Varan (1958)

Author: Patrick Galvan
October 20, 2014
Note: review may contain spoilers

I first saw the original Japanese version of Ishiro Honda's Varan in 2005, at a time when I would've been about fourteen years old, and after that first viewing, I was flooded with relief-induced happiness. I was so pleased with what I had just seen that I immediately told every kaiju fan I knew that the film was an overlooked classic and something special. I suppose, in hindsight, my enthusiasm was somewhat justified, given my history with the character of Varan.

I became aware of this Toho monster after seeing photographs on the internet. From the very beginning, I thought Varan was an interesting idea for a creature: a reptilian quadruped with stalagmite-like spikes running down the length of his spine, who could soar through the skies via a pair of thin membranes stretched from his wrists to his ankles, very much like a flying squirrel. But Varan's career in films was a letdown. Despite being featured in Destroy All Monsters (1968), his appearance in that multiple-monster rumble amounted to less than ten seconds. My disappointment grew deeper still when I managed to see the American re-edit of Varan's debut movie, renamed Varan the Unbelievable for western audiences, which was an incredibly underwhelming experience. So I held out hopes that the original Japanese version would be much more satisfying and easier to watch.

Finally, in 2005, Tokyo Shock released their magnificent DVD transfer of Honda's original version in the United States, and the film turned out to be a massive improvement over its American counterpart. I guess the mere fact that I'd finally seen Varan's debut in a version I could stand to watch was reason enough to be ecstatic with joy. However, on subsequent viewings, the numerous problems with the Japanese version of Varan became more and more apparent, and my enthusiasm for the film simmered considerably. Instead of an overlooked classic, I would now describe it as a major missed opportunity: a movie whose story contains prospects and delivers some fine individual scenes and whose production values demonstrate genuine brilliance—all put to use in a story in heavy need of revision.

In terms of interesting moments, Varan is divided smack-dab at the halfway point. Neither half is particularly exciting, but most of the fun is packaged in the first forty-five minutes. After a prologue involving space travel (which never impacts the story or is even mentioned a second time), we are informed that a rare species of Siberian butterfly was recently discovered living near a remote village in central Japan. Since the local villagers, who worship a deity called Baradagi, refuse to show kindness to outsiders, the university is on its own in terms of gathering more specimens. Two researchers head into the rural wilderness, only to be killed in a mysterious avalanche, which the villagers blame on their vengeance-seeking god. After the incident, three more people—Kenji (Kozo Nomura), an entomologist; a journalist named Yuriko (Ayumi Sonoda), sister of one of the victims; and a squeamish photographer named Horiguchi (Fumindo Matsuo)—return to the same remote Japanese wilderness. Despite Kenji's insistence that Baradagi does not exist, the culprit responsible for the avalanche turns out to be a giant reptilian monster belonging to a prehistoric species named Varan. Varan rampages through the village, demolishing it, before submerging into a lake. A skirmish with the military does little more than enrage the giant creature, who eventually climbs on top of a mountain, reveals his "wings," and flies away.

At this halfway mark, those isolated moments of fun stop and never return. After the eponymous monster soars into the distance, Varan resorts to monotonous rehash of material done much better in previous films, Godzilla (1954) in particular (from which this movie borrows a great deal of military/destruction footage). In Varan, the creature is repeatedly attacked by the navy and air force before arriving in Tokyo; we never return to the village. There are two fundamental problems with this sudden change of setting. To start, the combat and Tokyo destruction sequences are not particularly fun to watch; they feel unimpassioned. Worse still, they betray the impression set up at the beginning that Varan might turn out to be something unique. In Japanese movies before and since, giant monsters frequently made their way to some large metropolis and reduced it to a smoldering graveyard. But how many, can we honestly say, kept their action in the rural country, in the mountains and forests and lakes away from the city? This scenery is part of what makes the first half of Varan more enjoyable than the second half, simply because it is not what we'd typically expect.

