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Varan, the Unbelievable, aka Great Monster Varan, or Varan, Monster From the East.
Varan is a Kaiju movie produced by Toho Co, Ltd. in 1958. The film originally began life as a made-for-TV movie developed by Toho for American audiences. When the American producers backed out, Toho took what was left and decided to make a theatrical film out of it, while filming new sequences and removing some other ones of little consequence. Because the film was originally intended for television, and this being the 1950's, the film was shot in black-and-white. To make sure everything matched, the new footage for the film was also shot in black-and-white, making this the last theatrical monster movie to be released by Toho in black-and-white.
Also of note is that, because the film was intended for television, it was filmed in the aspect ratio of 4:3, and so the theatrical verison of the film features a cropped image, being the world's first and only instance of a movie released in Toho Pan Scope.
The film had already had a television score composed by Akira Ifukube, but with the movie being refit for theaters, he was given the chance to go back and rework the score to make it fit for a theatrical film. The result is one of Ifukube's most influencial and recognizable scores ever...if you've seen the Japanese version of the film, that is. The American version, released in 1962, absolutely butchered the score...and everything else. Ifukube would reuse pieces of this score in countless other movies, with modified varations of certain pieces found in Ghidorah the Three Headed Monster, King Kong vs. Godzilla, Mothra vs. Godzilla, Frankenstein vs. Baragon, Battle in Outer Space, Godzilla vs. Gigan (although all of the music in that film was stock music, except for one piece at the end which wasn't composed by Ifukube) and many more.
The synopsis provided below will detail the Japanese theatrical version of the film.
The story begins with two scientists venturing into a mountainous region of Japan, where a rare butterfly has been discovered. The two men are warned by the residents of Iwatani Village to not go beyond the borders of the village, as the land beyond, near a large lake, is guarded by the fierce god Baradagi. Ignoring the villagers, the two men venture forth. While collecting specimens, a loud roar is heard and what seems to be a landslide kills them and crushes their jeep. Days, or perhaps weeks, later, the sister of one of the deceased scientists, a journalist named Yuriko Sinjo (played by Ayumi Sonoda), and two of her companions, Kenji Uozaki (played by Kozo Nomura) and Motohiko Horiguchi (played by Fumindo Matsuo), travel to the mountain region where her brother died in order to find out what happened.
On their way to the village, the trio encounter a small boy, name Gen, who tells that that his father is a priest in the village. They all hear the roar of Baradagi, and Ken leads them to the village. They meet the village's high priest, and explain their reasons for beign there. After the boy goes chasing after his dog, named Chibee, who ran off into Baradagi's territory, Yuriko and her companions go to look for the boy, ignoring the warnings of the high priest. While searching for the boy, a fog descends. Kenji and Horiguchi return to ask the villagers help them search for the boy and Yuriko. After Kenji convinces them that Baradagi isn't real, the villagers decide to throw their beliefs to the wind temproarily and help search for the boy and Yuriko, after Chibee returns with a note attached to his collar from Yuriko, letting everyone know that they're alive.
A tearful reunion soon follows between the boy and his mother. the moment is ruined, however, when the lake begins to bubble. Unfortunately for everyone, Baradagi turns out to be very much real, as he surfaces from the lake and chases everyoen back to the village. Baradagi proceeds to destroy the village, killing the high priest and anyone who doesn't get away. While Baradagi is destroying the village, Horiguchi takes pictures of the monster, whereupon it is discerned that Baradagi is a member of the species Varanis, and is then christened Varan. Varan continues destroying the village, apparently determined to smash everything in sight, and then returns to the lake, his temper tantrum over for now.
Less than a day or two later, the military, led by Colonel Kusama (played by Akio Kusama), arrives in what's left of Iwatani Village, along with our trio from earlier and some more scientists, including Kenji's mentor, Dr. Sugimoto (played by Korenari Senda). The military sets up a perimeter around the lake and soon begins firing charges into the lake, which contain water-dissolvant chemicals. Apparently this is so that Varan can be killed, but the scientists will still have a body to examine. After twenty-five minutes, the chemicals succeed in killing everything in the lake except Varan. Having his home violated, and his food supply ruined, Varan rises from the lake and retaliates against the military. Conventional weapons prove useless against Varan, as the beast takes several direct hits from tanks and machine guns, yet he keeps on kicking. Several tanks and other vehicles are destroyed by a royally pissed off Varan, who then proceeds to establish that the mountain is his territory by chasing anything that moves.
While fleeing from Varan, Yuriko is injured by a fallen tree that Varan had knocked over. Kenji goes back to rescue her after realizing that she's not with the rest of the group that had escaped. While chasing after Kenji and Yuriko, Varan knocks over a missile jeep with his tail, which then explodes like a pinto. Shortly after cornering Kenji and Yuriko in a cave, the military and scientists go back to look for their comrades, managing to the distract Varan with flares before setting a good portion of the forest on fire. After everyone has reached a safe distance, Varan demonstrates his unbelievability when he climbs to the top of a hill, stands up on two legs, and stretches his limbs to reveal a membrane between them, much like a Flying Squirrel. And, much like a Flying Squirrel, Varan soon glides away into the air, eventually landing (off camera) somewhere near the ocean or in the ocean itself.
Like the flying sequences from Reptilicus, this sequence was cut from the American version, making Varan perhaps the single most believable monster in Toho history to anyone who hasn't seen the Japanese version.
