Music in Film: The sound of Godzilla, from 1954 to 2014

Feature Ivan Radford 9 Jun 2014 - 06:05

Ivan checks out the soundtrack to Godzilla through the ages

(A heads-up: This is going to contain spoilers.)

If you've been within 200 metres of a cinema recently, you will have heard the unmistakable rumbling sound of Godzilla stomping onto the big screen. 60 years after he first appeared in Ishiro Honda's masterpiece, he's back toppling skyscrapers and breathing radiation, which means one thing: a lot of noise. And, thanks to Alexandre Desplat, music loud enough to go with it.

There's a point in Gareth Edwards' Godzilla remake, about 10 minutes from the end, when the two collide. It's a colossal moment, one that is central to the movie's success. To understand why, let's go back to 1954, when Akira Ifukube was hired to score Honda's monster movie.

The dilemma was simple: what did Godzilla sound like? He could stomp on people and waggle his tail as much as he liked, but if he spoke like Frank Spencer and was accompanied by the Benny Hill theme tune, he wouldn't be Godzilla. He'd be Some Monsters Do 'Ave 'Em. After failing to come up with anything, Honda asked Ifukube to see if there was a musical way to create Godzilla's sound. The composer came back with a leather glove and rubbed them along a double bass to produce that recognisable roar.

The result? Not just an iconic cry, but a tradition that would come to reverberate through a franchise.

The crossover between sound and score didn't stop there: the stomping steps, Godzilla's other familiar acoustic footprint, were produced by Akira banging on an amp.

Fast forward six decades and things have changed: designers Ethan Van der Ryn and Erik Aadahl went down the found sound route for Gareth Edwards' beast, recording everything from drums to car doors and then digitally assembling them into an otherworldly bellow. Music, though, remains a central part to Godzilla's towering terror.

It's telling that the 1954 soundtrack began with both: the booming footsteps and that unearthly shriek. They’re followed by Ifukube’s main theme, a falling strings motif that loops over the opening credits. The two will forever be associated.

In fact, they’re so closely intertwined that Ifukube actually wrote the sound effects in music form on the original score’s manuscript (spotted by the fantastic blog Rapsode Japonaise): a semibreve for each foot (“Magic Box”) and a squiggly line (that’s a technical term) for the “Song of Gozila”.

The melody drops in groups of three, a minor refrain that climbs back up at the end of each 4/4 bar. It immediately establishes a melancholic mood, one not only of disaster but also sadness.

A booming bass echoes those thundering footsteps, a metronome counting down the beats until Japan’s assured demise. The phrase repeats with a rigid, unavoidable structure, one that leaves you waiting to see what will happen next – just by using the same three notes, Ifukube creates an instant musical tension. But then, halfway through, it suddenly switches off the beat; the ground shifts under the feet of the hulking creature. It’s an unsettling sensation, one that captures the shock facing Tokyo’s residents. Stabbing string notes, meanwhile, bring to mind the horror of Bernard Herrmann’s Psycho, which would terrify eardrums six years later.

It’s a smart bit of composition. In fact, it’s one of the only bits of composition. Honda uses the same tune throughout the film. But what makes it so effective is the way he uses it: sparingly.

The music only occurs when Gojira is on-screen, a decision that is simple but stunning. Conversations between characters happen in silence, a striking contrast to modern Hollywood blockbusters, where ever-present scores tell us what to feel. Here, we already know what to feel, and we do so as soon as we start hearing those three notes coming over the hill: crap, Gojira’s coming.

That indicator takes on even greater significance when you listen to the rest of the film. Any other pieces of music are diegetic, occurring within the narrative: a grand brass fanfare sounds over patriotic footage of the boats moving into position to fight, only for Honda to reveal the footage is part of a TV news report – propaganda to hide the real sound of Japanese troops peeing their pants. Traditional dance and oriental instruments are heard, but only when we see old villagers performing ritual sacrifice; a musical attempt to pacify Gojira that has no impact beyond the ceremony itself. As soon as the camera turns elsewhere, our ears are simply waiting for any sign of that dreadful melody’s return.

