Varan the Unbelievable
|Varan the Unbelievable|
Theatrical Japanese poster
|Directed by||Ishirō Honda|
|Produced by||Tomoyuki Tanaka|
|Written by||Ken Kuronuma (story)
Myron Healey (USA)
Tsuruko Kobayashi (USA)
|Music by||Akira Ifukube
Albert Glasser (USA)
Jacques R. Marquette (USA)
|Edited by||Kazuji Taira
Rudolph Cusumano (USA)
Jack Ruggiero (USA)
Crown International Pictures (USA)
70 min. (USA)
Varan the Unbelievable, released in Japan as Giant Monster Varan (大怪獣バラン Daikaijū Baran?), is a 1958 Japanese science fiction kaiju film directed by Ishirō Honda. The film focuses on Varan, a prehistoric creature reawakened by scientific experiments performed on the lake where Varan resides. The film stars Kôzô Nomura, Ayumi Sonoda, Fumito Matsuo, and Haruo Nakajima as Varan. The film is produced by Toho and features special effects by Eiji Tsuburaya. It is also Toho's last Kaiju film to be shot in black-and-white.
In 1962, Crown International Pictures released Varan the Unbelievable, a heavily re-edited American adaptation of the original Japanese film, Varan. While Varan the Unbelievable used some of the original Japanese footage, it mainly consisted of new footage shot exclusively for the film's North American release, which heavily altered the premise of the original Japanese version and featured American actor Myron Healey and other Japanese-American actors replacing the original actors from the Japanese version with new principal roles, a technique previously done in Godzilla, King of the Monsters!, another film produced by Toho.
A rare species of butterfly native only to the Kitakami River area of Japan is discovered by two Japanese students while vacationing in Siberia. In response, an expedition is dispatched to the Northwest Region (The Japanese Tibet) to study the butterflies in their native habitat.
While driving to the location, two researchers come across a village. They ask where the lake is but receive no answer. The pair travel and come upon a lake and find the butterflies, but are mysteriously crushed by something that the police can only describe as "powerful." The nearby villagers of the Kitakami River insist that the deaths were a result of the wrath of their god Baradagi-Sanjin (Mountain God Baradagi).
Another expedition is then dispatched to the area. This time the investigation is funded by the film company "20th Century Mysteries Solved", an organization that seeks to uncover the truth behind the two deaths to report on it. Staff of the firm are reporters Motohiko Horiguchi and Yuriko Shinjo (Ayumi Sonoda), the sister of one of the men killed, and an entomologist named Dr. Kenji Uozaki (Kozo Namura) from the scientific community come along.
The expedition travels further inland and stumbles upon a village doing a ritualistic prayer to their mountain god. The priest of the village warns the travelers that their presence will make the monster angry. The warnings fall of deaf ears, though, and the problem escalates when Ken, a young local boy, runs out of the village after his dog. Kenji and Horiguchi return to the village to rally the locals to help them, telling them their beliefs are little more than superstition. The villagers, minus the priest, agree, and head toward the lake to rescue Ken. Once there, Ken, along with Yuriko, are discovered. Their reunion is cut short, though, by the monster Varan rising from the lake. The villagers flee back to their homes, but Varan gives chase. The aquatic monster enters the village, killing the priest who was guarding the entrance. The beast then proceeds to tear apart the huts inside. After the destruction, the monster retreats to his underwater lair.
Reports of the creature's existence are sent back to Tokyo, and the defense force is mobilized near the lake to prepare for the beast's return. The nearby village is evacuated, as tanks and ground artillery units move into position. Shortly after the evacuation, the military begins releasing toxins into the river to drive the monster out.
The plan is a success, as Varan emerges from the water's surface. Phase two of the SDF's plan is put into operation, as tanks and artillery units began to unleash their destructive fury on the monster. The conventional weapons have no effect, though, and the military is forced to retreat. Amongst the confusion, Yuriko manages to get caught under a falling tree, placing her right in Varan's path. Kenji narrowly manages to save his colleague, though, and the two seek safety in a nearby cave. Varan pursues the two, reaching into the cavern with his claws. Luckily, the military intervenes, firing flares over the monster's head. Varan becomes attracted by the flares, and climbs a nearby mountain in order to get a closer look. Once at the peak, though, Varan raises his arms to reveal hidden flaps of skins. The creature then leaps from the mountain and glides off towards the sea.
Some time later, Varan's reign of terror continues as he capsizes a fishing boat not far from Tokyo's shores. The defense force then remobilizes, sending a squadron of jets to intercept the creature. The jets are met with little success, however, as Varan manages to destroy one of them that ventures to close to the water's surface. The monster submerges and continues his descent toward Tokyo. The military moves into phase two of their counterattack, deploying destroyers to the surrounding waters. Unfortunately, the ship's artillery has no effect against the creature.
Undiscouraged, the SDF quickly launches a third campaign to try and stop Varan's advancement, this time using mine sweepers to seal off Tokyo. The attack, like the rest, is met with failure, though. Out of options, the defense force again remobilizes its forces to the area around Tokyo bay, lining the water with landing-ships carrying rocket artillery vehicles and dispatching a battalion of tanks near Haneda airport. A large amount of Special Gunpowder, which they hope will have better success at destroying the monster, is also readied. Tokyo is then evacuated, as the military awaits the appearance of Varan.
