Music Akira Ifukube
Brooke McCorkle
  • LAST REVIEWED: 27 April 2017
  • LAST MODIFIED: 27 April 2017
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199757824-0209


Akira Ifukube (b. 31 May 1914–d. 8 February 2006) was among the most prolific and popular Japanese composers of the 20th century. Ifukube’s life and music illustrate the progress of Japanese composers from the early Shōwa era in the 1930s to the advent of the 21st century. He paved the way for younger musicians, including Toshirō Mayuzumi, Yasushi Akutagawa, Keiko Nozawa, and many others. His output encompasses everything from Western art music influenced by traditional Japanese culture and Russian Nationalists, to gendai hōgaku (modern compositions for Japanese instruments), and innovative scores for dance, television, and film. Although Ifukube’s name is seldom recognized outside Japan, his music reached listeners around the world through his scores for Ishirō Honda’s series of Gojira (Godzilla) films. Ifukube was born and raised on Hokkaido, Japan’s northernmost island, a place known as a place of natural beauty and as the home of the Ainu, an indigenous people. Esteem for the environment and Ainu culture had a lifelong influence on Ifukube’s music and prose works. In addition to Ainu music, Ifukube discovered Western classical music at a young age, and taught himself violin. He was especially drawn to Russian composers, and Stravinsky’s Le sacre du printemps particularly entranced him. It was this piece that prompted Ifukube to try his hand at composition. As a young man. Ifukube composed and performed for pleasure while pursuing a career in forestry. During this time, he became friends with another Hokkaido-born Japanese composer, Fumio Hayasaka. Ifukube first achieved international acclaim with his Japanese Rhapsody (1935). This piece received the Tcherepnin Prize, which included private lessons with the composer Alexander Tcherepnin (1899–1977). Ifukube was primarily a self-taught composer, and these lessons were his only formal compositional training. In this work and others, Ifukube fused elements of Ainu and traditional Japanese music with Western art music. In doing so, he became one of the first composers to help Japan find its own voice in the larger music world. During World War II, Ifukube continued composing in his spare time while working for the Imperial government to research different types of wood and their resonant properties. As a result of taking several unprotected X-rays for this study, Ifukube became extremely ill and was bedridden for a year after the war. This misfortune ended his career in forestry, but allowed him to seriously consider a future in music. In 1946, Ifukube accepted a teaching position at Tokyo National University of Fine Arts and Music, where he taught until 1953. At Hayasaka’s behest, Ifukube began composing for films to supplement his meager income. Soon Tōhō producer Tomoyuki Tanaka offered Ifukube his first contract to compose the score for the film Ginrei no hate (Return to Silver Mountain), directed by Senkichi Taniguchi in 1947. Despite some personal disputes, Ifukube flourished at Tōhō, and composed more than 300 scores over the course of his career. Thanks to his successful collaborations with Honda and others, he is often considered to be “the Japanese John Williams.” In addition to his legacy in Film Music (cited under Life and Works), Ifukube composed and taught at prominent universities throughout the 20th century and thus influenced a new generation of Japanese composers.

General Overviews

Several English and Japanese-language sources mention Ifukube within the broader context of Western-style classical music practices in modern Japan. Galliano 2002 provides the most comprehensive chronological history of art music in Japan; Ifukube appears in prewar and postwar chapters. Wade 2014 examines the whole of modern music-making practices in Japan, and Ifukube is included briefly in the monograph’s second section. Herd 2004 and Herd 2008, on the other hand, focus more directly on Ifukube’s prewar works, contending that they exemplify a modern nationalist style. Katayama 1999 offers a brief but thorough analysis of Ifukube’s Life and Works, also concentrating on his prewar compositions. Ifukube appears numerous times in the two-volume Nihon sengo ongakushi (Japanese postwar music history), and is recognized as a key postwar composer, albeit one whose fame lies primarily in Film Music (cited under Life and Works). English-language music encyclopedia entries like Kanazawa’s article Ifukube, Akira and Imada 2001 are brief but adequate starting points for research on Ifukube.

