“We are a group of musicians who love Godzilla and Godzilla music.”
Inoue Makoto’s delightfully simple description, spoken softly from behind his synthesizer, didn’t quite do justice to the strange beauty of what went down last Friday at Japan Society, when the Japanese technopop band Hikashu performed legendary composer Akira Ifukube’s music for the Godzilla films.
Over a career that spanned half a century, Ifukube, who died in 2006, created rousing and melodic soundtracks, with brisk marches and booming crescendos jutting up against melancholy dirges. (I defy anyone who sees the original 1954 Godzilla or 1964’s Mothra vs. Godzilla not to walk out of the theater humming the scores.) Hikashu, founded in 1978, are a versatile group that play everything from pop to jazz to electronica, but for their Godzilla concerts, they bring in a three-person horn section and the “alt-chanson” accordion-and-vocal duo of Charan-Po-Rantan — two sisters who fuse rock, klezmer, and Balkan influences into lush pop songs.
On this particular night, what transpires onstage is a sonic rollercoaster of thundering rhythms and careening improvisations, with moments of tender, plangent lyricism — as Hikashu and friends deliver a series of medleys of various Ifukube scores, veering between musical fidelity and experimental play. They kick things off with selections from the original Godzilla, riffing on the monster’s classic, hard-charging theme with blaring horns and shrieking guitars.
The players are mostly stoic and focused, but there’s something wild and unpredictable about this concert. When the band launches into King Kong vs. Godzilla (1962), its instruments conjure the random natural whoops and whistles of a primeval jungle. Later, a fairly staid, rhythmic opening — built around gongs and synth piano — to a medley from Rodan (1956) and Ghidorah, the Three-Headed Monster (1964) suddenly turns into a free jazz freak-out, with the horns evoking the blowing of air through Rodan’s wings. For all the expansiveness, the aliveness, of their performance, the musicians onstage are tight, too. The whirlwinds of guitar and brass always seem to coalesce back into heroic, rollicking finales.
Inoue, who has been obsessed since childhood with Godzilla scores, helped found Hikashu in 1978; their very first concert even included “Mothra’s Song,” an arrangement of Ifukube pieces. In fact, Inoue left the band in 1991 in part to devote more time to his work arranging (and often rearranging) Ifukube’s scores. Now he regularly reunites with his old colleagues to perform these pieces. In between medleys, he delivers basic, yet evocative commentary, offering gee-whiz tidbits about kaiju history with the simple cadences of a fairy tale.
Meanwhile, Hikashu’s current leader and vocalist Makigami Koichi playfully mans a gong and works the theremin like he’s conjuring an evil spirit. (Is there any other way?) For the evening’s high point, a medley from the Mothra movies, he dons a white jacket and mimics the role of the corrupt showman Nelson (played by Jerry Ito in 1961’s Mothra — curiously, a film not scored by Ifukube). Nelson has imprisoned the Shobijin, or Little Beauties, the foot-tall singing twin fairy priestesses from Infant Island who can telepathically summon Mothra. To perform the mournful song of the fairies, the duo from Charan-Po-Rantan emerge clad in charmingly handmade costumes. (The eclectic, makeshift quality of their getup is part of Charan-Po-Rantan’s signature; their costumes are reportedly sewn and assembled by their mother and grandmother.) Inoue’s descriptions of the films makes clear Mothra’s special place in the kaiju pantheon: You can imagine the likes of Godzilla, Ghidorah, Gamera, and others being imagined by scientists and showmen, but a giant, maternal, colorful moth-monster, controlled by a pair of tiny sad fairies? That’s clearly the work of a deranged poet.
The improvisatory, playing-in-the-sandbox quality of the evening connects to something essential about the Godzilla movies. With their miniature cities and model tanks and latex-suit monsters, these pictures — as well as the other kaiju eiga directed by such masters as Ishiro Honda and Jun Fukuda — made for a decidedly handmade genre. We’re not turned off by the fakery; that’s a big part of the appeal. Combined with the directors’ real filmmaking chops — Honda’s ability to handle crowds even came in handy to his good friend Akira Kurosawa, who enlisted his aid as assistant director on a few late films — the Godzilla flicks are acts of collective, inclusive imagination. They don’t ask that we suspend disbelief; they invite us to join in the play.
And Japan’s monster movie industry is in its own way a kind of improvisation, a fusion of classic myths, sci-fi/fantasy tropes, and — crucially — the lingering horrors of World War II and the onset of the atomic age. The specter of nuclear armageddon has always informed the Godzilla mythos, and the creature’s destructive behavior, as Inoue reminds us, was also “a metaphor for the fires that devastated Tokyo during World War II.” (Let’s note too that Godzilla’s foremost auteur Honda himself had seen the absolute worst of combat, having fought in Manchuria in the 1930s and spent months as a POW at the end of the war.)
But Inoue has more on his mind, it seems. Still unerringly modest in his delivery, he reminds us that Rodan, “born out of the fear of violent winds,” once destroyed New York in 2004’s Godzilla: Final Wars; he then apologizes to us, on behalf of the winged monster. The polite joke gets a nice laugh from the audience. But Inoue’s subtler point is not lost either: We’re all vulnerable, maybe now more than ever.