It’s a long time until Gojira is fully revealed and goes into destruct mode – a dazzling, haunting set piece that is accompanied by that minor trio, now subverted, climbing slowly, a tone at a time, as the scale of atomic devastation unrelentingly steps up.

Before then, we glimpse bits of him - or, in one fantastic sequence, the aftermath of him. Once Gojira’s gone out to sea, Honda leaves the screen pointing at an empty landscape, accompanied by those amplified footsteps fading away. Like the local residents in the now-crumbling houses, we don’t need to see: we can hear him.

It speaks volumes that Ifukube’s theme has been linked with Gojira ever since, continuing to be used in Mothra vs Gojira. The franchise changed in tone dramatically as he grew up into a camp monster-bashing hero. A secondary theme evolved to reflect that: a dramatic falling brass line, used frequently in Ghidorah, The Three-Headed Monster (where he first explicitly becomes the good guy), which gives way to a slithering bass riff: a signature not unlike the theme to The Addams Family, more befitting a friend than the toppling doom associated with the former.

As the series took a turn towards the kid-friendly, 1969’s All Monsters Attack saw the previous music abandoned altogether in favour of a jazzy score from Kunio Miyauchi. With an opening song number that includes such timeless lyrics as “1,2,3… Godzilla fires radioactivity” and “Living is hard for us also”, it’s no coincidence that the worst soundtrack of the franchise belongs to one of the worst movies.

In 1998, David Arnold joined the fray to score Roland Emmerich’s remake. Featuring Arnold’s typically Bond-esque brassy suspensions, it’s a suitably bombastic score, although it’s telling that the original soundtrack CD released for the movie emphasized music from Jamiroquai over its classic score. Arnold’s fun score was represented by just two tracks, neither of which were Godzilla’s theme; a sign, perhaps, that his notes for the military were more memorable.

In 2014, though, Alexandre Desplat’s Godzilla score is a different kettle of radioactive fish.

Right from the off, a track titled Godzilla!, he makes his monster’s theme loud and clear: the start of a string of decisions that hew surprisingly close to the 1954 original without explicitly mentioning it.

A minor melody jumps down from the third note to the tonic, vaguely reminiscent of Ifukube’s old signature, before lurching into a dramatic major seventh. Clicky percussion emphasizes the on-the-beat pacing, but bass strings introduce a syncopated line too; again, a tactic that recalls the shifting unpredictability of Honda’s original. (Incidentally, it’s interesting that Desplat cites Psycho as one of his influences given how much Gojira seemed to foreshadow Herrmann’s masterpiece.)

What follows is an understated run of relatively gentle music to accompany the character’s tragic back-stories, starting with Inside the Mines. Swarming strings clash over the top of brass suspensions, before breaking into taiko drums and bamboo flute – a nice nod to Godzilla’s Japanese heritage. That same pattern of staying quiet before cutting loose fits the score’s more moving tracks, particularly To Q Zone, which sees a bass note on the first three beats of the bar move from sad strings to menacing electronics. Then, suddenly, Godzilla’s creeping theme slinks into the piece, before disappearing again.

It’s a neat use of music, presenting the monster without him actually appearing on screen; even as other creatures arrive, the scientists expecting to find Godzilla are haunted by the old kaiju’s tune. Back to Janjira’s gentle piano tune, meanwhile, puts the emotional fallout felt by Bryan Cranston’s character firmly in Godzilla’s shadow.

That is, until another theme arrives to drown the monster out. Taking the Herrmann influence and running with it, Back to Janjira and Muto Hatch are full of stabbing strings as the brass section parps its way upwards in seemingly uneven intervals. Choirs, flutes and drums are all thrown in, along with a healthy batch of electronics, but the chaos is underscored by an ongoing cycle between the fifth and minor sixth – and a booming diminished minor seventh that scrunches up the manuscript like a building being pushed over.

