Part VI - Ballets and Bombs


Akira Ifukube at the Tama River near Tokyo

The year 1950 found Ifukube more busy than ever. If he had ever believed for a moment in the 1940s that his career as a film composer was imperiled because of arguments with such figures as Senkichi Taniguchi and Akira Kurosawa, the first year of the 1950s would do nothing but assuage such fears: that year, Ifukube scored a whopping 15 films, many of which were directed by Japan's most gifted directors: among these were God of Evil for Senkichi Taniguchi, Shudder for Hideo Sekigawa, White Beast for Mikio Naruse, Senka no hate for Kaneto Shindo.

Although scoring such a huge amount of films was exhausting, Ifukube could not deny that the money was good. So good was it that, in September of 1950, Ifukube and his family left the house in Tamagawa to purchase a remarkably spacious home in the prestigious Oyamadai neighborhood of Setagaya, where the composer would end up staying for the rest of his life. This generously-sized two story home was perfect for Ifukube: it boasted an expansive backyard (very rare in Tokyo, even then), complete with numerous majestically tall trees and even a pond. This yard was a boon for Ifukube, the nature lover, and allowed him to pursue his hobby of cultivating exotic plants, most notably cacti.


Akira Ifukube's house in Oyamadai. Photo by Erik Homenick.


The backyard. Photo by Erik Homenick.


Ifukube's collection of cacti.

The house also included a large work room (he would refer to it as his "Private Room") where Ifukube would set up his permanent composing station, which included a large desk and a German-made Raschals piano, which was a gift from his sister-in-law Nami, the wife of his older brother Muneo. Nami, a talented musician in her own right, had aspirations of being a professional pianist but with her own growing family, she found this would be a difficult dream to accomplish. Therefore, it was decided the instrument would be of much better use to her composer brother-in-law.

Additionally, Ifukube was able to use one of the upstairs rooms to give shelter to his rather large collection of traditional Chinese and other Asian instruments.


Ifukube Raschals piano. Photo by Erik Homenick.


Ifukube's collection of exotic Asian instruments.


The composer at home circa 1950.

1950 also brought about a new collaboration between Akira Ifukube and Takaya Eguchi. The project in question was a ballet based on a story from Greek mythology: Fire of Prometheus.

The idea for a ballet based on the Prometheus story had its origins in a conversation between Eguchi and his friend, the actress Keiko Tsushima. (Tsushima would go on to play Shino in Akira Kurosawa's Seven Samurai (1954) , undoubtedly her most famous role.) Tsushima, a fan of Eguchi's beloved Neue Tanz, suggested that she would love to see a fanciful ballet similar to Tchaikovsky's Swan Lake but with the more modern Neue Tanz technique. [1] This set Eguchi's creativity into motion and he pitched the idea to an enthusiastic Ifukube. The ballet was a go!

To write the libretto, Eguchi contacted Hisatoshi Kikuoka (1909 - 1970), a well-known "radical" Japanese writer who had tendencies toward communism and even ideals of total anarchy.* Working on the ballet since probably the summer of 1950, Fire of Prometheus had its début on December 11 at the Imperial Theater in Tokyo in a performance by Masashi Ueda and the Toho Symphony. Eguchi himself danced the role of the titular character and Misako Miya interpreted the role of his love interest, Io.


Takaya Eguchi as Prometheus.

Fire of Prometheus begins in a world shrouded in constant darkness. Due to this, the human beings living on earth experience lives of terrible melancholy. A deity, Prometheus, sees the sorrow of the humans and elects to carry out a heroic deed: he will steal fire from Jupiter, the chief of the gods, and deliver it to earth so that human kind may enjoy the benefits of light.

Prometheus defies Jupiter and brings fire to earth. Humankind rejoices but Jupiter is not happy; as punishment for Prometheus's transgression, he chains the hero to a rock in the Caucus Mountains. Bound to the rock, Prometheus is terrorized daily by an eagle that tears into his liver and devours it. The liver is regenerated every day only to be consumed again by the eagle, therefore subjecting Prometheus to continuous torture. Although Prometheus endures extreme pain and agony, he never regrets bringing fire to the humans.

