I have been an appreciator of film scores for as long as I can remember. In fact, when asked to name my favorite musical artists, I tend to cite—in addition to composers of classical music—the men and women whose recorded notes complement the images when we watch a film. And as the title of this article would suggest, quite a few of the scores in the Godzilla series spring to mind when naming my favorites. Hence why I could not settle for the customary numerical figure of ten when compiling this list!
I have decided to rank these albums according to criteria largely divorced from the movies themselves. (After all, even a lousy movie can be blessed with a good soundtrack—ergo, endorsement of a soundtrack is not necessarily endorsement of the film it derives from.) I am also judging these scores mostly as standalone experiences and not so much in terms of how they relate or fail to relate to their respective films: so soundtracks which function effectively in context but not so much on their own—à la Alexandre Desplat’s score for Godzilla (2014)—will not make the cut. And scores that sometimes feel mismatched to their given project have the potential to land a spot due to functioning brilliantly on their own.
Criteria now stated, let’s begin.
#15. Son of Godzilla
As with the motion picture it derives from, Masaru Sato’s score for Son of Godzilla (1967) immediately springs to mind when considering the most unfairly dismissed accomplishments in the series. The Main Title theme, which reappears at various lengths throughout the remainder of the soundtrack, captures a playful and energetic mood befitting a tropical environment. And yet the score as a whole is not entirely upbeat; it does have some dark edges to it. The track Kumonga Appears, cued for the arrival of the antagonist monster, is a suitably creepy piece of music but not to the point where it feels like it belongs in a different album altogether.
In another instance—one which quintessentially demonstrates Sato’s range—the composer deftly transitions between whimsy and dread: Saeko and Minilla, perhaps my favorite track in the entire score. It starts on an empathy-stirring note (recalling the scene where newborn Minya whimpered haplessly as Godzilla stomped away, apparently abandoning the infant reptile to a fate alone in the wilderness) before assuming a rendition of the Main Title motif and then unleashing an eruption of fearsome notes; and then the composer repeats the last two steps; I very much enjoyed how the second iteration of the menacing segment paces itself at a slower tempo than the first.
A fantastic listen—both in and out of the film.
My next selection is a prime example of something I mentioned before: the occasional appearance of a great soundtrack in a rather lackluster movie. Like most people, I do not hold the 1998 film GODZILLA with particularly high regard. And, again like most people, I most certainly consider the 2014 reboot directed by Gareth Edwards a largely superior effort. However, there is one area in which I feel the Roland Emmerich film outclasses the Edwards film…by a long shot! To reiterate: Desplat’s score for the 2014 picture served its purpose to satisfying effect when attached to the film; but when isolated and left to fend for itself, the soundtrack grew a tad dull with a succession of mostly unmemorable tracks. (Some exceptions: the main title Godzilla! and Golden Gate Chaos.)
By contrast, the score for the 1998 film, composed by the underrated David Arnold, is a thoroughly enjoyable listen packed with exhilarating action cues, catchy themes for character moments, and the employment of a choir rightfully described by David Hirsch in the Ultimate EditionCD pamphlet as “angelic.” (This is particularly true of the conclusion of Big G Goes to Monster Heaven.) I am also very fond of Joe Gets a Bite / Godzilla Arrives: the turbulent notes Arnold employs when Godzilla’s tail and dorsal spines rise into view over a highway coupled with a preceding tone of suspense never fails to dazzle me. Let it also be said that Arnold put together a soothing leitmotif for the character of Audrey and finds just the right moments to incorporate it so that it does not grow tiresome when experiencing the soundtrack by itself—now if only Emmerich and Devlin had upheld their end of the bargain and provided a character who wasn’t, to put it gently, one of the most exasperating female leads in the history of cinema.
But I digress.
It is a shame Arnold’s score has been disregarded over the years due to its association with a much-maligned movie. But he must be credited for delivering one of the few thoroughly commendable qualities in the aforementioned production. I have no shame in citing his soundtrack for GODZILLA as a huge personal favorite.
