Of all of Toho’s less familiar kaiju flicks, I’ve always found that Varan the Giant Monster was deserving of much greater acclaim. True, it isn’t one of Ishiro Honda’s and Eiji Tsubaraya’s masterpieces, but it’s a very entertaining monster movie with one of Toho’s coolest-looking, yet perpetually underrated creations. At any rate, I think it deserves greater notoriety than the likes of The Mysterians and Atragon, which are constantly hailed by Toho fans, though I’ve always found them terminally dull.
Varan the Giant Monster
Deep in the uncharted regions of Japan (there are uncharted regions of Japan?), the superstitious locals live in fear of their god, Baradagi. After two of his colleagues are killed in that area, biologist Kenji (Kozo Nomura), along with reporter, Yuriko (Ayumi Sonoda), and photographer, Horiguchi (Fumito Matsuo), investigate the area, expecting to find nothing but primitive yokels and tall tales. Much to their disbelief, their presence accidentally awakens a giant prehistoric reptile: Varan (Haruo Nakajima)! As the scaly menace both stomps and glides out of the forest, the Japanese Defense Force must devise a means to stop this seemingly unstoppable foe before he reaches Tokyo and demolishes everything in sight!
For whatever reason, Varan seems to have been put together on a much more “cost-effective” budget than Toho’s previous kaiju and tokusatsu films. The fact that this movie is presented in black and white, while preceding films such as Rodan and The Mysterians were filmed in color, should be a dead giveaway to this. Other moments of penny-pinching can be fairly obvious, such as the recycling of much of Akira Ifukube’s music from Godzilla as well as…*ahem*…more “prominent” strings during sequences involving model planes.
And yet, despite what might be considered crippling budget setbacks, Honda and Tsubaraya make due with their resources and manage to craft a wholly entertaining flick. You’d think that with a smaller budget, monster activity would be reduced to a minimum… but no! As a matter of fact, you’d be hard-pressed to find a Showa Era kaiju movie with more non-stop monster action than Varan. The human drama involving Kenji and his sidekicks are dialed back, with these characters existing solely as a means to defeat Varan. There are no other distractions in the plot, such as goofy alien machinations or devious terrorist threats: just a group of people fighting a giant monster for eighty-seven minutes.
Varan has always struck me as having one of the best suit designs of any of Toho’s characters. He’s spiky and marches around on all fours, yet has an appearance entirely different from Anguirus, a similar kaiju. A couple of visuals separate him from his more prominent cousin: Firstly, he is capable of rearing onto his hind-legs and walking about when threatened, something the quadruped Anguirus cannot do. In addition to that, this sucker can fly! Poorly. While I can accept the likes of Mothra, Rodan and King Ghidorah fluttering around on their wings, the sight of this rotund lizard gliding about on dangly sheets of underarm flab just doesn’t cut it with me. Additionally, Varan’s roar appears to be a processed version of Godzilla’s, which kinda sucks.
While you get lots and lots and lots of Varan throughout the picture, due to cost constraints, he’s primarily relegated to non-populated areas where model-construction is a bit easier on the wallet. He spends a good portion of the film fighting tanks in the forest, then moves to battling boats and planes out in the ocean. The film’s finale takes place on the fringes of Tokyo Bay, where he only has the opportunity to topple a couple of buildings before his ultimate demise.
The 1962 US release of Varan the Giant Monster as Varan the Unbelievable featured heavy reediting and the inclusion of numerous American actors in a manner identical to Godzilla, King of the Monsters, practically making it a completely different film. I haven’t watched it since the ‘90s, so I could probably use a refresher course on whether it works as well as the editing in King of the Monsters did.
But just to confuse matters, Tokyo Shock’s 2005 DVD release of Varan the Giant Monster bore the name Varan the Unbelievable but contains the Japanese cut. Synergy Entertainment released a DVD in 2011 titled Varan the Unbelievable and it correctly contains the American edit. So be wary when buying your DVD is all I’m saying.
Varan has always struck me as a kaiju that got left with a bum deal. He looks fantastic, and while his origin film isn’t particularly plot-driven and suffers from budget cutbacks, he’s still a hell of a lot cooler than other, more popular kaiju, such as Moguera and Baragon. A shame his only other Showa Era appearance is in “Destroy All Monsters”, and he’s relegated to scarce cameos in that one, too.
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