Retro: our movie & TV vault... a fresh look
at neglected classics and cult favourites
This is the "most mysterious story ever told," viewers are informed: a scientific
party sets out to a region of the country known as the 'Japanese Tibet' to discover the
origins of a unusual butterfly. Stumbling across an eerie lake not listed on their maps,
they are abruptly wiped out by some unseen, monstrous force. Later, a second band of
investigators arrive, looking for answers as to what happened earlier, its members
including a lady reporter and a photographer. Despite being warned by locals of the
existence of the fearsome 'God of Barangi', they too approach the taboo lake, partly
in an attempt to locate a wandering child, and the much feared creature thereupon breaks
the surface again, this time to begin a wider rampage. Now identified by scientists as
a prehistoric varanopede, it begins an approach on Tokyo via the sea, and the gigantic
Varan The Unbelievable (aka: Daikaijû Baran) is generally agreed to be a lesser Toho Studio effort - the monster failed to land his own series on the strength of this appearance and only appeared again in Destroy All Monsters / (aka: Kaijû sôshingeki), ten years later, also by Honda - but is nevertheless a fascinating kaiju eiga in several other aspects, not least because of the way it sheds light on the beginning of the cycle and the way it would be packaged to western audiences.
For many years the original Japanese version has been especially hard to see and although recently reissued in its splendid entirety on DVD under the name above, rather confusingly, this is actually the title given to the bastardised American release. The film was severely cut in the US for its 1962 release there, and new scenes in added in by director Jerry A. Baerwitz, the reconstituted feature starring the mediocre actor Myron Healey. It was a process that had worked tolerably well in the case of the original Godzilla (aka: Gojira, 1954), as the overseas version that stemmed from that seminal fantasy included Raymond Burr, subtly incorporated into proceedings. Compared to that earlier effort, the 'new' Varan was more of a travesty, with whole plots strands jettisoned, along with the score, as well as one of the more memorable characteristics of the monster himself.
The giant shadow of Godzilla, only one film in at this point on his own account, falls over the present movie in other ways too; Varan (or 'Baran' as the original Japanese has it) is obviously indebted to his illustrious, monstrous predecessor, and where there are differences it has to be said they are mostly to the newcomer's disadvantage. Varan, too, has a large tail and a spiky back, and Toho equipped its new monster with a similar sounding roar. He too marauds through the countryside, or swipes buildings into ruin and proves impervious to mortar and tank fire. But compared to the Big G, on land at least, Varan is slow moving and largely inarticulate, possessing none of the individuality that made the other monster so beloved of fans as its great series progressed through the 1960s and 1970s.
The exception is when Varan spreads his wings and, like some gigantic flying squirrel, takes temporarily to the air; an effect so striking (and a dramatic moment unaccountably expunged from thereby impoverished American version) that one regrets more is not made of it. Perhaps after the extensive air work in Rodan (aka: Sora no daikaijû Radon), made by Honda two years before, it was felt that a good deal of the possibilities were exhausted. Varan also shows his mettle as a battling monster more when he hits the sea - never Godzilla's strongest suit in the early days - and the watery scenes in which he fights off attack in this film prove some of its most imaginative and effective. Shot in black and white (although some viewers report seeing a colour - colourised? - version) and in Toho pan scope, the reincarnation on disc looks splendid. Varan, of course, has to fight all of the model tanks, rocket launchers and jet planes that his more famous contemporary had to get used to although, conspicuous by their absence, are the parabolic disc rays, typical of the arsenal used against Toho's creatures; this is balanced to a certain extent by the fact that Varan in turn does not have atomic breath with which to menace his opponents.
One of the most memorable elements of Varan is the supporting score, as provided by the veteran Akira Ifukube. The composer's march-like theme and music for the Godzilla series became instantly identifiable as the films continued. It is utilised here too, but it is such a sustained and integrated extent that it is surely one of the artist's finest achievements, so much so that I have seen fan's reviews whereby they claim to watch the movie for the purpose of enjoying the score only. Given the strength of the music, it is a shame that there is no music-only track included with the DVD or a separate disc included for work of such merit, as it was in the gift pack of Destroy All Monsters.
What is included, somewhat bizarrely, is the truncated, third variant of the film, the 'restored TV version'. This was a condensed editing down of Varan that ran for less than an hour, and was shown as a two-part broadcast in Japan. As many have pointed out, it would have been much more logical, although perhaps licensing issues precluded it, to have had the maligned Healey-Baerwitz version instead, which at least had the merits of representing new footage. As it is, it's hard to see who will want to watch the shorter version at all, which has the merits of neither the original film, nor the half-baked reworking of a B-movie producer that still has its adherents.
Tokyo Shock can be congratulated on bringing such an interesting, and relatively rare film to market. Varan will never be top shelf kaiju eiga, but it remains a stopping off point before the Godzilla craze really took off, as well as a reminder as to the context of the original, and a chance to see more work by director Honda, who became so closely associated with the subgenre. Their package here also includes an informative lecture by creature sculptor Meizu Murase, as well as audio commentary by him, contributions arguably worth the price of admission alone. For fans and addicts of the golden age of Japanese fantasy and science fiction it is also worth pointing out the other, extremely worthwhile Honda releases lately issuing from the same source: The Mysterians (aka: Chikyu Boeigun, 1957), Mantango (1963), Atragon (aka: Kaitei gunkan, 1963), Dagora (aka: Uchu daikaijû Dogora, 1964), and Space Ameoba (aka: Gezora, Ganime, Kameba: Kessen! Nankai no daikaijû, 1970) among them, lovingly restored, hopefully with others to follow.