Onto another entry embodying the criteria I previously described, though this particular choice addresses how a great score can sometimes fail to relate—or not relate as well as it might have—to its chosen film. As has been reported, Koichi Sugiyama wasn’t exactly thrown into the best possible circumstances when scoring Kazuki Omori’s Godzilla vs. Biollante (1989). Sugiyama, whose closest experience to scoring a monster movie was the theme song for Return of Ultraman, was challenged with providing a lush soundtrack without seeing any footage; so the composer wrote a number of suites, centered around various themes and emotions, and it was up to the filmmakers to cut, edit, and assemble them for use in the movie. Hence why, when you watch the film, you will often hear the exact same track—the exact same recording—being used again and again and again. (It’s also worth mentioning that Sugiyama did not conduct or record the actual soundtrack; said task befell David Howell, the arranger, who similarly carried out his assignment without screening the film.)
Sugiyama’s score has also been criticized for being too derivative of non-Japanese soundtracks—namely the work of John Williams—and rightfully so. The rapid rhythmic thumping in the Godzilla 1989 suite is all too clearly inspired by the shark’s theme in Jaws (1975); and when listening to the Super-X2 suite, one cannot help but picture Christopher Reeve soaring to the rescue in Superman: The Movie (1978).
Two paragraphs to exemplify some earlier mentioned criteria. Now onto the meat of this selection. Derivativeness and in-context redundancy aside, Sugiyama’s score for Godzilla vs. Biollante, I feel, emerges as an excellent and delightfully unique musical addition to the franchise! Especially when one regards the suites in their entirety as opposed to the snippets that appeared in the movie. It saddens me to this day that we didn’t get to hear more of the sweeping Love Theme in the film, for the track rises from a solid beginning—what ended up being used—to a truly amazing finish as it goes along. It is a piece of music worthy of any grand romantic spectacle. Sugiyama’s Biollante suite is also beautiful—integrating wonder, mystery, suspense, shock, and empathy into a single six-plus-minute stretch. Requiem, when examined in its entirety, makes for a very lovely and listenable piece of music. Same goes for Asuka.
And, imitative as it is, I love the Super-X2’s theme!
The soundtrack also recycles some cues from Ostinato: a collection of re-recorded Akira Ifukube tracks conducted in the mid-80s to accompany an outtake video before landing a commercial release in 1986. The fact that the recycled cues boast a noticeably different style from Sugiyama’s music and were all too obviously recorded under different circumstances (conduction by Hiroshi Kumagai) does stand out a bit, but not enough to take away from the enjoyment factor.
Oh, I forgot to mention Bio-Wars. Yes, the notorious cue which reworked the classic Godzilla theme into a piece of rock music. I confess I sort of have a soft spot for this suite, though I’m grateful it was only used once in the film.
Of course, we can debate whether the Ostinato cues and/or Bio-Wars work in context, but believe it or not, these tracks are due partial credit for Ifukube’s subsequent return to the franchise. From the composer’s interview with Steve Ryfle: “I did not accept the assignment for Godzilla vs. Biollante, but after the film was released, my daughter pointed out they had used some of my music in the film. Also, they had made some of my music into a rock theme, and I did not like that! So, my daughter encouraged me to accept the next Godzilla movie so I would have some control over how my music was used.”
So in a sense, even detractors owe the soundtrack for Godzilla vs. Biollante a certain level of grudging respect. Without this album, we might not have received any of the maestro’s highly celebrated film scores from the 1990s.
Growing up watching the heavily edited American cut of King Kong vs. Godzilla, I always thought the stock western music in that particular version felt perplexing and out of its element. Even as a kid, I could tell the score, as well as the film as a whole, had been tampered with to extremely ill effect. Then I purchased the La-La Land Records release of the original Japanese score, and it quickly became one of my favorite Godzilla soundtracks. And remains so to this day.
While the themes centered around Kong—Main Title, The Sleeping Devil, The Invincible King Kong, among others—are gems, this soundtrack is rich with plenty of other standout pieces. It was here that the menacing Godzilla march was applied to the character. (Although this terrifying cue is a modification of the beast’s attack leitmotif in the original 1954 classic, it was with the 1962 score that it reached its more common, identifiable form). Some of my all-time favorite variations are contained here: Godzilla’s Resurrection and its later renditions The Terror of Godzilla and Operation “One Million Volts” I. Pitched at various tempos, the march consistently delivers in conveying an atmosphere of ensuing danger. But perhaps my favorite use of it occurs at the tail-end of The Seahawk’s S.O.S. The bulk of this track is very suspenseful and then the first part of Godzilla’s march erupts forth, accompanied by an eerie, almost otherworldly background noise that sounds as though it were written for a UFO instead of a giant reptile. It works, oddly enough.