  • Galliano, Luciana. Yōgaku: Japanese Music in the 20th Century. Lanham, MD: Scarecrow, 2002.

    Chronological overview of Western-style art music in Japan from the late 19th century to the beginning of the 21st. Galliano introduces Ifukube in the prewar chapter and considers his relationship with Fumio Hayasaka. The bibliography is extensive and a good starting point for research. Expanded and translated version of Yōgaku: Percorsi della musica giapponese nel Novecento.

  • Herd, Judith Ann. “The Cultural Politics of Japan’s Modern Music: Nostalgia, Nationalism, and Identity in the Interwar Years.” In Locating East Asia in Western Art Music. Edited by Yayoi Uno Everett and Frederick Lau, 40–57. Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 2004.

    Succinct history of Western-style art music in Japan with a focus on composers active in the 1930 group Newly Rising Federation of Composers. The section on Ifukube describes his prewar concert works.

  • Herd, Judith Ann. “Western-Influenced ‘Classical’ Music in Japan.” In The Ashgate Research Companion to Japanese Music. Edited by Alison McQueen Tokita and David Hughes, 363–382. Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2008.

    Chapter provides a broader historical context of Western-style art music in Japan than Herd 2004. Includes images of Ifukube’s score for Triptyque aborigène from Nihon kindai onagakukan, which is now Meiji Gakuin University Library’s Archives of Modern Japanese Music and is cited under Primary Sources: Libraries. The bibliography is useful for general research on the music of Japan.

  • “Ifukube, Akira.” In Grove Music Online. Edited by Deane Root.

    Short description of Ifukube’s biography and his prewar concert works, the entry by Masakata Kanazawa includes a brief bibliography. First published in the 1980 edition of The New Grove Dictionary. Available online by subscription.

  • Imada, Kintarō. “Film and Animation Music in Japan.” In Garland Encyclopedia of World Music. Vol. 7, East Asia: China, Japan, and Korea. Edited by Robert C. Provine, Yosihiko Tokumaru, and Lawrence J. Witzleben, 785–788. New York: Routledge, 2001.

    Provides an overview of the music of Japanese film and television and recognizes Ifukube for his work on kaijū eiga (monster movies). The overall entry on Japan offers an overview of music in the modern era. Available online by subscription.

  • Katayama Morihide 片山杜秀. “Ifukube Akira” (伊福部昭). In Nihon no sakkyoku njūseiki (日本の作曲20世紀). Edited by Hori Kyō 掘恭, 139–141. Tokyo: Ongaku no tomo, 1999.

    Useful book that provides entries on Japanese composers in the 20th century. The entry on Ifukube concentrates on his prewar works, particularly in comparing his Japanese Suite (1933) with his Japanese Rhapsody (1935). The entry discusses Ifukube’s nativist aesthetic and empathy with Ainu and Russian cultures. Includes a timeline of his concert works, his film scores through 1995, and his music for theater, radio shows, and television broadcasts.

  • Nihon sengo ongakushi kenkyūkai (日本戦後音楽史研究会). Nihon sengo ongakushi (日本戦後音楽史). Vols. 1–2. Edited by Hori Kyō 掘恭. Tokyo: Heibonsha, 2007.

    Both volumes of this history of Japanese postwar music mention Ifukube several times throughout. The collective authors (Ishida Kazushi, Sano Kōji, Katayama Morihide, Gotō Nobuko, Takaku Satoru, Chōki Seji, Narazaki Yōko, Numano Yūji, Mizuno Mikako, and Murata Maho) characterize Ifukube’s music as containing both Asian and Russian elements. The second volume acknowledges the film scores as significant contributions to postwar Japanese music. The book primarily offers data with little interpretation. Note that the index appears in the second volume.

  • Wade, Bonnie. Composing Japanese Musical Modernity. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2014.

    Monograph that combines historical and anthropological methodologies to paint a picture of music making and music consumption as a definitive social practice in modern Japan. Wade’s work illuminates a detailed world of music composers in Japan, including Ifukube, who appears most often in the second section. Includes a chronology of music events in Japan, glossary, and extensive bibliography.

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