If the whole picture had been set in and around Tokyo, we would have received none of the first half's grand moments. The plot-starting avalanche scene is impressively staged; Varan's rampage is entertaining; a fight at a lakeshore trumps all the subsequent military sequences simply because of the vegetation, cliffs, and fog making up the foreground and background. And, best of all, we have a splendid sequence in which the monster traps two people in a cave. Varan stares in at them for a moment and then proceeds to hack the cavern entrance to shreds with his talons, bellowing and shrieking the entire time. It is genuinely thrilling. Furthermore, every time Varan appears in the forest, the entire area becomes swept with howling winds, which rattle the tree branches and push columns of dust and dirt amidst the foliage. All visually stimulating, and the top-notch Foley by Wataru Konuma and Masanobu Miyazaki makes it all the more enjoyable. Nothing remotely like that shows up in the final forty-five minutes of the picture, and it's a severe loss.

Now to the second half's credit, it does show a pattern which would later become a tradition: the military constantly shifting tactics and plans in quick intervals until finally landing upon one which might eliminate the threat. But again, the same material was handled much better before and has been since, so there's no big reason to call attention to what happens in the second half of Varan except as a minor lesson in cinematic history.

However, better as it is, even the first half shows plenty of crippling problems. First and foremost, we have the human characters and their lack of personality. Shinichi Sekizawa's screenplay offers many opportunities for character development and seldom takes advantage of them. The prime example is our protagonist, Kenji. At the beginning of the story, he's adamantly convinced that Baradagi is just a fantasy conjured up by some overly suspicious folks (he's even got the gall to tell the village priest that believing in such a thing is ridiculous). And later, when Varan shows up, Kenji's reaction is hardly one of surprise or shock. There's not a single line of dialogue where he admits to having been wrong. Not to mention he shows absolutely no lament whatsoever for inadvertently leading a group of villagers into Varan's territory. Is there any chemistry between him and the obligatory romantic interest? Well, the most meaningful thing he and Yuriko share is a bewildering lack of remorse. Her brother is killed, and her sole response is to take advantage of the situation and score the story of the century. Not once does she reminisce or give any hints as to why she shouldn't be sad to have lost a member of her family. Oddly enough, the third member of the three leads, Horiguchi, comes across with the most development and is by far the most likable. He has enough skittish charm to garner our empathies, and he is ultimately the only one who shows any remote sense of fascination or terror or wonder when a giant prehistoric reptile starts ravaging the countryside.

About the supporting characters, there's nothing to be said, except there are a few familiar faces (Akihiko Hirata, Koreya Senda, Yoshio Tsuchiya, Yoshifumi Tajima) among them.

The first half also fails to address some rather fundamental questions. Most importantly: if Varan has existed for 185 million years, why does he choose now, of all times, to show up? The only answer the movie supplies is: two people wandered into his territory. Is that all it takes to set him off? Surely these were not the first people to go hiking around in the forest. Also, wouldn't the subsequent police investigation have attracted his attention much quicker than two people trying to catch a butterfly? And since the movie definitely plays up that Varan is a mortal animal and not a supernatural deity, how would he have any indication of people walking through his forest? Does Varan—who can travel by land, water, and air—literally never wander more than a few miles away from his lake? There are more questions. Why would he fly from the rural wilderness of central Japan to the middle of the Pacific Ocean, only to turn around and converge on Tokyo? And even though the element of powerful windstorms commencing with the monster's arrival is visually interesting, what's the plot-wise explanation of it? (Remember: he's not a god.) The winds are not seemingly coincidental; they are literally born with his appearance and end with his disappearance. Why don't those winds channel themselves into existence when he's swimming through the ocean or ravaging Tokyo?

(Note: had the movie kept my attention better, I might not have asked these questions or made such an enormous deal out of them. But since my attention was slackening, the questions just came impulsively.)

There are some genuinely brilliant attributes to Varan, though. Let's begin with Hajime Koizumi's cinematography. This is the same man who provided wonderful color images for films such as Mothra (1961), Atragon (1963), and Matango (1963), and here he demonstrates an equal level of expertise with black-and-white film. Everything is photographed with the right balance of brightness and darkness; the explosions and flares, in particular, look lovely under the care of Koizumi's lights.