Io is a beautiful young maiden with whom Jupiter falls in love. Jupiter's jealous wife, Juno, is enraged by this and Jupiter, in an effort to conceal Io's identity, transforms her into a cow. In her bestial form, Io visits Prometheus in his chains and tell him of her plight. Prometheus offers consolation and tells her to remain hopeful. Io then wanders to the Nile in Egypt where Jupiter transforms her back into a human. Prometheus is finally freed from his shackles by Hercules.

The ballet consists of four acts: Darkness without Fire/Dance of Io; Those Who Steal Fire; Joy of Fire; Atop the Caucuses. It also has a Preludio, Prologue and Finale.


Joy of Fire segment from the original 1950 production of Fire of Prometheus.

The music in Fire of Prometheus is typical Ifukube and, interestingly, the composer did not endeavor to incorporate any elements of Ancient Greek music into the score. Rather, at times, the music takes on a decidedly Russian character; the shadow of Sergei Prokofiev, one of Ifukube's favorite composers, is ever present in this work and is especially palpable in the Dance of the Malevolent God section. (It is rather thought-provoking that this would be the case as Prokofiev had written his own similarly titled The Evil God and Dance of the Evil Monsters for his own ballet, Ala i Lolli, in 1915, which was later refashioned into the Scythian Suite.) **

Ifukube once mentioned that his primary objective in writing the music for Fire of Prometheus was to offer musical encouragement to the Japanese people who were still reeling from their loss in the war and who were languishing under the American occupation. Ifukube sought to write music of great positive energy for this purpose and it is a task he accomplishes especially brilliantly in the ecstatic Joy of Fire section of the score.

What is more, with a writer like Kikuoka in charge of the scenario, it is no coincidence that the ballet would take on a sociopolitical tone, albeit in a subtle (or not so subtle?) way: the story offers hope that, if Japan herself could be considered in a state of "darkness without fire," it would only be a matter of time before the nation, like the mythical Greece of the ballet, would emerge into the light. Also, the character of Prometheus, chained to a rock and tormented by an (American?) eagle served as a clever metaphor for Japan's tribulations under the continuing United States occupation.

Fire of Prometheus had its début performances on December 1 and 2 at Tokyo's Imperial Theater with Masashi Ueda's Toho Symphony. Thanks to its exciting music and a thematic that the Japanese people could very easily relate to, Fire of Prometheus was an instant success and at least one critic hailed the ballet as Eguchi's masterpiece. So popular was the ballet that it would go on to be performed approximately 180 times throughout the 1950s; after the initial orchestral performances, Eguchi's dance troupe took Prometheus on tour throughout Japan. Of course, it was impossible for a full orchestra to go on the road with Eguchi's dancers, therefore, Ifukube personally prepared a reduction of the full score for two pianos to facilitate the requisite musical accompaniment no matter where the ballet went.


Ifukube's sketch of the Prometheus torch.

The first part of 1951 found Ifukube writing a handful of film scores and, as always, busy teaching at the university. Also at this time, he had begun writing another ballet score and was putting the finishing touches on a music appreciation book he had been working on for quite some time. It all came to a head in November when the three most significant fruits of that year's labor were made public at virtually the same time. First, his music appreciation book Invitation to Music was finally published. Second, the film Tale of Genji, the most high-profile film he had scored all year, was released and finally, the already busy month of November welcomed the début of a new ballet.

The Tale of Genji, written in the early 11th century by the noblewoman Murasaki Shikibu, is often considered to be the world's first novel. A perennially adored text in Japan, and counted among the great masterpieces of world literature, The Tale of Genji is an evocative (if somewhat romanticized) representation of courtly life in Heian-period Kyoto.

