrusted Japan into an already raging world war.
During the early days of the war, Ifukube was active as a composer. He wrote nationalist pieces such as his Symphony Concertante (1941) and Ballata Sinfonica (1943) which he dedicated to his late brother Isao. He was also commissioned on several occasions to write martial pieces such as Kishi Mai (1943) and Prélude du soldat (1944).
Although he did not officially serve in his country's armed forces during World War II, Ifukube was appointed by the Imperial Army toward the end of the war to conduct a study on the vibratory strength and elasticity of wood. The Japanese army had captured an all-wood British war plane, the DeHavilland Mosquito, and Ifukube was assigned to examine the aircraft because of his scopic studies of the properties of wood during his university days. Unfortunately, this process involved the extensive use of X-rays, and because of the wartime shortage of lead, these experiments were performed without the benefit of a protective suit. Ifukube was later hospitalized for radiation exposure, unable to work again for over a year.
At the end of the war, while he was still in the hospital due to his radiation exposure, Ifukube was startled one day to hear Kishi Mai being played over the radio when General Douglas MacArthur arrived at the Atsugi air base to formalize the Japanese surrender.
Sick from radiation poisoning and depressed due to Japan's defeat in the war, Ifukube became bitter and felt that all of his musical creativity had died. For a time, he decided that he would never compose music again. One day, however, he happened to hear a performance of his Ballata Sinfonica broadcast over the radio and Ifukube interpreted this as a sign to continue from his late brother, Isao, to whom the work was dedicated. Ifukube felt inspired, reassured and re-energized; he felt that he could return to the art he loved so much.
In 1939 Ifukube's long-time friend Fumio Hayasaka moved to Tokyo to become a film composer. Upon Ifukube's recovery from radiation exposure in 1946, Hayasaka urged Ifukube to join him in the Japanese capital to try his hand at writing music for movies. This was certainly a more lucrative opportunity than working for the university, and, for Ifukube, the idea of composing on a more full-time basis was extremely appealing. The Ifukube family, however, did not move to Tokyo right away.
In 1946 Ifukubes moved from Hokkaido to Kujira, Nikko, Japan. Although he was no longer in the "wilderness" of northern Japan, mountainous Nikko offered a rural lifestyle that Ifukube could thrive in.
By this time, Ifukube had developed a solid reputation as a composer. As a result, he was offered the position of music teacher at the Tokyo National University of Fine Arts and Music. Ifukube enthusiastically accepted, though he had to commute between Nikko and Tokyo.
Now that Ifukube was enjoying his prestigious teaching post the the Tokyo National University, he was hired by Toho (Japan's leading film studio) to write film music. By 1947 he had scored his first film, Ginrei no hate (To the End of the Silver Mountains). (Incidentally, Ginrei no hate was written by Akira Kurosawa and was Toshiro Mifune's first feature film.)
In order to be closer to the university and the film industry in Tokyo, Ifukube moved his family to Oyamadai neighborhood of the Japanese capital.
Later in 1947 Ifukube was chosen by Akira Kurosawa to write the score for a film called Shizukanaru ketto (The Quiet Duel). However, the composor and the director had very divergent views on how music should be used in a film and this led to a less-than-compatible relationship. Due to their constant disagreements, the two master artists parted ways permanently after the film was completed.
During the late 1940s and into the early 1950s, Ifukube scored a multitude of other films including Kaneto Shindô's Children of Hiroshima (1952) and Josef von Sternberg's Saga of Anatahan (1953). Ifukube's scores were well respected and his skills as a composer became a valuable commodity within the Japanese film industry. Due to this, Ifukube decided to abandon his teaching post at the Tokyo National University in 1953 to focus on the more lucrative prospects of writing film music.
In 1954, Ifukube was asked by Toho to score Gojira (Godzilla), a giant monster film to be directed by Ishiro Honda, produced by Tomoyuki Tanaka with special effect by Eiji Tsuburaya. Many of Ifukube's colleagues tried to convince him not to take the job, thinking the film would not be a success. Ifukube did not listen to his colleagues and accepted the project. As a result, his score for Gojira has become one of the most famous film scores in history and propelled Ifukube to heights of fame that no other Japanese film composer has ever reached. Additionally, Ifukube regarded his Gojira music as the best score he had ever written for a motion picture.