Follwing the gliding sequence, after an unspecified period of time, although probably less than a few days at the most, the military is searching for Varan in the ocean, using planes and boats. Another scientist is introduced in a military meeting, Dr. Fujimara (played by none other than Akihiko Hirata). Soon, Varan soon begins wreaking havok on the high seas, attacking fishing boats, and is moving towards Tokyo, as many monsters instinctually do. The military sends out fighter planes to stop Varan, and after a lengthy sequence, Varan knocks one the planes into the water after it gets too close.
After the planes fail to stop Varan, the Navy begins searching for the monster. Varan soon ambushes a battleship, which defends itself using its guns to...well, absolutely no effect except to put distance between itself and Varan. Generic, standard procedure. A quick cutaway to Yuriko and her companions asking each other about a helicopter for...some reason offers a brief break from the standard monster action. Returning to the hot, wet, slick Navy action, the military is using depth bombs on Varan...again, to absolutely no effect. And, for some reason, our heroes are on one of the battleships. After the military operations fail to stop the monster, Varan is still heading for Tokyo, so the city is evacuated.
The military soon devises a plan to use special bombs to blow up the monster. Unfortunately, no one can figure out how to get the bombs close enough to Varan. Before anyone can think of a plan, Varan is spotted at Haneda Airport, where the military begisn setting up a for a showdown that night. Varan soon gets close enough for the tanks and mortars to fire their guns, and he soon makes his way onto land. As this happens, the tanks start retreating, and a truck full of explosives is hijacked by Kenji as a special gift for Varan. Kenji drives toward Varan while the detonator and wire attached to the explosives in the truck are prepared. After getting close enough, Kenji leavse the truck and runs away, leading to one of the least suspensful chase scenes in a monster movie since The Giant Gila Monster. The truck is detonated, but again this fails to stop Varan.
With Kenji's plan having failed, the military resumes its attack as Varan begins assaulting the airport. Jets and tanks open fire on the monster as it destroys several buildings, and Godzilla's tail makes a cameo appearance courtesy of a badly edited piece of stock footage. After several minutes of Varan being attacked by the military, and with a few more buildings being demolsihed along with some unfortunate planes, a plan is devised to finally stop the monster. Noticing the monster's attraction to the flares, and remembering his actions at the village, Dr. Sugimoto realizes that the only way to kill Varan is from the inside, via bombs attached to flares.
After preparatiosn are made, a helicopter takes off and drops the flares, bombs in tow, into Varan's mouth. Varan successfully swallows one bomb, but the next one detonates prematurely before he can swallow it. Varan then demolishes one more building in throws of pain before retreating to the ocean, where the first bomb finally goes off, ending Varan's rampage. A statement about mankind being victorious over the mysteries of the world is made by the narrator, and the movie ends.
All in all, Varan is a pretty standard monster movie, despite being made in the early days before the various characters and plot devices became standard. It is quite...unique in that regard, as it clearly feels like a television movie expanded for the theaters at first. The pacing, at least after the first half, leaves much to be desired.
This film contains the following mysteries of the twentieth century:
- Americanization: One of the most awful bastardizations ever witnessed is the American version of the film, which kept only the SFX footage, and completely removed Akira Ifukube's music score, as well as changing the plot completely. Even Varan's roar was changed to sound like screeching tires on a bad road.
- And Now for Something Completely Different: After the opening credits, which are set against the backdrop of the mountainous area where the first half of the movie takes place, the audience is treated to an opening narration about the mysteries of the twentieth century, set against the backdrop of rocket ships launching off into space. This has absolutely no impact on anything that takes place in the movie and is only referenced at the end of the film when the narrator says that Varan "vanished in a veil of mystery," after the other bomb explodes inside of him.
- Attention Deficit Ooh Shiny: Varan is attracted to lights such as flares, which is how the miltiary gets him to eat the bombs.
- Dub Name Change: In the American version, Varan is referred to only as "Obaki," which comes from the Japanese word "Obake" for monster.
- Feed It a Bomb: But you have to attach those shiny flares to it first.
- Giant Equals Invincible: Pretty much. Although it doesn't help Varan when a bomb detonates inside of him.
- Immune to Bullets: As is the standard for most kaiju, Varan's hide is very much impervious to bullets. His insides, on the other hand...
- Intrepid Reporter: Yuriko Sinjo, who, after Steve Martin from Godzilla: King of the Monsters, helped establish the reporter character found in monster films afterwards.
- Leave Me Alone: Just stay out of Varan's forest and lake, and you should be fine, but does anyone listen? Nnnoooooo.
- Meaningful Name: Varan's name comes from the word Varanopode, the same family as monitor lizards and Komodo Dragons. Varan himself looks like a giant lizard anyway, so the name fits.
- Oh Crap: After convincing the villagers that Baradagi is not real and that they shouldn't believe in such nonesense, the villagers huddle around Gen and his mother reuniting with one another...and then Varan emerges from his lake, proving that he is real to everyone's horror.
- Out of Focus: After the first half the film, our three heroes are left on the sidelines, with only Kenji's truck action having any significance.
- Physical God: Varan, or Baradagi as the villagers called him, was indeed worshipped as a god. Desptie Kenji's dismissal of superstitions, Varan is very much real, and he is very territorial.
- Spell My Name with an "S": The Japanese name is Baran, but the species name is Varanis, hence the name Varan.
- Stock Footage: Stock footage from Godzilla (1954) is used during the evacuation of Tokyo, the military preparing for Varan's arrival, much of Varan's destruction of Haneda Airport, where Godzilla's tail makes an appearance. Almost every shot of the jets attacking Varan is lifted from Godzilla, along with a shot of a particular building crumbling, which is reused at least twice.
- Super Not-Drowning Skills: Varan, like Godzilla, tends to stay underwater for really long periods of time, with no ill effect.