This first ever film version of the famous story was directed by Kozaburo Yoshimura and written by Shikibu Murasaki, Junichiro Tanizaki and Kaneto Shindo. It was probably Shindo who recommended Ifukube for this assignment as he had collaborated a year earlier with the composer on his Senka no hate. To recreate an authentic atmosphere of the ancient Japanese court, Ifukube adapted segments of his 1940 score Etenraku into the soundtrack, itself based on court music that would have been heard in The Tale of Genji's time.

Daiei's The Tale of Genji, released on November 2, was successful in Japan and was eventually entered into the 1952 Cannes Film Festival where two of the film's crew, Kohei Sugiyama and Hiroshi Muzutani won prizes for best cinematography and best art direction, respectively.

Several days later on November 17, Ifukube's seventh ballet, Drumming of Japan, another collaboration with Takaya Eguchi, had its first performance. It was joined on the bill by the popular Fire of Prometheus with Tokyo Symphony led by Maestro Ueda.***


Program cover for the November 17, 1951 performance of Prometheus and Drumming of Japan.

The idea for this ballet had its origins in a trip Ifukube took in 1948 to Iwate, which is located in the Tohoku region of northeastern Japan. There, Ifukube observed the regional shishi odori, or deer dance. In this folkloric tradition, eight performers don elaborate (and somewhat frightening!) deer costumes and dance, all the while imitating the movements of a deer and beating on small taiko drums.

Upon seeing the shishi odori for the first time, Ifukube was shocked that this fascinating art form had existed without his knowing about it. Excited by what he had seen, Ifukube figured that he would want to write a ballet score based on this dance and the music that accompanies it at some point and, it seems, 1951 ended up being the right time.

Although Eguchi's preferred type of choreography was the modernist Neue Tanz, his dances in Drumming of Japan recreate, with quite a bit of accuracy, the original "old world" movements of the shishi odori. As well, Ifukube's music is overtly indebted to its source material and thus retains a distinctly Japanese flavor; in fact, his score for Drumming of Japan is surely the most blatantly "Japanese" work he had written since Kishi Mai, nearly a decade earlier, due to its insistence on a myriad of Japanese pentatonic scales and the inclusion of the taiko drums, which the dancers actually play while performing on stage. ****


The shishi odori as portrayed in Drumming of Japan.

As the year came to a close, Ifukube submitted a revised version of his Rapsodia Concertante for Violin and Orchestra to the Genoa International Competition for Composers in December. The main revision Ifukube made was the complete omission of the central Arioso movement, thus reducing his concerto to an unusual two movements. Unusual or not, the updated version of the Rapsodia took an award at the competition to end the year on an already very high note.

1952 began with the composer receiving commissions for two small-scale musical pieces. The first came from the newly founded Hokkaido Broadcasting Company. Established on November 30 of the previous year, the company was seeking to begin local broadcasting in Hokkaido by March of 1952. The company contacted Ifukube, by now a rather well-known Hokkaido native, to fashion a brief station identifying jingle to open the broadcast day at 5:00 AM and also to close it at midnight.

Fulfilling this request, Ifukube wrote Upopo, which lasts about thirty seconds. Wanting to endow the jingle with a true "Hokkaido sound," the composer based his Upopo on a traditional Ainu song of the same name. The upopo is "a festival song sung by women who sit in a circle, beating the lid of a container called shintoko. The words are not long and are sung repeatedly in a round or chorus." [2]

Really, the melody of Upopo, which is played by a cor anglais with the accompaniment of eerie string tremolos and harp glissandi, is a reworking of the first theme from his naval march of nine years earlier, Kishi Mai. Like Arctic Forest, Ifukube must have determined that Kishi Mai, a product of the war, could never again be played in the context of modern postwar Japanese society. Therefore, rather than letting good thematic material go to waste, he resurrected the tune for HBC's jingle. (It's astounding to think, then, that Kishi Mai, which was meant to sing the glories of the Imperial Japanese Navy, contained, as it turns out, an Ainu-influenced tune!)

