Film Review: Varan the Unbelievable (1958)

Also known as: Daikaijū Baran, lit. Giant Monster Varan (Japan)
Release Date: October 14th, 1958 (Japan)
Directed by: Ishirō Honda
Written by: Ken Kuronuma
Music by: Akira Ifukube
Cast: Kozo Nomura, Ayumi Sonoda, Fumio Matsuo, Koreya Senda, Akihiko Hirata

Toho, 87 Minutes

Review:

Varan the Unbelievable was a kaiju film that I was never a big fan of. It was a total drudge to get through. However, I had only seen the English language version, which is vastly different than its original Japanese counterpart.

The American version is a short 68 minutes or so but it is edited into a completely different film and lacks the suspense and the terror that makes the Japanese version infinitely superior. The American version was also bogged down by a love story between an American soldier and a Japanese girl that felt forced and superficial.

The Japanese version, which is the one I just watched and for the first time, was an absolute delight. Finally, I got to see the monster Varan in the way that his creators intended. He was menacing, looked terrifying with his dagger like spikes and he felt like a real credible threat.

The film was made by the Toho dream team of Ishirō Honda (the director), Eiji Tsuburaya (the special effects maestro) and Akira Ifukube (the greatest kaiju film composer of all-time). While these three worked together quite often over a decade or so, one could always rest assured that when the three were a part of the creative process, as a unit, you were certainly going to get a quality kaiju epic.

Unlike most of the earlier Toho kaiju pictures, this one doesn’t recycle a lot of the acting talent. The only notable cast member in relation to their work with Toho is Koreya Senda, who played Dr. Sugimoto. He also worked in the other Toho pictures The H-Man and Battle In Outer Space, neither of which were kaiju movies but fit the general tokusatsu genre.

The film plays out similarly to the original Godzilla picture. A monster appears, gets hellapissed and decides to take his anger out on humans. The majority of the story is Varan fighting the military, as the heroes try to find a way to get rid of the giant beast.

There are some fantastic looking scenes. The one that shows Varan taking shelter underwater as the military drops depth charges is marvelous. Also, the scene where the military is dropping poison into the lake is beautifully shot and vivid, even in black and white.

The miniature work is good for a black and white picture, as it hides some of the imperfections but ultimately, Tsuburaya’s work wasn’t as good as it would become once Toho switched to making all these films in color.

Varan is an evil looking creature and he can take flight similar to a flying squirrel. Additionally, he would also go on to live in the Godzilla mythos as he appeared years later in Destroy All Monsters and the Nintendo video game Godzilla: Monster of Monsters, where he was the boss of one of the stages and continued to appear throughout the game.

Varan isn’t as popular as Godzilla, Mothra or Rodan but he is similar in that he got a solo debut film. While he didn’t appear as sporadically as the other three kaiju, that may have been a missed opportunity for Toho. A straight up Varan versus Godzilla showdown would have been interesting to see.

If you can get a hold of the Japanese version of the film, you definitely should check it out. If all you can find is the awful American version, put it back on the shelf. The easiest way to tell the difference is the running time, as the American version has twenty minutes chopped off.

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