Varan the Unbelievable
Japan 1958
Directed by Ishiro Honda.

Professor Sukimoto (Koreya Senda) discovers some unusual butterflies in an isolated area known as the "Tibet of Japan". The locals in the area worship a God called "Baradagi", but Kenji (Kz Nomura), Sukimoto's assistant, immediately tells the head priest there is no such thing and that his people should "forget your childish superstition." Japan had lost its own God-Emperor Hirohito in the aftermath of World War II, and apparently they brook no other God to set up in his absence, no matter how primitive. Kenji immediately convinces the locals that their religion was actually a complete sham, but unfortunately for him, the God Baradagi immediately shows up, trampling the village under its massive reptilian feet.

In an American movie, the scientist would immediately be stepped on for his hubris in declaring no such thing as a God creature exists. Not so here. Kenji quickly recovers his cool and immediately declares it isn't a God at all, just a prehistoric "Varanopode", a type of dinosaur that he completely fabricated, probably on the spot to make himself look cooler. They were unable to force Varan to give a statement himself that he was just a dinosaur, and not a God, so the scientific community promptly made the statement for him, then spends the remainder of the movie trying to figure out how to kill it.

Varan is quite isolated, in his remote lake habitat, and has lived there for thousands of years. But never mind that, now. The military is called in, the villagers evacuated. First some depth charges in the lake to wake the creature up, then a full artillary barrage. Finally, they set the whole place on fire, forcing Varan to move out, using his flying-squirrel-like gliding wings. He walks, he swims, he flies, Varan has got it all. As all disturbed giant monsters must, he immediately makes his way toward Tokyo, and would have gotten there, too, were it not for a new experimental type of dynamite developed by a Dr. Fujimura (Akihiko Hirata) for dam construction. It is deeply symbolic of Japan as a nation that the creature is defeated not by the anemic military, but the robust construction industry, which continues to employ practically half the country.

VARAN is pretty tame as far as rampaging monsters go. He is not possessed of that evil intelligence, that anger, that seemed to drive Godzilla to destruction in his first appearance. Varan behaves more like a pretty simple minded lizard trying to get away from fire, missiles, airplanes, destroyers, and other weapons of destruction.

For their part, the scientists and the military men have little to no personality and offer absolutely no justification for their actions. After discovering the existence of a creature long thought to be exinct, their only thought is to kill it. No one has a dissenting view, not even for a half a second. When VARAN appears to be dying at the end of the film, the Akira Ikufube score strikes up a sad song. But why? No one trying to kill the beast shed a single tear. A grand hurrah at the moment would have been more appropriate to the tone of the rest of the movie. Hooray! Death to Varan! Hooray!

Who are we supposed to be rooting for, anyway? Professor Sugimoto always speaks in a dull monotone, as if he is about to fall asleep at any moment. Kenji tramples all over traditional tribal beliefs when we first meet him, then later all he does is aim bombs toward Varan and run away like a girl (even, in one scene, tripping over nothing! Damn those high heels!).

Then there's the love interest, intrepid reporter Yuriko (Ayumi Sonoda), whose brother was one of Varan's first victims. When we first meet her, she is going to the biology department to pick up his stuff. Sugimoto hands her a box. "This is all that's left of him," he says. No reaction from her. Apparently she's made of tougher stuff, though, like all our heroes, she is ultimately completely forgettable. Even Dr. Fujimura, the bomb expert, played by Akihiko Hirata, who starred memorably as the conflicted Dr. Serizawa in the original Godzilla, spends most of his time sitting behind a desk and brings no complexity to his role whatsoever.

VARAN was originally commissioned for American television, then finished up for Japanese theatrical release as well. In the American version, all the boring, stilted Japanese scientists are cut out, replaced by the boring, stilted Myron Healey. Older reviews of both the American and Japanese versions of the movie complain about how Varan is a little-seen monster, but in the new Media Blasters DVD he is prominently visible in just about every shot. For a giant monster, Varan gets a lot of screen time, though his face is a bit dopey looking, the body design seems a bit more flexible than the similar Anguilas, created for the Godzilla sequel (Godzilla Raids Again) in 1955.

Unlike the original Godzilla film, VARAN has very little on its mind other than killing a giant monster that pretended to be a God. Perhaps, given the American commission to produce the film, the Japanese filmmakers thought the topic would be appealing to an American audience, God killing perhaps being a national sport, like British fox hunting. It is an intriguing idea, though one not followed up on to my knowledge, at least not until a God-killing squad of special ops forces took on Thailand's many monsterous deities in the 2004 Thai film GARUDA.

[The Media Blasters DVD of VARAN THE UNBELIEVABLE is exceptional in every way. A great picture, clear subtitles, robust audio options. The English language version starring Myron Healy is not included, alas, making this release a bit confusing, as it uses the American release title but only includes the Japanese version (originally called GIANT MONSTER BARAN). The DVD also includes a version cut for Japanese TV, a full commentary track, trailers, and some other fun extras. Frankly I'm used to bare-bones DVD releases, so feature-rich and at such a reasonable price, is a fantastic deal and well worth picking up.]

Rating: Marginally Recommended (Marginally Recommended)

Posted by Peter Nepstad on December 03, 2005.


my name is varan. im sad.

Posted by: varan at February 4, 2006 05:56 PM
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