Retro Reviews – Varan the Unbelievable

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I’m sure a lot of you have heard of Godzilla, Gamera, Mothra, Rodan. But how many of you have heard of Varan?

Varan the Unbelievable, also known as Daikaiju Baran, was a Toho film released in 1958. Directed by the Ishiro Honda, with special effects directed by the Eiji Tsuburaya. The story itself was done by Ken Kuronuma and Sinichi Sekizawa. Because of circumstances that I will get into later this was the last film released in black and white. Get the full story after the jump.

The movie itself start with with a rocket launch into space that has nothing to do with the rest of the movie. The narrator, fortunately subtitled on the dvd edition, goes on saying while they are many mysteries in space are still mysteries on the planet to be discovered. One of those being why a particular butterfly, before only found in Siberia, recently discovered in the “Tibet of Japan” (again going off the subtitles so don’t yell at me that there’s no such place). A two man party sent by an institute to find and collect another another specimen. There they come across the village that time forgot who tell them to not to enter the forest or face the wrath of their god “Baradagi”. They ignore, of course, their warning and continue their hunt were they find another butterfly. They also hear a roar that soon leads to their demise. Lesson here – always listen to people out of touch with modern day when they say something in the woods will kill you.

Naturally, words gets out that the two are dead, and some how how they apparently died. So the institute sends another party to find what killed them. This party consists of Kenji Uozaxi, a member of the scientific community, and Yuriko Sinjo, the sister of one of the missing men who also just happens to be a reporter and and a cameraman. They find the same village, who are praying to their god that he will spare them after he killed the other two because he hates stranger in the village. A kid runs after his dog into the forbidden area and the three ignore the priests warning to go after him. After getting split up the two guys head back to the gate, and along with the dog returning with a note from Yuriko they are able to convince a good chunk of the villager to ignore their belief, since it’s silly
o fear a mountain god in the modern times. They find Yuriko and the boy, and Baragagi coming out of the lake, that Kenji identifies as a Varan(which is the name he goes by for the rest of the movie), and it quickly destroys the village. See the lesson in the previous paragraph boys and girls.

The military and scientific community, including the head of the institute, agree that the monster must be destroyed. Which I think is a first because it’s usually the scientist who what observe and examine the creature. Guess they figured they can always examine the corpse. they get the monster out of the lake and all the tanks, missile launchers and various other armaments do absolutely jack. And in front of all the reporters and camera men present as well, nothing like having your complete inability to kill something caught on film. After a bit Varan, after terrorizing Kenji and Yuriko and get distracted by some flares, climbs a mountain and flies, well more like glides, away. Of course the mandatory big meeting to figure out why the weapons didn’t work. The idea ends up being Varan’s skin is hard and flexible enough to withstand their weapons.

The military tries a sea assault with planes and then with depth charges in Tokyo (I swear that has to be part of the kaiju right of passage: kill some villagers, shrug off the military attack, destroy Tokyo…). Again nothing. On of the scientist is convinced to talk about an new explosive he has developed that’s more powerful than a stick dynamite in a stick of the same size. But he also tells them that it’s only effect inside the mountain side and does relatively nothing if detonated on the outside. but with some coaxing agrees to work on it to hopefully use it against the monster. Naturally Varan come to shore around Haneda airport. They try the new explosive, by trying to get Varan to walk over a truck, driven into place by Kenji, yes he and Yuriko are still around, not quite sure if they’re a couple at this point, loaded with it. This works about as well as you expect and Varan goes on to demolish the airport. Seeing the monster react to some floating flares, mainly eating them as they got close enough. The scientists and military concoct a last ditch plan to try and kill Varan once and for all. And if you seen enough stories of heroes trying to defeat people with impervious outsides you probably have an idea where that plan is going.

The movie was filmed Toho “Pan” Scope. The first, and to my knowledge the only film to be filmed is this way. And there’s a reason for that. The movie was originally supposed to be a TV movie meant for the American market, there’s even a trailer for it on youtube. So it was filmed in black and white since there were no color televisions at the time. But that project got canceled and instead of letting the project die, they reworked the script and re-shoot footage with Japanese actors, unfortunately it was it was filmed for TV so the footage wouldn’t exactly match up. So instead of re-shooting what they had, according to rumor, they put tape on the film itself then they copied it to another film reel it was now in rough movie screen ratio.

Varan, which is apparently based on a Varanopidae (It’s an actual dinosaur look it up), is not a very big monster compared other Toho monsters of the time. Based on the film footage, he’s slightly taller than the four story airport in the movie, not including the watchtower when he’s moving around on all fours. He has a slightly bumpy looking hide which may account for his hide toughness and a row of spikes running down his back starting at the top of his head. He doesn’t have a beam weapon, like say Godzilla, but he did have this membrane he could stretch out between his arms and legs that allow him to glide, think Rocky the Flying Squirrel but not as cute. Varan’s only other film appearance was in Destroy All Monsters but only in a cameo appearance near the end. Apparently the suit was in rough shape and they didn’t want to spend the money to repair it. But he has made some non film appearances, notably Godzilla Unleashed on the Wii and the 90s novel Godzilla 2000 (no relation to the movie of the same name).

Because of his size the miniature work in here is excellent, with a level of detail you can’t usually get with a monster of Godzilla size, especially the forest scenes The actors themselves are alright and are good at their parts. Akira Ifukube did the original score but for the US release a lot of it was removed. And Varan’s roar sounds a bit like the Godzilla roar from the original movie in places.

Now would I recommend it? That’s a tough one to be honest. It is a decent movie, somewhat enjoyable. The monster action is kind of light but what they have works. But the first time I watched it I actually feel asleep during it, and I caught myself trying to nod off on future viewings. So if I really had to be honest I’d probably give it a 2.5 out of 5.

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