But if we are going to talk about how good the film looks, we might as well extend appreciation to the maestro responsible for the sets and miniatures. Given the fact that Varan was originally intended to be a TV movie, Eiji Tsuburaya's special effects here are above-average. The miniature trees, landscapes, military machines, and buildings are rich with detail (the rural village that Varan pummels looks best of all). Not to mention Varan himself is one of the more organic-looking creations in all of Toho's 50s monster movies. Take, for example, the tail. It is flexible enough to grant an impressive range of motion but still rigid enough to convey the illusion that there are bones and muscles underneath that flesh instead of a hollow chamber of latex. This incarnation of Varan also has a shell of loose flesh adorning his upper back. Some view this as a weak point in the special effects, but I rather like the way it wobbles and flaps whenever he moves; it creates a more organic feel, furthering the impression that this creature is, in fact, a living thing. The joints in the suit are also more flexible than some of the other monsters of the era: Varan has a convincing range of motion in his neck; he can actually look in a different direction without turning his whole body.

But the best and most memorable element in Varan is, without question, the musical score by Akira Ifukube. I do not hesitate in saying that this is one of my two or three favorite scores in his portfolio. The opening theme, which combines orchestral motifs along with a carefully moderated choir, immediately grabs your attention and prepares you for what you hope will be an incredible film-going experience. I am also quite fond of the low, brooding score Ifukube utilizes during the scene where the military attempts to poison Varan's lake. The pieces for both of his attacks in the countryside are also memorable. We also receive several early variations of his classic military marches during the navy sequences; even in their early stages, these pieces are a delight to listen to. If I must quibble with anything in the soundtrack, it would concern two brief moments. First and foremost, the short soundtrack segment used when Kenji outruns Varan on the coast is competent but not very exciting. This sequence is poorly executed to begin with, and adding some ill-fitted music in the background doesn't elevate it much higher; it might as well have been silent. And secondly, the choir could have been dimmed for Varan's death. But that's it. Everything else in this marvelous soundtrack is absolutely top-notch, one of Ifukube's very best efforts.

Since Varan also exists in two other versions, we might as well address them too. Since the original television version is the most trivial, let's get it out of the way first. It's just a quicker, less impressive, more disorientating version of the theatrical cut. One might assume the shorter run time (54 minutes) would make it easier to endure, but it doesn't. Not to mention the score for this version, though still terrific, is not as marvelous as its expanded counterpart. (Two exceptions: the music for infamous Kenji-outrunning-Varan sequence is more exciting in the TV version; and Varan's death is accompanied by a choir-less score, and it works better.)

Last and most certainly least of all, we have the Americanized version. In short, it can hardly be called the same movie. Similar to Godzilla King of the Monsters, an American actor (Myron Healy) along with some Japanese American actors (Tsuruko Kobayashi, Clifford Kawada, Derick Shimatsu) have been inserted into the story. But unlike Godzilla King of the Monsters, these insertions are not only clumsy, they pretty much mutilate the narrative. The stories barely resemble one another. Now to the American version's credit, it does a much better job of explaining why Varan would appear all of a sudden—a military experiment of testing chemicals in Varan's lake—but that's it as far as improvements are concerned. I like Myron Healy and have enjoyed his performances in some other movies and television shows, but his role here is dismally flat. He's simply a caricature: the tough-talking commander, prone to an occasional outburst ("Mud again! It's nothing but mud and sand!"). There's not much to be said about the others except that Clifford Kawada is likable in a limited role. Worse still, all of the other characters are seldom put into the action of the story; they mostly gab on a radio (or in voiceover) while the rest of the narrative unfolds elsewhere. An egregious offense to the story: Kenji and Yuriko, from the Japanese version, appear in this narrative as Paul and Shidori Isoh; we only know their names and that they are friends with the American commander because his narration tells us so; not once do they share—or appear to share—a scene with him. They might as well have been nameless extras. Ifukube's breathtaking score is almost completely wiped away in favor of generic stock music. Other scenes which once contained music (such as the fights at sea) are now unfittingly silent. And Varan's original roar, high-pitched and menacing, has been replaced with what sounds like a man with laryngitis coughing through a pipe.

A footnote: why is the American version called Varan the Unbelievable when the creature is only referred to as 'Obaki?'

Having just described the inadequacy of the American version, I think my initial enthusiasm for the Japanese cut is understandable. But when viewed objectively, very little of Honda's original version is worth writing home about. Let me end this review with a hope. If Toho ever decides it is time to remake one of Honda's 50s era monster movies, why not Varan? Once again, there's a good starting premise here, and the monster is a unique creation. So why not learn from the past, patch up the narrative (i.e., keep it set in the wilderness, never head into the city), and try to realize the true potential in what is otherwise a mediocre film?