Ifukube also created Godzilla's trademark roar. Technicians at Toho originally went to the Tokyo Zoo and recorded the grunts and growls of several animals hoping to find the perfect sound effect for Godzilla's roar. Dissatisfied with the animal sounds they had collected, the technicians turned to Ifukube, an expert in acoustics, and asked him to produce the needed sound effect. After some experimentation, Ifukube recorded himself taking a resin-covered leather glove and dragging it along the loosened strings of a double bass (the largest and lowest pitched bowed orchestral string instrument) and slowed down the playback speed of the tape. The result was the now familiar Godzilla roar. Additionally, Ifukube created the sound of Godzilla's footfalls by striking an amplifier box with a large, knotted piece of rope.
After the huge success of Gojira, Ifukube became even more heavily sought after by Japanese directors and studios to write music for their films. Some of Ifukube's most famous scores after the success of Godzilla include The Burmese Harp (1956), The Birth of Japan (1959), Shaka (1961), The Little Prince and the Eight Headed Dragon (1963), Daimajin (1966) and Sandakan 8 (1974). Of course, during the span of his film career, Ifukube remained the primary composer for Toho's internationally successful Godzilla series, and he also wrote the music for the famous Zatoichi movies. But the composer would always be best know for his work in the genres of monster, fantasy and science fiction films.
After Gojira, Ifukube was called upon by Toho to score two additional science fiction spectaculars, Sora no daikaju radon (Rodan) (1956) and Chikyû bôeigun (The Mysterians) (1957).
Certainly, this was the beginning of a partnership between Toho and Ifukube to breathe musical life into their growing specialty of daikaiju (giant monster) and tokusatsu (special effects) films. In all, Ifukube scored over 20 such films for Toho, culminating with his final original film score Gojira tai desutoroya (Godzilla vs. Destroyer) in 1996. Along with the director Honda, the producer Tanaka and special effects wizard Tsuburaya, Ifukube is considered on of the four "founding fathers" of the Godzilla franchise.
In 1975 Ifukube became the president of the Tokyo College of Music but still composed a handful of film scores before he "retired" from the film industry in 1978 having completed the music to the period film Ogin-sama (Lady Ogin). (Ifukube would go on to score four Godzilla movies for Toho between 1991 and 1996 before "officially" retiring from film scores.) During this time, Ifukube focused his attention on teaching and writing concert works.
Years later in 1988, Ifukube gave up his post as President of the Tokyo College of Music. Though he did not want to be the president anymore, he became the head of the school's Department of Ethnomusicolgy. In this capacity, Ifukube was one of Japan's foremost authorities on the music of the Ainu and other northern Asian peoples.
In 1984 Toho decided to revive its Godzilla franchise after a six year hiatus with a film called The Return of Godzilla (called Godzilla 1985 in the United States). Toho asked Ifukube if he would supply the film's score but Ifukube rejected the project. (Reijiro Koroku was eventually selected to write this music for this film.) Five years later in 1989, Toho produced Godzilla vs. Biollante which featured a score by Kôichi Sugiyama. To Ifukube's disapproval, his own Godzilla theme was used in this film in addition to the original score by Sugiyama.
In 1991 Ifukube was asked by Toho yet again to provide the music for their up-coming film, Godzilla vs. King Ghidorah. At first Ifukube refused. Despite this, Ifukube's daughter said to him "No matter how hard you try to escape Godzilla films, they will always use your name and melody lines, so why don't you do the next one yourself?" After receiving some additional persuasion from his students, he eventually gave in.
After Godzilla vs. King Ghidorah, Ifukube also went on to score three more Godzilla movies including Godzilla vs. Destroyer in 1995. This was a significant film for the composer because Godzilla was to die at the end. Ifukube felt a responsibility to give the score everything he had and, forGodzilla's death scene, Ifukube wrote a tragic requiem "as if I was writing music for my own death," the composer commented. Furthermore, this became the maestro's final film score. (For more information on Ifukube's film music, please visit the Filmography section of this site.)
After Godzilla vs. Destroyer, Ifukube remained active as a composer. Although he almost completely abandoned orchestral scores, he wrote and arranged several chamber works, most notably for the 25-string koto.
In recognition of the cultural contributions Ifukube had made to his country, the Japanese government awarded the composer some of its highest honors including the Order of Culture and the Order of the Sacred Treasures.
In May 2001, days before Ifukube's 87th birthday, a small monument was established in Otofuke, Hokkaido to honor the composer.
On the night of February 8, 2006, Akira Ifukube died at the Meguro-ku hospital in Tokyo. He was 91 years of age. A subsequent funeral was held for him in Tokyo on February 14, 2006.