At some point in early 1952, Upopo was recorded at a Tokyo satellite office for the HBC and the recording was shipped to the main office in Sapporo. The Upopo melody opened the first ever broadcast of HBC radio on March 10.*****

The second commission also came from Ifukube's home island; the town of Obihiro, where the Ifukube family lived from 1920 to 1923, and where the composer's father once served as police chief, asked their most famous former resident to write a signature tune for the town. Setting his (rather solemn) music to the lyrics of Obihiro resident Masakazu Toyama, Ifukube's Song of Obihiro had its first performance in the town that it honors on March 31.


Ifukube's Song of Obihiro.

On April 28, 1952, the United States occupation of Japan finally came to an end and, for the first time since the end of the Second World War, Japan was now a sovereign nation. During the occupation, Douglas MacArthur's General Headquarters oversaw strict censorship of the Japanese film industry; among other things, references to atomic bombs or the tragedies in Hiroshima and Nagasaki were completely forbidden in Japanese movies. With the United States exit such bans were instantly lifted and the world of Japanese cinema could finally begin exploring the theme of nuclear weapons.

In short order, the esteemed writer and director director Kaneto Shindo (1912 - 2012) took it upon himself to tackle the nuclear issue after having read the book Children of Hiroshima by Osada Arata (1887 - 1961). Arata, a college professor who had survived the bombing in Hiroshima himself, published his book in 1951. The text is a compilation of essays and reminiscences of Hiroshima residents who lived through the fateful events of August 6, 1945.


Kaneto Shindo

In adapting Arata's book for the movie screen (with funding from the Japan Teachers Union), Shindo was undertaking the first-ever Japanese fictional feature film to deal directly with the bombings of Hiroshima. Certainly, the subject matter of the film was unlike anything the movie-going public in Japan had ever seen: a school teacher travels to Hiroshima to visit several former colleagues who were victims of the bomb (one of theme severely scarred) in order to hear of their experiences. Shindo, wanting to express the sense of tragedy as best he could in the film, chose Ifukube to write the score.

Of course, Shindo had worked with Ifukube before and was by now well acquainted not only with his style but also, assuredly, with the composer's back story. Though Ifukube was in no way personally affected by the atomic bombing in either Hiroshima or Nagasaki, he and his brother Isao had both been victims of radiation poisoning: Isao died because of his wartime experiments with irradiated fluorescent paint and Ifukube was made seriously ill due to his own scientific work with X-rays. What a unique opportunity, then, for Shindo to have Ifukube's exceedingly personal musical input into this groundbreaking film.

Ifukube's score for Children of Hiroshima is rather sparse; most of the film has no musical accompaniment at all. The music that does appear, however, is always of an appropriately heavy nature; the music during the opening credits, for example, is plaintively dramatic (even a touch melodramatic) and is to great effect repeated later in the film with a choir to augment, quite poignantly, the disturbing scene in which the bomb is dropped.

Children of Hiroshima was released domestically to acclaim on August 6 (the eighth anniversary of the bombing) and would later be entered into competition at the Cannes Film Festival in 1953, but not without causing some controversy: The Japanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs tried to block, unsuccessfully, its screening out of a fear that the film would arouse anti-American sentiment. The film was, despite any fears from the Japanese government, well-received in Cannes and would go on to win the Karlovy Vary International Film Festival Peace Prize in 1954 and the United Nations Peace Award at the 10th British Academy Film Awards ceremony in 1956.


The Ifukubes at home enjoying tea circa 1952/53.

Although Shindo's Children of Hiroshima was popular with critics, there was at least one faction that was decidedly unimpressed: the Japan Teachers Union, the very entity that funded the production! Consequently, the Union entered into talks with Hideo Sekigawa (1908- 1977), a left-leaning director who, because of his communist sympathies, was expelled from Toho in 1948. Sekigawa, who been directing films independently since his forced exit from Toho, was in agreement with the Union that Shindo's take on Arata's book was nothing more than a "tearjerker" without "political orientation." [3] Therefore, wanting to "correct" the perceived weakness of Shindo's film with a more virulently anti-American version, the Japan Teachers Union agreed to fund the new film, to be titled simply Hiroshima, with Sekigawa at the helm.

