“A mediocre giant monster movie, for better or worse.”
It took Giant Monster Varan some four years before it finally made it to America under the title Varan, the Unbelievable. As fate would have it, Varan isn’t so “unbelievable” or “great”. I am reviewing the Japanese version that’s presently available on region one DVD. Despite the American version’s title (Varan, the Unbelievable), it’s the Japanese version with English subtitles. It is my understanding that the American version is significantly worse than the English version, but I can’t comment on that as I have yet to see it.
The giant monster plot is not unlike many other monster movies of the 1950s and 1960s. Scientists are searching for a unique species of butterfly and awaken the monster god. The Japanese military lends a hand, bringing their equipment and troops to the island, expecting an easy kill. As you’d expect, Varan is virtually immune to the weaponry, so the military retreats. Varan swims through the ocean and attacks an airport and some of the city, but certainly not on the scale that we see some other monsters, Godzilla for one. Eventually the military discovers a trick to defeating Varan, and the wounded monster retreats.
Pretty basic, but it works. It’s mediocre, but in some ways that’s kind of a good thing. Toho didn’t make the monster out to be as huge, destructive, and powerful as monsters like Godzilla or even Rodan. But while that bolsters the strength of those monsters, it makes this film and its monster forgettable. The first irk I have is that this movie was shot with a fairly tight budget, and it shows. The movie is shot in black and white, despite Toho having done color since 1956’s Rodan. The acting is also average, with some rough spots where the character(s) should be more emotional or seem to express the wrong emotions. Varan isn’t particularly interesting as a monster, and although he’s versatile, being able to operate in water, in air, and on land, he still comes off as derivative and staid. Two upsides to the movie were 1) a fairly good score, and 2) mostly good special effects.
Is the movie worth checking out? Well, if you’re just getting into monster movies or Japanese monster movies, there are many better choices. Godzilla, Rodan, Mothra, War of the Gargantuas, and more were all done under Toho but are far more emotional, engaging, and solid films. If you’re seen all of these main movies, then Varan is worth checking out. It’s by no means a bad movie, it’s just that it’s not inspiring or riveting. If it comes pack of a discounted multi-feature set as they offer now (Varan with The Mysterians and Matango, for example), then the movie is probably worth it. On its own, for $10-15 it’s less compelling. I purchased it despite that, but I’d more likely just recommend it should it be found in a $5 bin. Not bad, not great.
“Whenever you come across an anicent village and they give warning of their God, listen to them – you’ll save a lot of tax dollars, lives, and homes.”
In Varan the Unbelievable, just like most 1950’s Japanese monster films, you’ll encounter these five common factors:
The logical guy, The dumbass, The Heart, The Monster, and The End. And in such regards – this film has it all.
To start things off, there’s an expedition over at the Kitanami River in order to find and study a pair of Red-Trimmed Off-white butterflies. They of course, are the first victims of the main monster. With that, scientist trying to figure out what had happened as the news is handled by the press. Kenji, Yuriko and Horiguchi, are the main charactrs of this story, and they go off on their very own expedition to the Kitanami River. Within this group is a dumbass, can you figure out who?
Upon their expedition, the three finds a village and befriend a small native boy named Ken. Another dumbass, but an expected one. Why? Here’s why. It’s a young boy, and he has a dog. The movie is about a giant monster and the village is near the location of the monster. Boy + Dog + Village near Monster = Expected Dumbass. The dog runs off and Ken heads out after his dog, in the direction of the Lake. Ya see it now?
The village is in uproar by this sudden event, and here, The Logical makes herself known. The local priest. She gravely warns that to follow Ken would greatly enrage their God. Varan. And right on cue, the dumbass from the main character steps forth and boldly challenges the priest and her beliefs and her warning. This dumbass is Kenji, for he heads out and tries to find the boy. Due note that though he’s labeled a dumbass, his heart was in the right place, so he’s mostly forgiven.
Due to this, he’s promoted to The Heart. Did you expect that? Of course you did. Half Dumbass and Half Heart, its within most monster stories and almost in most main characters.
Kenji of course is helped by the villagers. helping him in his search. Kenji and the villagers find Ken and Yuriko, and of course things are well again. Everyone’s happy, or at least more calm now that the safety of Ken is ensured. But all good things must come to an end as Varan rises from the murky aquatic realm of his territory. The Monster, perfect timing as always to end a happy moment. Obviously, Varan heads directly to the village and just destroys it in a nightmarish display. During the process of the destruction, the priest of the village is killed, which kinda makes Kenji more of a dumbass for not believing her warning in the first place.
From there, it’s just wave after wave of assualts against Varan by the military throughout the film. And like all films, the monster can not be killed easily, hell, Varan wasn’t even fazed in the least. The destructions and the deaths of innocent people are presented, and in time, the scene falls upon the final act. Haneda Airport. Not to give to much away, The End, well, its a interesting way of ending things that’s for sure.
Music: The music of Varan is a pretty good aspect of this film. Varan’s score held nicely formed and impressively well conducted themes. Varan’s godly theme, the determined military march during the battle against Varan at sea theme, and the mysterious village chant theme. Ifukube made sure his films held spark in the music department back then, Sadly that spark did not last long enough for the rest of the Showa series to benefit from it.
As you all can imagine, dull, mostly predicatable, and pretty hollow. You don’t learn the history of the characters which in turn doesn’t give us any ground to stand on for caring about them. Kenji, the Half Dumbass and Half Heart lead character displays no remorse or sorrow for indirectly dragging the village down to the brink of extinction. It would have been nice to have decent character development if the film allowed Kenji to show regret for his actions. Yuriko, the plain old damsel in distress and possible love interest. No reason to touch down on her. Horiguchi, instead of a main character, he’s more of a main support character since he does absolutely nothing most of the time. Though lacking in character depth, the acting is surprisingly pretty good. Still, when it comes to these films, we are here for the monsters, not the human cast.
Varan, as a solo monster, does pretty good on his own. Though not as big as Godzilla, Rodan or most Toho Kaiju, he’s memorable enough and bares some kind of special attraction. The design is great, unique for the qualities it has, and just makes the character more memorable. Though what Varan is most remembered for, is that he can glide like a flying squirrel. Though I was kinda disappointed that this ability was only shown once. Could of made things a lot more interesting.
The monster does establish the gravity of a being a threat. A mildly big threat, but not a very large one like to that of Godzilla, then again, the same could be said about Anguirus in Godzilla Raids Again. I found Varan not destroying a city a decently nice change of pace. A monster doesn’t always have to show up and destroy the most obvious of places, sure its awesome, but it can lose its appeal from time to time.
The Special Effects:
The effects were well done and acceptable, at least well done enough to carry on the film without much trouble, The Varan suit, was pretty awesome and overall, very impressive. On all fours the execution was great and nearly flawless. But once standing up, things kinda fall apart here and there. The armored shell somewhat flaps around during heavy moment, this also appeared in moments when Varan is on all fours, but its a flaw that can be easily forgiven due to the limited budget of the film. The airport was kick ass and looked great, the scenes that involved it were mostly stunning and fair. The lake, the home of Varan looked very convincing, and when Varan emerged from it, amazingly executed. Tsuburaya’s special effects were pretty solid in this film.
Varan is movie that is a bit tough to chew during the first rounds, but once time get’s moving, things become more interesting, and surprisingly leaves you satisfied. But with knowing that Varan actually shows up much earlier than expected, that gives the film a nice boost in the enjoyment department. So overall. Not a full stomach, but enough to get you through the day with a decent or good experience.