Varan finally emerges from the water, ready to attack the Japanese mainland. The creature is immediately shelled by the surrounding forces, but that doesn't deter his advancement on land. Kenji drives a truck filled with Special Gunpowder to the runway of Haneda airport. Varan advances on the small vehicle, as Kenji escapes to a safe distance. With Varan directly over the truck, the detonate trigger is pulled, causing the monster to fall flat on his stomach. The SDF celebrates prematurely, though, as the beast rises from the attack seemingly unfazed, and begins an assault on his hind legs.
Flairs are once again deployed to try and attract the monster, while the defense force witnesses Varan eating one of the flares. A new plan is then hatched, as they prepare light bombs filled with the Special Gun Powder. The bombs are unleashed, as the monster eats two of them out of the night sky. Shortly after, the first bomb detonates, causing the monster to retreat back to the sea. The second detonates as the creature is underwater and the defense force declares the creature long gone.
- Kozo Nomura - Kenji Uozaki
- Ayumi Sonoda - Yuriko Sinjo (woman journalist)
- Fumindo Matsuo - Motohiko Horiguti
- Hisaya Ito - Ichiro Sinjo
- Nadao Kirino - Yutaka Kawata
- Koreya Senda - Dr. Sugimoto
- Fuyuki Murakami - Dr. Majima
- Akihiko Hirata - Dr. Fujimura
- Minosuke Yamada - Director General of the Defense Agency
- Akio Kusama - Colonel. Kusama
- Yoshio Tsuchiya - Katsumoto, Lieutenant Commander
- Yoshifumi Tajima - Captain Maritime Self-Defense Force vessel
- Kin Sugai - Medium
- Haruo Nakajima, Katsumi Tezuka - Varan, the Unbelievable itself and a giant, gliding lizard
- US Version cast
- Myron Healey - Cmdr. James Bradley
- Tsuruko Kobayashi - Anna
- Clifford Kawada - Capt. Kishi
- Derick Shimatsu - Matsu (the boy)
- Kozo Nomura - Paul Isoh
- Ayumi Sonoda - Shidori Isoh
- Fumindo Matsuo - Paul's Friend
- Hiroshi Hisasume - Pvt. Seki
The film was originally intended to be a 54 minute television film that would be split into two episodes for the American market. It began filming and was originally filmed in the 1:33:1 aspect ratio. But the US backing fell through and Toho had to adapt the film which was mostly complete and prepare it for theatrical release. They filmed an additional 33 minutes of footage as well as using stock footage from Godzilla and Godzilla Raids Again for close ups of buildings getting crushed and when the planes fight Varan. The film was also cropped to the 2:35:1 aspect ratio.  During the filming, suit actor Haruo Nakajima was injured by an explosives mishap and had to be replaced for the remainder of the shoot.
- A virtually new film was created, using American players for all significant dramatic scenes which now centered around an American military scientist Cmdr. James Bradley (Myron Healey) and his Japanese wife Anna conducting desalinization experiments in the salt water lake which awakened the monster. Except for the final scene, Daikaju Baran was represented only by its special effects, cut to accommodate the new script, and two or three brief incidental shots. Nothing was dubbed as there were no dialogue shots left to dub.
- The entire music and sound tracks of Daikaiju Baran were replaced.
- All footage showing Varan flying was removed in an attempt to make the monster more believable.
- In the US version the name Varan is almost never spoken. Except for one Japanese language scene, involving a military radio transmission, the monster is instead referred to as "Obaki" (from "obake", a Japanese word for "monster").
- Varan's attack on Tokyo was much shorter.
- Varan's roar is different.
The Japanese version was released on October 14, 1958. The film has gained generally negative reviews. Many critics noted the lack of character development and uninteresting story. Though the special effects and music score were praised.
Patrick Galvan of Toho Kingdom gave the film 2/5 and said: "Having just described the inadequacy of the American version, I think my initial enthusiasm for the Japanese cut is understandable. But when viewed objectively, very little of Honda's original version is worth writing home about. Let me end this review with a hope. If Toho ever decides it is time to remake one of Honda's 50s era monster movies, why not Varan? Once again, there's a good starting premise here, and the monster is a unique creation. So why not learn from the past, patch up the narrative (i.e., keep it set in the wilderness, never head into the city), and try to realize the true potential in what is otherwise a mediocre film?"
Andrew Smith of Popcorn Pictures gave the film 2/10 and said: "As it turns out, Varan the Unbelievable is a horrid mess no matter which version you get your hands on. The Japanese version is slightly better than the ridiculous Americanised version but both copies of the film would prove why Varan has disappeared from kaiju lore without so much as a whimper. Considering how some of the more popular Toho monsters have never received their own film, the decision to give Varan his own vehicle is mind-boggling."
In 2005 Tokyo Shock released the original Japanese version of the film on DVD. Extras include the original television version, a commentary, a lecture by Keizo Murase, and trailers.  In 2011 Synergy Entertainment released the US version to DVD with no extras.
- Lees, J.D. and Cerasini, Marc. (1998). The Official Godzilla Compendium Random House, p. 28.
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