Forming his own independent studio called East West to make Hiroshima, Sekigawa got to work on his markedly more incendiary interpretation of Arata's book toward the end of 1952. Despite the fact that he and the Union had been thoroughly disappointed by Shindo's film, at least one element of it must have left a positive impression on them: the score. Apparently taken by Ifukube's music in Children of Hiroshima, Sekigawa, who like Shindo had worked as a director with Ifukube before, asked the composer to score his Hiroshima film. Ifukube accepted.

As was the case in Shindo's film, Ifukube's score for Hiroshima is haunting and deeply expressive. As well, Ifukube repeats his idea to use music with choral accompaniment during the bomb scene, although the main theme is different. Another difference is the bomb itself: in Shindo's film, there is no sound when the bomb detonates; we hear the ominous ticking of a clock...then silence...and then we see the flash of an explosion, at which point Ifukube's doleful scoring begins to permeate the soundtrack as scenes of death and despair begin to play out on the screen. Sekigawa, on the other hand, did want to include an impressive sound effect for his bomb and called on Ifukube to tap into his creativity to produce the needed "boom." The ever-resourceful composer invented a novel way to create the sound of the bomb blast: he placed a microphone inside a piano and, holding down all of the pedals (for maximum reverberation), he at once dropped a large amount of heavy coins directly onto the harp.****** "I understand people overseas wondered how it was done!", Ifukube once remarked. [4] The shocking sound effect is blasted on the soundtrack at the same moment as a stock footage shot of a mushroom cloud, rising skyward, appears.


A scene from Hideo Sekigawa's Hiroshima

By the end of 1952, Ifukube had written fourteen film scores; already since the year 1950 he had written a grand total of forty-one! Ifukube determined that this steady and ever-increasing amount of film jobs would keep him and his family financially stable without having to rely on the additional income from his post at Tokyo University of the Arts, formally known as the Tokyo Music School. This was a fine excuse for the composer to leave the institution because, as far as Ifukube was concerned, the working conditions there had become progressively unfavorable ever since the Japanese university system had undergone sweeping changes in 1949, roughly two years after he had begun his lecturing position.

The changes in question were executed by the American Occupation: Their objective was to create a more "open" and elagitarian system based on American models where a wider swath of the public, including women, had easier access to higher education and finacial aid was readily available. As well, "free thought" would be fostered and supported like never before. In order to carry this out, the Occupation forcibly closed several of the old universities, merged them with other defunct institutions, and then reopened these academic conglomerations as brand new entities. This was the fate of the Tokyo Music School: It had merged with the Tokyo School of Fine Arts to create the Tokyo University of the Arts.

After the changes to the national university system had been made, student enrollments at the Tokyo University of the Arts increased precipitously; to accommodate this influx, more classes had to be created and, thus, more time was required from the instructors to teach these classes. Ifukube found it difficult to maintain such a vigorous teaching schedule while trying to keep up with his film composing, an activity that he prefered. Also, and perhaps more importantly, Ifukube felt more and more out of place at the school as the years went on; in his opinion, the atmosphere at the university was becoming too rigidly academic as a result of the standards enforced by the Occupation. Ifukube, who received virtually no formal musical education himself (save for the month of ochestration lessons he had with Alexander Tcherepnin in 1936) took pride in his liberated way of thinking and had a strong distaste for "orthodox" teaching methods based on European models: He felt that this type of education, which had become more or less the standard at the school, hindered the creative development of Japanese composers. Therefore, because he felt ironically unable to continue cultivating his own brand of "free thought" at the university, the opportunity to break away from this uncomfortable situation and switch to full-time composition was indeed very attractive.

