Akira Ifukube was born May 31, 1914 in Kushiro on the northern Japanese island of Hokkaido. He was the third son of Toshizo, a respected public official, and Kiwa (née Suzuki) Ifukube. Growing up on the cold and mountainous island, Ifukube became fascinated with music at an early age. In his youth, he was well acquainted with Western classical music, Japanese folk song, and the traditional music of the Ainu, northern Japan's indigenous population.
This interest in music led the young Ifukube to teach himself to play the violin. From junior high school, Ifukube studied in Hokkaido's largest city, Sapporo. In Sapporo he heard a gramophone recording of Igor Stravinsky's Petrushka (1911). This was a revelatory experience for Ifukube, prompting the student to become a composer himself. Influenced by the musical nationalism of composers such as Stravinsky, Manuel de Falla and Modest Mussorgsky, Ifukube's aim as a composer was to incorporate the aesthetics of traditional Japanese and Ainu music into Western-style art music.
Ifukube began writing original compositions at the age of seventeen. In 1933 he wrote his first published work, Piano Suite. After high school, Ifukube studied Forestry at Hokkaido Imperial University where he completed a thesis on the acoustics of wood. After graduating, he worked as a forestry officer in the remote mountains of Akkeshi, Hokkaido and composed in his spare time.
In 1936 Ifukube's career as a composer took an important step forward when his first orchestral work, Japanese Rhapsody (1935), won the Tcherepnin Prize at a competition in Paris. After the international success of Japanese Rhapsody, Ifukube went on to write several more orchestral works such as Symphony Concertante for Piano and Orchestra (1941), Ballata Sinfonica (1943) and Rapsodia Concertante per Violino ed Orchestra (1948, revised 1971). He also began composing chamber works based on the folk music of northern Asian peoples such as his Ancient Minstrelsies of Gilyak Tribes (1946) and Three Lullabies among the Native Tribes of Sakhalin (1949).
In 1946 Ifukube accepted a teaching position at the Tokyo National University of Fine Arts and Music. Shortly thereafter, he was hired by Toho, Japan's leading film studio, to write music for films. In 1954 Ifukube wrote the famous score for the giant monster film Gojira (Godzilla). Ifukube went on to be prolific in this medium: he composed nearly three hundred film scores.
During the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s Ifukube was active as a composer of film and concert music. He became very well known for his musical contributions to numerous daikaiju (giant monster) and tokusatsu (special effects) films such as Rodan (1956), The Mysterians (1957), King Kong vs. Godzilla (1962), Ghidorah, The Three-Headed Monster (1964), Destroy All Monsters (1969) and many others. During this period he also wrote some of his best-known concert compositions such as Sinfonia Tapkaara (1954, revised 1979), Ritmica Ostinata for Piano and Orchestra (1961, revised 1972) and Lauda Concertata for Marimba and Orchestra (1976).
In 1974 Ifukube was hired by the Tokyo College of Music to teach composition. Two years later in 1976 he became the College's president but continued to serve as an instructor. At this time he began to distance himself from film music to focus on academic pursuits and the writing of concert works. In 1987 Ifukube decided to step down as the College's president to become the director of the school's Department of Ethnomusicology. In the early 1990s, Ifukube briefly returned to the world of cinema to write the scores for several Godzilla films. After this, Ifukube went on to compose a handful of small-scale chamber pieces such as Pipa Xing for 25-string Koto (1999).
In 1980 Ifukube was awarded the Japanese Medal of Honor with Purple Ribbon. In 1987 he received the Order of the Sacred Treasure, Third Class. In 2003 he was recognized by the Japanese government as a Person of Cultural Merit.
On the night of February 8, 2006, Akira Ifukube died in Tokyo at the age of 91.
Biographical notes by Erik C. Homenick