Also: some of the best military marches in Ifukube’s career.
The soundtrack for King Kong vs. Godzilla includes two stock cues composed by none other than Ifukube’s former student Sei Ikeno, my favorite being the very catchy Great News Gathering Team Departure. It’s a real treat to be able to hear this track (originally from the 1959 film Use the Handcuff) in its entirety.
Another slam-dunk from the greatest Godzilla composer to date, his third effort in the Heisei series, and the penultimate album in his film scoring career. After the merely efficient score for Godzilla vs. King Ghidorah (1991) and the majestic score for Godzilla vs. Mothra (1992), Ifukube catapulted himself back into the realm of greatness for the return of Godzilla’s mechanical doppelganger. In addition to a lofty, percussion-heavy new theme for MechaGodzilla, this album’s rendition of both Godzilla themes demonstrate vast improvement over their somewhat hollow-sounding 1992 counterparts. And even though the Godzilla vs. Mothra album featured a number of mesmerizing choir-enhanced cues, the songs in this album (lyrics written in the Ainu language), go even further in creating awe-inspiring aural beauty. As with several other scores by this composer, this soundtrack tends to be repetitive; but Ifukube, as always, is so good that he afford to rehash his own work; not to mention, unlike the Godzilla vs. King Ghidorah music, a good bulk of the reiterated themes are brand-new, so the repetition hardly matters in the long run.
One of the most difficult choices in making this top 15 list was deciding which Michiru Oshima-composed MechaGodzilla soundtrack I liked best. (For disclosure: I also hold her Godzilla vs. Megaguirus music with extremely high regard. Consider it an honorable mention, if you will.) Her work in Godzilla: Tokyo S.O.S. stands out as arguably her most diverse of the three: incorporating her highly memorable Godzilla theme, the awe-inspiring leitmotif for Kiryu, and a gorgeous new theme for Mothra, along with the stellar remainder of this soundtrack. Oshima manages to juggle between her primary themes, sometimes within the same individual tracks, with a gracefulness that rivals Ifukube. I also enjoyed how, in this entry, Oshima sometimes spaced out the clusters of percussion notes for Godzilla’s theme, drawing out suspense—such as for the scene where the King of the Monsters rises from the sea before a stunned military defense line. Familiar material, yes, but with an occasional (and appreciated) change in delivery. The battle themes are extraordinary, with Imago Mothra x Godzilla taking the lead in creating a sense of frenetic tension.
And special mention must be made of End Credits. I can listen to this final cue on a loop, but its denouement, in particular, really stands out to me, featuring some of the most resplendent chorus work I’ve heard in a film score (period!).
In a sense, Godzilla: Tokyo S.O.S. marks Oshima’s most accomplished work in the series. Why then, you might ask, do I rank this score ever so slightly beneath the score for Godzilla Against MechaGodzilla (2002)?
The number seven selection marks a point where my opinion will markedly split from the general consensus. Takayuki Hattori is widely deemed one of the weaker composers to work in the Godzilla franchise, derided by many as having been woefully mismatched to the genre. I, however, am a huge enthusiast of this man’s work and, as such, have always had tremendous affection for both of his Godzilla scores. One criticism I will consent to: he sometimes had a tendency, in his two kaiju albums, to write music that sounded out of place in the movie it was written for. (There were moments where the scores felt as though they belonged in different projects altogether.) But this has never detracted from my overall admiration for his talent; keep in mind my preference to judge these scores predominately on their own terms, separate from the films; and I personally feel the divergences, in both albums, were few and far between. By and large, I thought his music worked excellently. Thus, the first score of his to appear on this list—the one for Godzilla vs. SpaceGodzilla(1994)—holds a special place in my heart.
