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Primordial Score

February 10th, 2012

Nearly sixty years ago, a Japanese composer dragged a leather glove across the strings of a contrabass and created one of the most distinctive sounds in 20th century cinema — Godzilla’s Roar.

I was six when I first heard it, sitting on the floor of my Levittown living room, watching a staticy cathode-ray television. It was sometimes hard to see the picture on that set, but the audio generally came through OK, making for an experience that was more like listening to radio than watching TV. No matter. Godzilla, King of the Monsters was one of those movies that sounded better than it looked.

The Americanized version of Toho’s Gojira featured an atomic age drama in which both the monster (Haruo Nakajima in a rubber suit) and leading man (Raymond Burr in a suit and tie) were spliced into the film. The monster scenes were scratched and degraded even then, and Burr’s scenes didn’t always match the compositions of the original. But the sound? Man, that got inside me.

Last night, I had the chance to see and hear both the original Japanese film and the American mash-up in a single sitting, courtesy of a newly restored Blu-Ray release from Criterion. The 1080p presentation with lossless audio was a long way from the fuzzy broadcast I viewed as a kid, but my intention here isn’t to review the restoration. Instead, I’d like to take a moment to consider the dark and brooding score by Akira Ifukube. It’s music designed to evoke a sense of power and dread, and as such it is (like everything else about the original film) a long way from the increasingly whimsical sequels that came later. For me, that 1950’s soundtrack is the sound of horror. 

Tonight I’ve got plenty of work to keep me busy. My desk is covered. Deadlines loom. Nevertheless, I’m thinking seriously about going downstairs and giving that Criterion disk another spin. And you know what? Maybe this time I’ll patch that high-end Blu-Ray player through an old converter box, squeeze the hi-def signal down into a coaxial cable, and hook the whole shebang up to an old cathode ray set that I have sitting in the garage.

Could work.

Who says you can’t relive the past?


Sound Notes:

Here’s the monster’s roar as it sounded in 1954. The sound was achieved by rubbing a leather glove over the tuned-down strings of a contrabass. Echo was added and the recording slowed down, resulting in a wonderfully organic monster sound.  

Here’s an excerpt of the slow, ominous march that plays as Gojira’s leaves Tokyo, heading back to the sea.

Finally, here’s an up-tempo selection that plays during the monster’s rampage. It features a three syllable riff that seems to be chanting the monster’s name: “Go-ji-ra! Go-ji-ra!” (The Americanized pronunciation “Godzilla” also works.) The riff seems to have inspired Led Zeppelin’s “Kashmire” — a song that was heavily sampled for Puff Daddy’s “Come with Me.” That tune can be heard on the soundtrack of Roland Emmerich’s 1998 attempted reboot of the Godzilla franchise.