These two themes spend the rest of the score duking it out. When the Muto music is dominant, rising flutter-tongued jumps hop all over the place. When Godzilla enters in The Wave, his falling melody returns, accompanied by a simple trumpet fanfare cutting through the destruction.

Desplat may be known for his more delicate compositions, but this even-bigger follow-up to his recent score for Argo proves he can do bombast as well as the next guy. His precision, though, so evident in the looping bass lines of his Wes Anderson work, is still there. Following Godzilla uses quavers on the same low note to sprint through the bars, while strings shift over the top, driving the action forward but keeping it unpredictable. Throughout, though, there’s that sense of 4/4 momentum Ifukube was so good at capturing; giant footsteps relentlessly stomping forward.

The sections are never in harmony together, always running in aggressive counterpart; it’s not only the monster’s themes that are competing for power, but the instruments too. Desplat might as well have ordered the orchestra to stand around in a circle for two hours chanting “Fight! Fight! Fight!”

Airport Attack is a colossal piece of conflict, one that’s topped only by the oom-pah terror of Golden Gate Chaos – a striking contrast to the ethereal chorals used as puny humans parachute down into the city (a sequence soundtracked by nothing but breathing, as Edwards’ expert editing team continue to use both sound and music to build mood). By the time we reach Entering the Nest, the two musical strands end up clashing together, producing four loud, dissonant blasts. Then, just as you think it can’t more dramatic, another two blasts happen at a higher, even more unbearable, pitch. This, your ringing head understands all too well, is a battle on a massive scale.

But there can only be one winner. That diminished minor seventh tries to overpower Godzilla in Two Against One, as the taiko drums go crazy, but he emerges at the end, the brassy minor third finally commanding the strings to follow suit and echo his tune. In Last Shot, that authority spreads to the flutes too, before Godzilla’s Victory brings back the choir and the fanfare to join in a triumphant, orchestra-wide yell.

And here’s the point where Godzilla nails it. As the orchestra roars, the creature does too – at exactly the same pitch.

For several terrifying seconds, the noise and music are in perfect unison, and the fear people’s eardrums felt 60 years ago comes back to life. It’s a staggering piece of sound design. As Back to the Ocean turns Godzilla’s minor third into a flowing string tune, joined by a climbing brass theme not unlike a superhero’s, the result isn’t just an iconic cry, but a tradition that, you suspect, will reverberate through a whole new franchise.

You can read Ivan's previous instalment of Music In Film here

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I'd like to put in a word for Michiru Oshima's work over a trio of the Millennium era Godzilla films. If ever there is a sound I associate with the big G outside of Ifukube's creations, it's her menacing gladitorial march.

If you really want to hear the most perfectly suited piece of score to a scene, then look no more than Alexander Desplat's score to Harry Potter and the DH part 2 at the end fight between Voldermort and Harry..it was so perfect I mus have played it over 300 times by now..well 287 times according to my iTunes count!!

I always thought Michael Giacchino's "Roar! (Cloverfield Overture)" was a perfect piece of music for Godzilla. I was hoping for something as amazing as this in the new Godzilla (2014) but the soundtrack for that was a bit of a disappointment. Michael Giacchino set the bar too high I guess

Oshima's work was far more appropriate to Godzilla than Desplat's very unmemorable work. Legendary should have hired her, or David Arnold. In fact, Desplat's Godzilla theme evokes Oshima's, but his never goes anywhere. The score evokes nothing of Ifukube. That claim is just Hollywood spin. Ifukube's work is amply memorable; Desplat's is utterly forgettable.

I'm 4 years older than Godzilla and have seen every one since they first hit our theaters. Blame my mother for walking us up to the local theater when it first came to town that many many years ago.

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