Thus Ifukube resigned from the Tokyo School of Fine Arts in March of 1953. Although he was leaving the world of education, it would not be before making an important contribution to Japan's musical academia: Ifukube had finally published his massive textbook, Orchestration, a roughly-1000 page textbook he had been laboring over for years. Dedicated to Alexander Tcherepnin, Ifukube's Orchestration, which continues to be a standard reference for Japanese composition students to this day, was once described by the composer to be "the story of my life." [5]


Ifukube and two of his students, Toshiro Mayuzumi and Yashushi Akutagawa, joined by Ikuma Dan.
Circa 1953.

Soon after his departure from the university, Ifukube was offered a rather extraordinary film assignment. Up to this point in his career Ifukube had worked exclusively with Japanese directors but, in the late spring or early summer of that year, a uniquely exciting opportunity arose to work with a foreign director...and a very famous one at that: Josef von Sternberg.


Josef von Sternberg

The Austrian-American Josef von Sternberg (1894 - 1969) was one of the most celebrated directors of his generation. Born in Austria-Hungary, von Sternberg permanently emigrated to the United States at the age of 14. He directed his first film, The Salvation Hunters, in 1925 at the age of 31. This film so impressed Charlie Chaplin that he invited von Sternberg to come to Hollywood to make films for his United Artists company. Von Sternberg quickly rose to acclaim in the Southern California movie industry and, over the course of his career, he had worked with such iconic actors as Emil Jannings, Wallace Beery, Cary Grant, Gene Tierney, Walter Huston, Victor Mature, Robert Mitchum and Jane Russell. Of course, it was von Sternberg who personally discovered one of classic cinema's most legendary stars, Marlene Dietrich, when he cast her in UFA's Blue Angel in 1930. After that initial film, von Sternberg and Dietrich would go on to collaborate on five additional films throughout the 1930s and the rest is, as they say, history.

While von Sternberg had been primarily active in the 1920s and 1930s, he only made one major film in the 1940s, The Shanghai Gesture (1941). He would not make his final studio film, Macao, until 11 years later in 1952. But it was as early as 1951 when a producer at Toho by the name of Iwao Mori and a film distributor, Nagamasa Kawakita, met with von Sternberg in New York to express interest in hiring him to direct a joint Japanese-American film production. Von Sternberg was interested from the start.

Fully expecting that the American-Japanese film was an inevitability, von Sternberg, who was relishing the complete creative control Mori and Kawakita had promised him, wrote an original screenplay on a Japanese subject. The director had been intrigued by an true account he had read in a book by Michio Maraya which describes how a group of sailors from the Japanese Imperial Navy were stranded on an island in the Mariana chain, named Anatahan, in 1944. [6] Initially believing that they were the only ones on the island, the marooned sailors were shocked one day to discover a man and a beautiful woman had also been living there for a period of time prior to their arrival in complete isolation. Von Sternberg's screenplay would explore the psychology of the soldiers as they vie for power on the island and, of course, for the attention of the pretty female. Von Sternberg called his script Anatahan after the island on which the story takes place.

Mori and Kawakita approached the higher-ups at Toho in an attempt to secure their interest and, thus, financial backing for the proposed von Sternberg film but the studio was not interested. At least one studio executive by the name of Yoshio Osawa was intrigued despite Toho's general disinterest, however, and with Mori and Kawakita he founded an independent studio called Daiwa for the express purpose of filming Anatahan. The newly formed Daiwa acquired an abandoned airplane hanger in Kyoto and converted it into a huge sound stage for the film.

Akira Ifukube was enthused to have been chosen to write the score for Anatahan. Ifukube once remenisced: "That was really a fantastic experience. He was such a gentleman. Anatahan was actually his last film – he did it for himself, and as an insult to everyone else – especially Hollywood. This film was his swan song – he was such a pictorial stylist. I discussed a lot of things with him and at the beginning it was rather difficult for me as a Japanese to understand his foreign mentality and all its fine nuances. I tried to work hard with him and I played all the different themes on the piano for him. The whole movie was full of music except only five minutes. So I had to compose a lot of music – actually one reel a day, so I completed my work in ten days." [7]

The "pictoral style" Ifukube refers to must be the strange visuals the director, who was also serving as the principal photographer. In order to create a weird sense of fantasy, von Sternberg insisted on a decidedly "fake" looking production-design with, for example, reflective cellophane literally woven in the backgrounds and prop trees turned upside down. [8] His apparent taste for the unusual was not limited to the visuals...