Accounts vary as to why Ifukube did not score the film—the composer expressed disinterest in the script in interviews; director Kensho Yamashita cited a scheduling conflict as the cause—but, whatever the reason, it might have been for the better. Hattori’s score is a perfect fit, as far I am concerned. SpaceGodzilla’s primary theme utilizes an impressive combination of strings, cymbals, and horns to generate a unsettling vibe necessary for the antagonist monster. The new G-Force theme is suitably heroic and—dare I say it!—a tad more memorable than Ifukube’s still-excellent military themes from Godzilla vs. MechaGodzilla II.
Moving on—and further widening the gap between myself and the rest of the fandom—I am a huge, huge enthusiast for Hattori’s rousing Godzilla march. Fast-paced with quick percussion beats, it quintessentially conveys a sense of majesty and determination—an essential combination for when Godzilla is marching across Fukuoka to clash with his extra-terrestrial foe.
As both admirers and detractors will agree, Hattori’s greatest strength lies in his flair for subtlety, and it is in the gentler tracks that the soundtrack for Godzilla vs. SpaceGodzilla reaches its pinnacle! The romantic cues, especially the one cued for when Miki and Shinjo speak with each other before the sunset, are wonderful to listen to; the mixture of strings and softly performed woodwinds works to soothing effect. The (clearly John Barry-inspired) Birth Island I track is another earworm piece. Requiem, for the immediate aftermath of SpaceGodzilla’s defeat: gentle, a tad melancholy, and still carrying across a feeling of genuine accomplishment. I am also rather keen on the frolicsome, Sato-esque theme for Little Godzilla.
The soundtrack for Godzilla vs. SpaceGodzilla uses some non-Hattori music as well. First: a few stock tracks from Ifukube’s Godzilla vs. Mothra and Godzilla vs. MechaGodzilla II albums. Second: the track M25, by Isao Shigeto, which perfectly blends with the tone of Hattori’s music, composed for the film’s closing scene. Third: the song Echoes of Love, performed by Date of Birth, makes for a pleasant, bliss-stirring listen.
#06. Mothra vs. Godzilla
Now we’re getting to the really good stuff! From the very beginning of the main title sequence, complete with sounds that feel more mechanical than musical, later punched up with an explosive rendition of the Godzilla march and the instantly memorable battle theme, Ifukube’s score for the 1964 classic Mothra vs. Godzilla defines itself as a milestone in the composer’s career. As with its companion film, this soundtrack contains just about everything you could ask for: terror, suspense, gentleness, majesty, heart-pounding combat themes, reverence. The soundtrack contains a good many themes present elsewhere in the franchise, but in terms of conduction and the raw experience of listening to these iconic cues, the soundtrack for Mothra vs. Godzilla remains virtually unsurpassed.
The intimidating Godzilla march, for instance, has never sounded better! After Attack on the Industrial Compound, my favorite use of the march is Godzilla Appears, for that iconic scene in which the King of the Monsters rises out of the ground, bellowing in defiance. What I find appealing about this track is, first, the conduction. The heart-starting notes that open this rendition of the march and signal Godzilla’s arrival never fail to erect the hair on my arms. And secondly, I love the ponderous, atmospheric delivery of the latter part of this particular cue and the way it slowly tails into silence. As a whole, it perfectly encapsulates the impression of a gigantic, terrifying force of nature slowly pressing onward, unstoppable, its destination unknown, the fate of its victims chosen. And no matter how many times Ifukube repeats the theme throughout the album, it never loses its luster. This is partially due to Ifukube’s sagacious decision to occasionally mix the march with other riveting tracks, such as in the two-cue Electrical Discharge Strike set.
While I do maintain my stance that the original Yuji Koseki Mothra song, performed by the Ito sisters, hasn’t been matched since its induction in the 1961 Mothra soundtrack, the performance of the song in this album fares very well. Also splendid are Ifukube’s new songs for the Shobijin, with lyrics written in Tagalog. I’m also very much a fan of Reflection of the Little Beauties—starting off with its touching theme for the Shobijin and its segue into a purely musical rendition of the Sacred Springssong, and then a variation of the sinister The Dome is Activated, before culminating with a return to its prefatory tranquility. It’s one of the most enamoring pieces of film music I’ve ever heard.
A genuine winner in Ifukube’s film score repertoire.
