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Kaiju crescendo STR024
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Kaiju Crescendo – An Evening of Japanese Monster Music
Michiru Oshima, John Desentis (conductors)
rec. 2019, North Shore Center for The Performing Arts, Skokie, USA

One of Japan’s greatest ‘soft-power’ contributions to world culture has been monsters – or kaiju. Godzilla is the most famous of them all, making his first screen appearance in 1954. Originally conceived as a metaphor for nuclear weapons – and one of its creators, Eiji Tsuburaya, was born in a city later to be blighted by nuclear tragedy, Fukushima – others have seen Godzilla as an analogy for the first atomic nation, the United States. Admiral Chuichi Nagumo expressed this all too presciently after the bombing of Pearl Harbour in 1941: “The United States is a sleeping giant and I am afraid that our attack has awakened it”. (The epic 1970 American-Japanese film Tora! Tora! Tora! ends with a variation of this quotation.)

Godzilla appeared in some thirty films for the Toho film studios, and during that period – or through the Godzilla ‘eras’ – it also featured alongside other creatures. Mechagodzilla appeared in 1974 (and again in 2002). Rodan first appeared in 1956, and would do so again in The Three Treasures (1959). These are ones which are featured in the live concert excerpts on this two-disc collection – but there are many other Godzilla opponents as well as allies not on here. There are many subliminal themes in the movies – from environmental pollution in cities to the westernisation of Japan itself and its post-war identity – which add substance to its principal metaphor. Some you will find alluded to through the music here; some not.

It is a measure of the scale of fascination with not just the films themselves but also the scores of them that over the years a large number of discs and collections of music from the films have been released. The original score in 1954 had been composed by Akira Ifukube and even for today’s Japanese composers writing scores for Godzilla films his influence is impossible to escape; Shiro Sagisu’s OST for 2016’s Shin Godzilla (aka Godzilla’s Resurrection) integrates several of Ifukube’s set pieces into his own. The most comprehensive release ever made of the music from these films has been in a six-volume set – of over fifty discs – devoted to the first twenty-nine films. Composers – like Tom Holkenborg and Alexandre Desplat – writing for Hollywood monster movies have ultimately been unable to entirely emerge from his shadow.

Disc one of this twofer largely covers the Shōwa era (named from the reign of the Emperor Shōwa, or Hirohito) – the period, from the first film Godzilla in 1954 to Terror of Mechagodz in 1975 – which you would get from watching the first fifteen films on the Criterion Godzilla boxset (149, from Criterion). The second disc covers the Millennium (or New Century) series (1999 – 2004), a much less cohesive timeline of films than either the Shōwa or Heisei series.

As with many OSTs most listeners’ interest in hearing them would largely stem from having watched the film – rather than vice-versa. Film scores tend to avoid being strictly classical for this reason even if for many other reasons they fit the criteria of being classical. Film composers wrote serial or twelve-tone music in the same way we’d understand it from listening to Schoenberg, for example. Leonard Rosen is the most obvious example. But you’ll hear it in David Shire’s The Taking of Pelham 13, Jerry Goldsmith’s Planet of the Apes and even some of Miklos Rozsa’s work like King of Kings. You won’t find this kind of music in the Godzilla scores; both Ifukube and Masuro Sato lean towards a style that is as epic as their subject. And these are mighty scores. And what these scores share in spades are motifs – the very idea that you are listening to identical themes interweaved through the same as well different scores becomes quickly apparent. In reality, many of these scores sound very like each other – but then listen to the very recent recording of John Williams conducting the Berlin Philharmonic in a concert of his film music and this is a key feature of much of his film music, too. John Williams is a great film composer only when his scores don’t sound like something he wrote before. Great Japanese film scores can be thin on the ground although Shigeru Umebayashi – in Rise of the Legend and Onmyoji to name two – scales the kind of musical heights that Ifukube, Sato and Williams rarely do.

By a strange quirk of geography Japan’s closest link to western music is Russian, even if you’d have to trek through the savage tundra of Siberia to get to the musical centres of Moscow and Leningrad. Indeed, Ifukube’s music is unlikely to prove challenging for many used to Shostakovich – although by the time we get to his score for Rodan, written two years after the original Godzilla score, we get to music that is both more spectral as well as more shattering in its use of timpani perhaps just a little more progressive than Shostakovich. Ifukube tends to throw the whole artillery at us – bass drums, gongs, tam-tam. These aren’t just used occasionally; they almost hold the whole architecture of his music together like huge pylons around which everything else is built. And it’s brutalist and futurist – almost as if Godzilla is emerging from Mosolov’s Iron Foundry, which this music also recalls.