Von Sternberg wanted a soundtrack that relied heavily on traditional Asian music and, of course, this was easy for Ifukube to oblige in terms of technique as well as in orchestration: in addition to employing a standard Western-style orchestra in Anatahan's score, Ifukube made use of four kotos, four kokyu (a Japanese bowed instrument similar to a shamisen) and various other Chinese instruments from his personal home collection. [9] Most interestingly of all, in order to create a sense of "mysticism," Sternberg mandated that the koto player be blind! "Von Sternberg liked saying it was mystic. I didn't understand that." [10] Ifukube continues: "We had people who could read music to tap on the shoulder of the koto player when the baton came down. This caused some problems because when I conducted the orchestra the player could not see me, so I had an assistant behind him who patted the blind player’s shoulder when he had a part to play. It caused a little time lag, but Mr. Sternberg liked my music very much and accepted the time delay. It took four days to record the music, which was composed in a European style mixed with Asian orchestrations." [11]

Mystic or not, Ifukube Anatahan music is some of the most evocative and exotic film music of his career. The traditional Asian istrumentation blends seamlessly with the orchestra to create sounds that are at once eerie and even sensual.

Anatahan, which von Sternberg had deemed his best film ever, was released in Japan in June 1953 to mostly negative reviews. Obviously embittered by this experience, von Sternberg never made another film and would spend the rest of his career teaching at UCLA.

Probably around the release date of Anatahan, Ifukube and Baku Ishii, the choreographer with whom he had produced The Wandering People, again joined forces to dream up a new ballet production portraying the life of Siddhartha Gautama, the young prince who gained enlightenment to become the Buddha.

The ballet, Shaka, characterizes three principal episodes in the Buddha's life: his sadness growing up in luxury in the Kapilavastu palace, his meditation under a tree in Bodh Gaya where he staves off temptation from evil spirits and finally his ultimate enlightenment. *******

For this work, Ifukube wrote extensive passages for mixed choir. The sung text is in Pali, the liturgical language of Buddhism. Ifukube personally consulted a sacred text, the Mahavamsa, which is of great scriptural importance to the Theravada branch of Buddhism. Written in between the 6th and 4th centuries BC by Sri Lankan kings, much of the text is a description of Gautama Siddhartha's early life. Here is an example of the Pali text Ifukube set to music in the glorious final section of the ballet: Acintiya buddnha buddhadhama acintiyesu pasannanam vipakohoti acintiyo. Translated, this means "The Buddhas are incomprehensible, the qualities of a Buddha are incomprehensible and the fruits of faith, to those who have faith in these incomprehensibles are also incomprehensible. In other words, "Buddha's word is to be believed without inquiry." [12]

The subject of Buddha was chosen, likely, after great consideration from Ifukube and Ishii. First, Buddhism is the most practiced faith in Japan and, surely, a dramatic and artistic rendering of the life of its founder would have had great popular appeal to the public at large. Second, as we saw with Fire of Prometheus roughly two years earlier, it is completely plausible that the composer and the choreographer wanted to continue boosting the postwar morale of the Japanese people with sights and sounds portraying Buddha's struggle to overcome unhappiness and negative forces to reach an ultimate goal of enlightened peace.

Shaka was first performed on November 6 at the Hibiya Kokaido Hall where Ifukube stalwart Masashi Ueda conducted both the Tokyo Symphony as well as the Orpheus Philharmonic Chorus. Whatever the message that the creators sought to transmit in the ballet, it surely caught on with the public: Shaka would go on to be performed no less than 300 additional times after its début.


A scene from the 1953 production of Shaka.