As is the case with a great many works of art, Ifukube’s score for the original Godzilla (1954) may have never become a reality had it not been for the composer’s steadfast affection for the project. Undeterred by his colleagues’ warnings that working on a monster film could bring an end to his career, Ifukube undertook the challenge of creating music—and some sound effects—for one of the most important and well-remembered films in the history of Japanese cinema. Although the composer would go on to write other foreboding, ominous scores, his soundtrack for Godzilla pushes the dark elements to a truly despairing, almost gothic level.
It is also a major favorite of mine because of how different it is when compared to other entries in Ifukube’s career. Notable moments of the score consist of “musical sound effects”—some to emphasize a visual action, others used, literally, as Foley. As many know by now, Ifukube holds claim to the creation of the explosion-like footsteps we hear over the opening credits, not to mention the monster’s original blood-chilling roar. The composer would go on to incorporate musical “blasts” in the tracks Eiko-Maru Sinking and Bingo-Maru Sinking, using piano and gong notes to create a resonant underpinning for when the two ships meet their grisly, flame-wrapped ends. Another ingenious contribution to the soundtrack: the creepy, mechanical-sounding noises at the beginnings of Horror in the Water Tank and Oxygen Destroyer for when Dr. Serizawa demonstrates the power of his superweapon. Growing up watching the film, I always assumed those disturbing noises had been created by the sound department. It was not until listening to the score on CD that I realized it was, in reality, clever use of instrumentation by the film’s composer. The result: a chilling sensation as audiences witness the one weapon capable of destroying Godzilla…and which could, if placed in the wrong hands, signal the end of the world.
For me, however, there is no greater embodiment of horror in this album than the attack theme for the scenes in which the behemoth mercilessly lays waste to Tokyo. Discarding almost all use of string instruments, Ifukube unleashes an assortment of brass and woodwinds to generate one of the most blood-chilling musical tracks in cinema history—befitting a monster director Ishiro Honda described as a living embodiment of the hydrogen bomb.
The score also works brilliantly in capturing Honda’s humanism. Ifukube wisely selected a large choir to perform the Prayer for Peace song, the multitude of voices emphasizing the widespread loss and despair following Godzilla’s attack. Tragic Sight at the Imperial Capital and Godzilla at the Ocean Floor are very much alike in composition, but the latter falls slightly more in my favor for its extended complexity and dramatic payoff. Just like the scene it was written for, this penultimate track does not strive for the adrenaline expected of most science-fiction climaxes, opting instead for a sense of melancholia as Godzilla—a victim of the H-bomb himself—is wiped from existence along with the creator of the weapon which has defeated him.
Before we move onto the final three selections, I wish to salute Erik Homenick, webmaster of akiraifukube.org, whose heavily researched biography chapter covering the 1954 soundtrackprovided much of the historical and technical information described above and does far greater justice to the score—and Ifukube, in general—than I ever could.
#03. Godzilla vs. Gigan
A far better example of a “Best of…” album than most music collections officially released under such a label, the soundtrack for Godzilla vs. Gigan is predominately composed of stock music: cues pulled from various projects Ifukube had created by that time, amassed into a makeshift score. This includes a few pieces he wrote for a multimedia exhibit featured at the Mitsubishi Pavilion Expo 1970as well as two non-tokusatsu films: The Big Boss, from 1959, and Will to Conquer, also from 1970. As I remind the reader once more of my decision to arrange these selections on a largely intuitive level, I express no guilt in announcing my view that the Godzilla vs. Gigan soundtrack is, in a way, the ultimate method of experiencing Ifukube’s work in science-fiction—up to that point, anyhow. It also avoids repetition found elsewhere and makes for a more immersive listening experience.
To discuss most of these tracks would practically open room to discussing the scores they derived from, but I wish to shine the spotlight on what came from the earlier mentioned expo. First, there’s a rousing theme utilized in Main Title and The Earth Monsters’ Counterattack. Second, The Tower Destruction Operation. It functions spectacularly as a gut-wrenching piece of music—and every time I listen to it as Godzilla is being blasted by the Godzilla Tower’s lasers, with Anguirus making a futile attempt to save his friend’s life, a dramatic chord is struck in my heart. It’s beautiful.
