Ifukube was born in a small village in northeastern Hokkaido, on the fringe of Japan, where his father was mayor. The population was half Japanese, half Ainu. Ifukube studied both violin and shamisen, and was impressed by the improvisational music of the aboriginal Ainu population. The violin would remain his favorite instrument. Later, when he went to secondary school in Sapporo, he had a deeper encounter with Western classical music and especially fell in love with Stravinsky and De Falla (he never felt close to classical composers as Mozart and Beethoven, whom he considered as too different culturally). It was Le Sacre du Printemps that motivated him to deepen his knowledge of European music. In 1932, Ifukube also befriended Hayasaka Fumio, a self-taught composer who was of the same age, and their talks about European classical music must have been very stimulating.
Ifukube studied forestry at Hokkaido University and taught himself composition in his free time. His first composition - at the age of 19 - was the Piano Suite of 1933 (later orchestrated as "Japan Suite" in 1991; also a version for 20-stringed Koto exists; the Suite was dedicated to the American pianist George Copland). Ifukube was the first composer to use Japanese folk music in compositions based on European techniques. In this first work there is an extensive use of ostinati (short motives repeated over and over again), a technique that would characterize all Ifukube's work. Ifukube used a scale that was basically pentatonic, to which he would add one or two notes not used by the melody. To create a harmonic texture he would often use double musical lines, simple counterpoint or canonic sections.
In 1935 followed the Japanese Rhapsody for orchestra which won first prize in an international contest for young composers organized by Alexander Tcherepnin. It consists of two parts, Nocturne and Fete, and was performed in Boston in 1935, conducted by Fabien Sevitzky. Tcherepnin was so fascinated by Ifukube's style, that during his Japan visit he went especially to Hokkaido to meet him. There is an interesting contrast between the graceful folk tunes and the "Aboriginal" quality called up by the ostinati, the doubling of the melody and the use of open fifths in the harmony. The music is very rhythmic, with a prominent place for the percussion section.
After graduation, Ifukube worked as a forestry officer and lumber processor. One frequently played work from this time is Triptyque aborigene for chamber orchestra (1937). This piece was inspired by Akkeshi Forest where Ifukube worked as a ranger. There are three movements: Payses (the hard-working women of the countryside); Timbe (the name of a lonely cliff); Pakkai (an Ainu drinking song). The work is written in a naive style and combines the energy of folk music with the structural and instrumental patterns of European music.
During the war years, Ifukube composed two more interesting works, the Symphony Concertante for piano and orchestra (1941), considered lost but in 1997 found back in the NHK archives, and the Ballata sinfonica (1943). The Ballata is in two parts, an Allegro Capriccioso in fast dance rhythm and an Andante Rapsodico resembling a dirge.
After the war, Ifukube moved to Tokyo where he started teaching music at the precursor of the present Tokyo Geijutsu Daigaku in Ueno. Works from the immediate postwar years include the ballet Salome (1948), based on Oscar Wilde's play of the same name, the Rhapsodia Concertante per Violino et Orchestra (Violin Concerto No. 1; 1948) and Drumming of Japan (1951).
At this time, he also composed his first film score – over the next 50 years, 250 more would follow. Most famous is the music he wrote for various Godzilla and other Toho monster movies, starting with the original Godzilla in 1954. Ifukube was introduced to Toho by his friend and colleague Hayasaka Fumio. Ifukube also created Godzilla's typical roar (a leather glove striking the loosened strings of a double bass) as well as its threatening footsteps (by striking an amplifier box). In 1971 Ifukube stopped writing film music, but he was lured back in the nineties to do more scores for the new Godzilla films then being made. The music of his kaiju scores found a concert home in three Symphonic Fantasies, composed in 1954 and 1983. Especially the first Fantasy is very effective. Film tunes also return in the Ronde in Burlesque for wind orchestra (1972).
Also in 1954, Ifukube wrote the Sinfonia Tapkaara in three movements, an homage to the wide land of Hokkaido. In 1961 followed Ritmica Ostinata for piano and orchestra. Two further works were written for his favorite instrument, the violin: in 1978, a second violin concerto, and in 1985 a violin sonata.
One of Ifukube's most ambitious works was Gotama the Buddha for mixed chorus and orchestra (Shaka, 1989). The songs are in Pali, the ancient Indian language in which the oldest Buddhist texts were written. This was a difficult work to write, because of its extended form - Ifukube had to find his own solution for the construction of such a longer work, as he never employed the "European" sonata form.
Ifukube also wrote for traditional Japanese instruments, in the first place the twenty-stringed Koto. A good example is the Eclogue Symphonique pour Koto a vingt cordes et Orchestra (1982). Also short works Ifukube wrote for the lute or the guitar were transposed for the Koto.
In 1975, Ifukube became President of the Tokyo College of Music. In 1987 he retired to become president of the College's ethnomusicology department. He trained younger composers as Mayuzumi Toshito and Akutagawa Yasushi and also published extensively on music theory.
Ifukube's own favorites among his compositions are: Japanese Rhapsody, Sinfonia Tapkaara and Gotama the Buddha.