Varan (1958)

Class: Staff
Author: Anthony Romero
Score: (1.5/5)
July 20th, 2003 [Review May Contain Spoilers]

A film plagued with an uncertain future from the get go, Varan manages to be one of Toho's more lackluster kaiju films. With a rather bland story, uninteresting characters and an unfitting lead kaiju, Varan ends up being a rather boring entry from Toho, save for Eiji Tsuburaya's special effects and Akira Ifukube's wonderful score for the film.

The film starts out with a voiceover introduction about humanity's increasing interest in space, before getting to the story at hand with an expedition to the Kitanami River in search of a pair of Red-Trimmed Off-white butterflies. As expected, the expedition is annihilated by Varan, and what follows are some rather lengthy scenes of scientists meandering over the events as the press covers the story. Scenes reminiscent of the American 1950's monster movies, which used this approach to try and explain the monster before actually showing it. It's during these scenes that the audience is introduced to the protagonists of the film: Kenji, Yuriko and Horiguchi, who set off on their own expedition to the Kitanami River. The trio comes across a village and befriend a small boy named Ken. As fate would have it, Ken runs off to the lake after his dog, an event which sends the village into an uproar as the local priest warns them that to follow would surely anger their god, Varan. Kenji challenges the priest's warning, by asking if he has ever seen Varan and if his beliefs are worth the life of a child. The trio head off after the boy, and Yuriko is separated from the group in her pursuit of Ken. Kenji returns to the village and convinces the villagers to help him in his search. Eventually, Kenji and the villagers find Ken and Yuriko, but their celebration is cut short as Varan rises from the water. The monster makes a direct line for the village, destroying it along with the dedicated priest. Following Varan's first screen appearance is pretty much a nonstop, albeity still slow paced, assault by the military against Varan up until his short lived raid on Haneda Airport.

Varan started production as a joint venture between Toho and an American company called AB-PT Productions with the intention of making a made-for-TV movie for ABC, as documented here. Given its history, it's not surprising that the end result actually bares quite a bit of resemblance to the American made monster movies of the time rather than Ishiro Honda's other films. The story itself is fairly straightforward as well, and likely would have worked better in the 54 minute timeframe that was originally proposed. To Honda's credit, though, he at least improved a nearly unwatchable film when he revamped the project for its theatrical run, adding in two of the film's greatest segments: the meeting with the villagers and Varan's water based skirmish with the self defense force.

Unfortunately, the story's chief fault is simply that the human cast is extraordinarily dull. The audience learns next to nothing about the three leads and the host of supporting characters through the course of the film. In fact, there is a little resentment to be had toward the movie's lead, Kenji played by Kozo Nomura, as he goes against the priest's orders and inadvertently leads the villagers to their doom at the hands of Varan in the process. Would it have been too much to ask had Kenji been shown to display some guilt over the incident? Certainly would have helped in giving him a more personal reason to hate Varan. As for the other two leads, Yuriko is essentially your generic love interest and never does much except get trapped under a tree so Kenji can save her. The last member of the trio, Horiguchi the photographer, is hardly even worth mentioning as he is given so little to do to the point where he almost feels like one of the supporting cast, despite the fact that he is given a sizeable amount of screen time.

In regards to the acting, it's actually done moderately well, which is a real testament to Honda's ability as a director given that none of the cast had much experience. However, this could also be on account that very little is demanded of the film's characters. Nomura, who plays Kenji in the film, is a good example of this, as he does nothing to elevate the audience's attachment to the character, but plays the part smoothly enough that one really can't fault his performance either. The only member of the cast that really appears to be lacking is Ayumi Sonoda as the film's love interest, as she feels pretty unconvincing as the damsel in distress and seems disinterested during other scenes in the movie.

Still, this is a monster movie, so the attention will be unavoidably focused on the title monster. So how does Varan fare as a solo kaiju antagonist? Not very well, and certainly the most unmemorable of the Toho kaiju to be given their own film. Often criticized as a crude combination of elements from Godzilla, Anguirus and Rodan, Varan is best remembered for his ability to glide like a flying squirrel; however, it's a shame that this power is only used once during the course of the movie, and not very effectively either. What Varan lacks the most, though, is that he never comes off as a very large threat like his predecessors did. Gone are the scenes of citywide destruction by Godzilla and Rodan, and in their place is the destruction of a lone, unarmed, village by Varan. To further discredit the monster, the scene where Kenji, on foot, outruns Varan on a landing strip is just god awful, and removes any kind of feeling of danger the monster might have presented. However, it was a nice change of pace to see the military be able to successfully combat a monster with only two destroyed landmarks and two lost military crafts through the course of the film. Furthermore, the relentless approach to the military is a nice angle, as they quickly shift from plan to plan in an attempt to stop the monster. An idea which would be used again in King Kong vs. Godzilla (1962) and Mothra vs. Godzilla (1964) years later.

To the film's credit, the special effects work by Tsuburaya is remarkably good for a film made in the late 1950's and one that was originally planned for a TV release. In particular, the model work on the village and Haneda Airport are rather impressive, although the model scenery in general is fairly sparse in the movie. As for the Varan suit, it's really a mixed bag. While the suit looks quite impressive when Varan is on all fours, the suit starts to show its flaws when Varan tries to stand up as the "shell" on his back tends to flap out in an unconvincing manner. It's apparent, however, that the budget for this film was rather restrictive as Tsuburaya has to rely on stock footage from Godzilla (1954) for several scenes during Varan's raid on Japan. Still, given the circumstances, Tsuburaya's special effects rarely distract from the viewing experience, even almost 50 years later.

The music found in Varan is widely considered the film's best aspect. Back in a time when Ifukube would actually conduct all original scores for his films, instead of relying heavily on previously composed work, Varan's score contains several noteworthy themes. Those of particular merit include Varan's theme, the military march during the raid at sea, and the village chant. Consequently, these themes would return later in many other Ifukube scored films, but one can't discredit the movie which originally featured them. It's interesting to note that Ifukube actually conducted two separate scores for Varan: one for the film while it was still a TV production and the other for the theatrical release, although some of the TV work would land in the final product anyway.

Overall, Varan is a pretty boring entry. There just isn't many redeeming factors here to help defend the film, save maestro Ifukube's riveting themes. Worth seeing once or twice, perhaps, but certainly nothing that demands to be watched again and again.