To describe Ishiro Honda’s Varan (1958) as a lesser entry in the director’s science fiction oeuvre is something of an understatement. In a genre career packed end to end with highs and lows, this ill-conceived venture about a giant reptile who—for reasons never adequately explained—rises from his lair to threaten civilization resides near the bottom of the qualitative spectrum. Flatly directed by Honda and headed by bewildering characters (my favorite moment is when the plucky reporter heroine rushes to the place of her brother’s death because “We are planning to solve the mystery of the 20th century! This is a big scoop!”), the picture manages only a few pockets of fun in its first forty-five minutes. After the surreal moment wherein the monster spreads his “wings” and flies away, Varan devolves into impersonal monster-versus-military skirmishes and dreadful scenes that showcase Honda trapped in situations he was seldom proficient at. (Static boardroom meetings photographed in the most pedestrian manner; an abominable “suspense scene” wherein the hero drives a truck of explosives up to the monster and runs—lightly jogs—to safety.)
Initially contracted to shoot a TV movie before being told mid-production to make something for Japanese cinemas, Honda years later looked back on this picture as “a work I am not happy with.” His sentiments are understandable. And yet there is a certain aspect to the 1958 misfire that makes it worthy of acknowledgment in the history of kaiju eiga. Varan marked Ishiro Honda’s first collaboration with Shinichi Sekizawa, the wordsmith later responsible for the fun, witty scripts of such classics as Mothra (1961), King Kong vs. Godzilla (1962), and Invasion of Astro-Monster (1965)—not to mention several of Jun Fukuda’s science fiction home runs à la The Secret of the Telegian (1960) and Son of Godzilla (1967). Although the original story for Varan came from writer Ken Kuronuma, it was up to Sekizawa to develop concept into script; and while the results certainly don’t launch his partnership with Honda in a particularly auspicious manner, one can see rudimentary forms of tropes that would define their later films.
In Varan, we see: a trio of bantering protagonists—among them is the aforementioned plucky female reporter, something of a progenitor of Yuriko Hoshi’s heroine from Ghidorah the Three-headed Monster (1964). The remote forest where Varan resides is explored by researchers encountering untrusting natives who worship a monster—reminiscent of Half Human (1955), written by Takeo Murata, while pointing the way to Sekizawa’s work on Mothra and Mothra vs. Godzilla (1964). Even the picture’s agonizingly dull climax exhibits a few action patterns now iconic for the genre. As Varan approaches Tokyo, the military enacts strategy after strategy in a vain effort to stop him (this came to mind repeatedly during my most recent viewings of King Kong vs. Godzilla and Mothra vs. Godzilla). In the end, the monster’s defeated via a solution made possible by scientists and civilians—a recurring trope in such pictures of the 1960s as Dogora (1964) and Invasion of Astro-Monster.
Also worth noting is that the original script included an un-filmed scene of children pretending to be Varan, indicating Sekizawa was already shrewdly aware of—and interested in reflecting—youngsters’ interest in kaiju. This, too, would continue as the genre developed into the following decade. In King Kong vs. Godzilla, a child pleads with his mother to take him to see a rampaging Godzilla. In Ghidorah the Three-headed Monster, two boys on a talk show answer “Mothra!” when queried who they’d like to meet. And in 1969’s All Monsters Attack, Sekizawa took youthful fascination with monsters to a new and very personal level, with its young protagonist fantasizing about kaiju to escape the harsh realities of everyday life.
These plot threads and devices didn’t necessarily all begin with Varan, but Sekizawa’s merging of them here nonetheless makes this otherwise unremarkable movie worthy of some acknowledgment—even if primarily as a forerunner of better things to come.
Ryfle, Steve and Ed Godziszewski. Ishiro Honda: A Life in Film, from Godzilla to Kurosawa. Middletown: Wesleyan University Press, 2017