The music written by Masaru Sato – for the 1967 Son of Godzilla and the 1974 Godzilla vs. Mechagodzilla – doesn’t have the same impact because his style of composing lends towards something less overtly monumental. Both the suites here sound from the eras in which they written and their homage to jazz may seem a little odd to some. Rarely does Sato use the full scale of the orchestra in the same way as Ifukube, either.

The second disc takes in just three years of music from four films, all of which were composed by Michiru Ōshima. She is among the most prolific film composers today and her scores for the Godzilla films – which all cover the Millennium era – look back to the original Shōwa films in style, albeit with a touch of the Star Wars franchise thrown in. Her music perhaps owes more to Hollywood than either Ifukube or Sato and in that sense may prove less original to the ear for some but she still has a willingness to compose on a scale which many American composers are shy to do. The one score here that has nothing to do with the sequence of films, but which Ōshima composed for the city in which this concert took place, Chicago, G in Chicago (C.H.C.A.G.), is the most impressive of the scores on this second disc. Possibly freed from the grip of Godzilla which inspired or undid previous composers, Ōshima has managed in less than five minutes to write something that is both sweeping and powerful.

The performances themselves are of superb quality. In most cases there are no comparisons that can be made because the music has been compressed into suites largely to shorten the cues for the hugely demanding brass parts. And this is an often forgotten element of film scores – the sheer difficulty of the music (a player in the BPO recently said that John Williams’s music was some of the most challenging he had ever played). Rarely does this concert ever let up from these demands, although the players are at their freshest and best in the finest music here, that of Akira Ifukube. In what I hope is an editorial mishap, rather than just a disgraceful oversight, there is no mention of the orchestra on this release whatsoever. Beyond a list of the players hidden underneath the second CD, barely acceptable, we get nothing.

Although what is here offers a perfectly satisfactory introduction to Kaiju music the best of Ifukube’s scores – which are definitely worth seeking out – can be heard in alternative recordings. The 1954 Gojira can be found in part of volume one in the Soundtrack Perfect Collection and has not been equalled. This is, however, music that thrives on great sound and the exhilaration of live performance and here we get both. It is also music that needs to derive from a passion for the cinema and its subject. John Desentis, who conducts the first disc, has a feel for both, and he instils this in the orchestra as well. These are performances that do not stutter; they are fluid, despite the challenging orchestration. You won’t necessarily hear all the detail – the tendency for the timpani and percussion to elide and echo into the rest of the orchestra has a prominence in the hall’s acoustic it is hard to control. But at the volume we hear it we also get surprisingly little frazzle and pushback, too.

I really can’t quibble with the quality of the music here; performances are excellent and I think the suites have been well chosen to give a fairly decent representation of the Godzilla timeline. There is very little that is subtle about these discs. But Kaiju isn’t supposed to be. Presentation is poor, however. The booklet notes are scant on detail. If you know nothing about this music, or these composers, you will get no help from it. There is a rather self-congratulatory feel to its tone – although also, admittedly, one that makes us aware that its production was so uncertain because of Covid. They are hardly alone in this, however. The lack of any prominence given to the name of the orchestra is just unacceptable.

Supertrain Records might think they can get away with producing very good CDs without decent or thoughtfully done booklet notes. My answer to that one is – I’m afraid they can’t.

Marc Bridle

Previous review: Christopher Little

Akira Ifukube (1914-2006)
Godzilla’s Theme
Suite from Rodan (1956)
Suite from The Mysterians (1957)
Suite from The Three Treasures (1959)
Masaru Sato (1928-1999)
Suite from Son of Godzilla (1967)
Suite from Godzilla vs. Mechagodzilla (1974)
Michiru Oshima (b. 1961)
Godzilla’s Theme from Godzilla vs. Megaguirius (2000)
Suite from Godzilla vs. Megaguirius (2000)
Suite from Godzilla Against Mechagodzilla (2002)
Suite from Godzilla: Tokyo SOS (2003)
G in Chicago (C.H.C.A.G)
Encore: Theme of G
Bonus: Theme of G (rehearsal take)

Published: October 7, 2022

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