After an exceedingly busy 1953, the first half of 1954 was off to a relatively calm start. Ifukube was not accepting any film assignments at this time; rather, he was focusing his energy on writing a three-movement symphony, which was to be based on an obscure Ainu dance. The concentration he was giving the symphony, however, would be sharply broken when, in the early summer of that year, the composer was to receive a most unusual proposal to score a film about, of all things, a giant monster. Little did Ifukube know, his life was about to change forever.


Ifukube in early 1954.


* One wonders how Ifukube, who was more politically right-leaning, felt working with an author such as Kikuoka. Communism had been greatly looked down upon by Ifukube's father Toshizo who once said to son: "I don't care what you do with your life, but there are three things you must never become: somebody's driver, a musician or a communist."

** Ifukube's affection for Prokofiev was well known and I can only assume that Ifukube took certain influence from the Russian composer, a prolific ballet composer himself, in the Prometheus score. So keen was Ifukube's interest in Prokofiev that he penned a lengthy biographical article about him in a book titled Music for Modern People, which was published in July 1952.

*** In 1951 the Toho Symphony officially changed its name to the Tokyo Symphony Orchestra, as it is known today.

**** Drumming of Japan holds a special position in the history of Japanese television. Japan's national broadcast service, NHK (Nippon Hoso Kyokai) made its very first television broadcast on February 1, 1953. As a part of this inaugural transmission, NHK carried a live broadcast of Drumming of Japan from the Hibiya Kokaido Hall in Tokyo. In other words, Ifukube's ballet was the first live cultural program in the history of Japanese television. Film currently exists of this 1953 performance but, unfortunately it is completely silent: all of the original audio elements are missing.

***** The HBC ceased using the Upopo jingle in 2002 to switch to a 24-hour daily broadcast format, much to the dismay of its listeners. In the minds of many Hokkaido citizens old enough to remember, the Upopo is a piece of local nostalgia, having been something of a Hokkaido institution for 50 years.

****** For this anecdote, I referenced the excellent Akira Ifukube article by Randall Larson. In his article, Larson mentions that Ifukube dropped the coins onto the piano keys, not the inner harp, as I explain in my text above. Having heard the bomb sound effect in question several times myself, it is obvious to me that the coins are hitting the strings of the piano directly, not the keys. (Ifukube was known to manipulate the strings of the piano in other film scores, so this would not be at all a unique instance of resorting to such a technique.) Therefore, I believe that the "piano key" detail may be the result of a misunderstood translation. Furthering my theory that this translation is not perfect is that Larson says that the sound effect in question was used in the film Children of Hiroshima. Again, this is clearly not true as there is no explosion sound effect whatsoever in Shindo's film whereas the "coin explosion" is most certainly heard in Sekigawa's film. Because Shindo and Sekigawa both have such similarly titled films (both based on the same book which is titled, of course, Children of Hiroshima), one can easily see how such a misunderstanding could be made.

******* Shaka is another name for Siddhartha Gautama.


[1] Liner notes for Fire of Prometheus. Denon. 2013.
[2] www.indigenouspeople.net
[3] Lowenstein, Adam. Shocking Representation: Historical Trauma, National Cinema, and the Modern Horror Film. Page 84. Columbia University Press. August 13, 2013.
[4] Larson, Randall. Akira Ifukube. www.runmovies.eu/?p=719.
[5] Milner, David. Akira Ifukube Interview III. www.davmil.org.
[6] King, James. Under Foreign Eyes. John Hurt Publishing. 2012.
[7] Breyer, Wolfgang. A Conversation with Akira Ifukube. runmovies.eu/?p=3270.
[8]
King, James. Under Foreign Eyes. John Hurt Publishing. 2012.
[9] Larson, Randall. Akira Ifukube. www.runmovies.eu/?p=719.
[10] Ibid.
[11] Breyer, Wolfgang. A Conversation with Akira Ifukube. runmovies.eu/?p=3270.
[12] Allen, Percy Stafford and de Monins Johnson, John. Transactions of the Third International Congress for the History of Religions, Volume II. Oxford Clarendon Press. 1908.



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