Oh: the end credits song, of which Ifukube had no association. It’s nice.
I recall a conversation with a fellow admirer of The Return of Godzilla (1984), who expressed a certain level of gratefulness toward Ifukube’s decision to turn down scoring Godzilla’s 30th anniversary comeback: said gentleman told me he felt the tone of the 1984 movie was so strong and defined that it demanded a totally different style in terms of the accompanying musical score, one which Ifukube might not have been able to provide. The more I think about our conversation, the more I tend to agree with his sentiment. Of course, Ifukube was no stranger to gothic music. But with this 1984 score, Reijiro Koroku outshines even the maestro in elevating dread.
The score, very western in style—very fitting for a Cold War picture—shares a core strength with the movie: it is extremely atmospheric. Compare, for instance, Godzilla’s theme in this picture to the themes associated with the character before. Ifukube’s marches for the King of the Monsters were largely energetic and primarily utilized when the monster was already on-screen; Koroku’s Godzilla’s theme, by contrast, strives mostly for suspense: placing emphasis on the buildup. The musical notes are, more often than not, brooding rather than bombastic, and spiced with ominous piano tingles—channeling a true sense of horror for when Godzilla is just seconds away from making his grand appearance. But Koroku’s brilliance does not end with suspense: he delivers and then some in terms of terror. The Main Title is particularly gothic and frightening, as is its faster-paced counterpart Godzilla’s Appearance, highlighting the monster’s battle with the air force in Tokyo Bay. The Destruction of the Nuclear Power Plant fares as one of the most unsettling pieces of music in the franchise. Also worth a mention: Super-X Mobilization. Minus two appearances of the Super-X’s rather upbeat theme, this cue is extremely moody and punched up with occasional blaring notes to heighten the spectacle of a giant monster marching through Tokyo. Godzilla’s rampage in the 1984 film is packed with awe-inspiring compositions; and this track ramps the spectacle to an even higher degree. Other atmospheric cues include News of Godzilla and Approach of the Missile, which are not particularly morbid but still convey the necessary vibe of trepidation.
Koroku’s talents also shine with the other emotions needed in the album. Your Brother Lives is a very pleasant piece of romantic music and makes for a nice recurring theme (like the romance in the film, it’s present enough to make itself known, but not to the point where it feels as though it is consuming the entire narrative); the military marches are memorably energetic and convey a sense of scale for the vast armadas dispatched to defend their homeland; Two People Left carries a genuinely ambiguous sense of sadness for its heroes who aren’t so sure if they will live long enough to see the next morning.
Of course, it would be impossible for me to discuss this soundtrack without saluting the final three Koroku-composed tracks heard in the motion picture: Godzilla to Oshima, Godzilla Lands on Oshima, and Godzilla Into Mihara. Never before or not since in the franchise has there been a more consummate assembly of tragic, melancholic cues. With all due respect to Akira Ifukube, I must confess I find the last track, played when Godzilla descends into the volcano, even more tear-jerking than Requiem from Godzilla vs. Destoroyah. It is so elegiac, so emotionally overwhelming in its use of strings. I only wish the Star Sisters pop song Goodbye Godzilla had been discarded for use in the film and Koroku’s unused Ending been chosen instead. Now I personally have a soft spot for the song (even though it does not fit whatsoever with the tone of what has preceded it); but the somber, piano-heavy cue Koroku originally wrote is so much more suiting. With perhaps a few reservations, I might even go so far as to cite it as my favorite track in the entire score—and therefore my favorite track in the entire Godzilla franchise.
Personal bias might play a factor in my placing Koroku’s score at the number one spot—I have never made a secret of the fact that The Return of Godzilla is my all-time favorite movie in the Godzilla franchise—but, sappy as it sounds, I cannot imagine my life without this score. I wouldn’t even know where to start in guessing how many times I have listened to it; it continues to dazzle me every single time I watch the movie; and it has regularly been a source of inspiration when I’ve been in a creative mood and seeking inspiration. And just as I continue to believe the series has not seen a better film since the 1984 classic, I remain convinced no composer has conjured a more memorable soundtrack for the franchise since Koroku raised the baton and scored The Return of Godzilla.